For about seven decades now, tent cinema
companies accompany Jatras—annual religious fairs which begin in Maharashtra
after the crop gathering season ends. Travelling with these fairs—not very far
from the cinema capital of India, Mumbai—the tent talkies hawk an eclectic mix
of films: regional language films, Bollywood blockbusters, and even dubbed
Hollywood flicks as they travel across the rural landscape.
In keeping with the transient nature of their journey, the architecture is equally mobile and can ultimately be heaped into a truck. These foldable tents traverse miles, housing film projectors in the bellies of modified trucks painted in greens and reds, their edifices adorned with film posters. For many of the patrons in remote villages in Maharashtra, still far from permanent theatres, tent talkies are the only means to big screen experiences.
Over the years, the travelling cinemas have evolved to become an integral part of the daily lives of people, now profoundly rooted in their cultural milieu. Through this lived association, the annual visit of the cinema companies have been celebrated boisterously, budgeted for, and deeply revered. Though with the onslaught of all pervasive VCDs and cable networks, the touring cinemas are now facing a near fight for survival.
A few hundred kilometres away from Mumbai, tent cinemas accompany religious fairs which begin after the harvest season ends. Once every year, the magic of the big screen beckons some of Maharashtra’s remote villages, which are still located far from fixed-site cinema halls.
Bought as sellout prints without a rental fee from Mumbai, the first 16mm film reels arrived atop bullock carts in villages in the early 1940s. Today, some seven decades later, film cans are often couriered and arrive in sacks along with publicity material.
In the mid-1940s, some maverick traders carted of old foreign-made cinema projectors to this rustic milieu, establishing the first travelling cinema companies. Till date, the same projectors, though modified and much Indianised, have been handed down like heirlooms across generations spanning more than seven decades.
A young worker fastens one end of the cinema tent in preparation for the night show.
The audience at a tent cinema show. Viewers pay `20 per show.