Monday, June 6, 2016

The Nice Guys: Review

The Nice Guys is in the vein of The Long Goodbye and Inherent Vice, two brilliant films about private investigators in 1970s Los Angeles, even if it isn’t in their class. Shane Black’s film has nothing that approaches the ruefulness and stoner paranoia of Inherent Vice or the savageness of The Long Goodbye. If, however, you’re looking for nothing more than a fast, profane, aggressively silly comedy with neo-noir touches, The Nice Guys gets the job done.

Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a private investigator hired by an old lady to find her niece, a porn star named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), whom she is convinced she has seen after the actress was declared dead in a car crash. Around the same time, a gruff “enforcer” named Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is hired by activist-actor Amelia Kuttner (Margaret Qualley) to dissuade March from tracking Misty. Healy strong-arms March, but returns to hire him to find the now absconding Amelia. Soon they’re reluctant partners—a trio, if you count March’s precocious 13-year-old, Holly (Angourie Rice)—trying to piece together how Amelia is mixed up with the New York mob, Detroit auto manufacturers and the local porn industry.

Like Black’s feature debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), The Nice Guys celebrates the hard-boiled tradition even as it pushes it to satirical extremes. Both leads are warped versions of Raymond Chandler’s man who goes down mean streets “but is not himself mean”; they might cheat widows and kill the odd mobster but they’re essentially nice guys compared to the super-seedy LA environs they operate in. Noir fans will enjoy seeing Crowe, greyer and portlier now, reprise his blunt instrument act from L.A. Confidential; Kim Basinger, playing Amelia’s mom, might have been cast to further audience association with that film. But The Nice Guys belongs to Gosling, who conveys his character’s agitation with a straight face, while also displaying a surprising feel for slapstick comedy.

This review appeared in Mint.

Thithi: Review

Like the countless sheep that appear in it, Thithi is shorn of fluff. Because the film is so engaging on a minute-by-minute basis, it’s a while before one notices the absence of the usual markers of movie-dom. There are no songs or dances or fights (at least in the accepted sense), no heroes or villains. The cast is made up of non-professionals from screenwriter Eregowda’s village, Nodekoppalu, in Karnataka. There’s no background score, unless you count the constant refrain of bleats and baas and moos and clucks.

It turns out the most movie-like aspect of Thithi is the plot. For a film in which the most compelling character is an aimless wanderer, the narrative meanders very little. Instead, everything is in service of the overarching plot, which concerns the death of a 101-year-old patriarch and the impact this has on his son, grandson and great-grandson. I wonder if Eregowda and the director, Raam Reddy, deliberated on exactly how clever their story ought to be. Too simplistic, and you’re left with a restive audience; too clever, and one becomes all too aware of the screenwriter.

It begins with a death worthy of an Aki Kaurismäki film, with the wizened, lively Century Gowda (Singri Gowda) taunting passersby, then hobbling some distance, keeling over and dying, observed at first by a sanguine cow, goat and dog, before being discovered by a very excitable woman. Soon, the village is buzzing with the prospect of a grand thithi (death ceremony), the responsibility for which falls not on the dead man’s son—a retiree from life who goes by Gadappa (Channegowda), literally “man with beard”—but on his grandson, Thamanna (Thammegowda S). Even as he goes about organizing the ceremony—which, due to Century Gowda’s fame, includes the surrounding villages—Thamanna’s trying to sell his land, which requires faking his father’s death, which in turn requires bribery and the borrowing of a large sum of money.

Add to this the dovetailing stories of Gadappa, Abhi (Abhishek HN), Thamanna’s resourceful son, and the shepherds who arrive on the village outskirts, and it’s no wonder that the plotting becomes very intricate by the end. Yet, any narrative slickness is upstaged by the joyously ramshackle storytelling. The profane and often hysterically funny dialogue is delivered with relish by a visibly amateur cast. Reddy seems to have figured out how to make them relax and enjoy themselves in front of the camera, for whenever a zinger lands (“This is a place where dogs lay eggs” was my favourite) it feels both natural and spontaneous.

That Reddy has managed, in his first full-length film as director, something so controlled yet freewheeling marks him out as special. At times, he shows the sort of trust in viewer intelligence that is associated with the legendary Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch—the willingness to put two and two in front of the audience and let them say four themselves. In one scene, Abhi, out handing thithi cards, is told by an old man that his great-grandfather was a womanizer, that he’d had more women than he could count. In the next scene, an equally ancient woman animatedly remembers Century Gowda, saying, “He had great physical strength.” Nothing more is said, but on the two occasions I watched the film, the audiences erupted at this remark.

Above all, there’s Gadappa, a gloriously uncooperative comic creation. He’s purposeful, but it’s a strange kind of purposefulness, lacking both motivation and end point. Throughout the film, we see him walk briskly, but with no fixed destination, seemingly unconcerned about everything except the replenishment of his Tiger brandy. Like Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, his relentless forward motion comes with little explanation attached. (“What has to happen, happens,” he says. “No one has any control over it.”) With his wild hair and flowing beard and almost Zen-like inscrutability, he resembles an ancient hippie, his detachedness from everyday life a profound source of irritation for his son, who needs him to commit to “disappearing” so that he can successfully fake his death.

In the wake of this week’s events, it has been suggested that Indians don’t take kindly to jokes about death. Thithi, a comedy about a real death, a fake death and a death-related party, will hopefully prove the exception to the rule.

This review appeared in Mint.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Waiting: Review

When we first meet Tara (Kalki Koechlin), she’s being ribbed by her friends about a sanitary napkin commercial she’s appeared in. She isn’t amused. This could start a revolution, a new wave, she tells them. As so often happens, fate chooses a moment of hubris to throw her life out of whack. A couple of scenes later, Tara is in an upscale Kochi hospital, panicky and powerless. Her husband, Rajat (Arjun Mathur), to whom she has been married six weeks, has been in a road accident and is now in a coma. The next 48 hours will be crucial, she’s told.

Waiting could have stretched out Tara’s agony at this point, but instead it reveals the wry comic undercurrent that runs just beneath its themes of grief and duty. Tara strikes up a conversation with Shiv (Naseeruddin Shah), a retired professor, who tells her that all patients are handed the “48 hour” line. Pankaja (Suhasini Maniratnam), Shiv’s wife of 40 years, has been in a coma for the past eight months in the same hospital. He has been in Tara’s shoes and has learnt how to counter his grief through routine. He advises her to eat, sleep and take care of herself. Like him, she might be in for a long wait.

At first, Tara isn’t willing to be patient. She lashes out at the doctors, at Rajat’s colleague, at her absent friends; holes up in her hotel room. As Anu Menon’s film spells out in one of its less subtle scenes, she’s moving through the early stages of grief: denial, anger. Conversely, the moment she arrives (partially, at least) at “acceptance” is beautifully rendered. When she’s given the bag her husband had on him at the time of the accident, she rifles through its contents and puts on his watch. From that point on, it’s always on her wrist. She’s on his time now.

As Tara forces herself to wait, the film juxtaposes her situation with Shiv’s, who has become so used to waiting that he refuses to accept the prognosis of his wife’s unsentimental doctor, Nirupam (Rajat Kapoor), and take her off the ventilator. Tara has reason to be hopeful, but can’t stand being told to stay positive; Shiv has an abundance of hope with little basis in reality. Together, they would probably add up to one functional grieving person. But, as Waiting shows us, grief is difficult to share, and we watch as the two of them stumble and feel their way towards clarity.

Though there are a couple of deft ancillary character sketches—Rajat’s colleague, played by Rajeev Ravindranathan, is an especially winsome form of comic relief—Waiting mostly sticks close to Tara and Shiv. Even with a built-in excuse for sentiment, Menon isn’t overly concerned with endearing her characters to us. Over the course of the film, we are made privy to their memories and missteps and confessions, not just the prickly Tara’s, but the soft-spoken, courteous Shiv’s. This emotional intimacy is made literal by Neha Parti Matiyani’s camera, which repeatedly catches Shah and Koechlin in carefully framed close-ups. Shah bears up well under this scrutiny, but it’s Koechlin who makes the stronger impression, messy and profane in her anger, but also very funny when making fun of her older compatriot.

There are sequences that lack conviction—that feel like they have been inserted because they would belong to a film like this and not because they are right for this film. Tara and Shiv dancing in his flat might have been intended as a breather for the audience, but it’s tonally jarring and awkward. There’s also the junior doctor asking Dr Nirupam, “Are you meaning to play god?”, and him replying, “Sometimes, god is what our patients need,” which, even if true, need hardly be stated in such a Rajkumar Hirani-like manner. Yet, apart from a few wobbles, Waiting walks the line between emotional resonance and emotional manipulation skilfully. Hospitals, whether on the big or small screen, are usually used for their dramatic possibilities: IV demanded “stat”, failing hearts electro-shocked into life. How curious that someone glimpsed, in the same setting, the emotional possibilities of inaction, of waiting.

This review appeared in Mint.

Sriram Raghavan: A passion for pulp

Though Sriram Raghavan’s Raman Raghav was never released, it has had a surprisingly fruitful afterlife. For years, bootleg VHS tapes of the film, which is based on the crimes and eventual arrest of the Bombay serial killer Raman Raghav, were in circulation. Ram Gopal Varma saw it; this led to him producing the director’s first feature, Ek Hasina Thi. Last year, a special screening was organized by Drishyam Films. And Anurag Kashyap, who passed the film on to Varma, made his own version, Raman Raghav 2.0, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this week.

Though it was shot on a budget that couldn’t even be described as shoestring, Raman Raghav has several of the preoccupations and themes that mark Raghavan’s later work. Like Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddaar and Badlapur, it borrows from both the hard-boiled crime film and noir traditions, creating an atmosphere of fractured mental states and moral collapse. We spoke to Raghavan about the film, noir in Indian cinema, and his love for Vijay Anand thrillers. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What led to the making of ‘Raman Raghav’?
It was the first proper thing I did after passing out from FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) in 1987. For two years, I was at the Indian Space Research Organisation—they used to make social empowerment films—and then I was offered this.

It was made on a very low, almost idiotic budget. It was supposed to be a video magazine, like the ones Lehren used to do at the time. It was meant for something called the Police Channel—there would be interviews with the cops and all. The producer wanted to make a set of 13. He made three or four, and then it kind of fell apart.

Why did you zero in on Raman as a subject?
There was a book by R.S. Kulkarni, who was the head of the crime branch. He wrote about the cases he had handled. I came across Raman’s story in that. Everything interested me about the guy. Unfortunately, he was dead by then but I met a lot of cops involved in the case. I also met the psychiatrist who had examined him. He told me, “Don’t treat him like a criminal, he was a sick man.” That hit me. After that, my whole script changed.

In ‘Badlapur’ as well, we begin to feel sympathy for a cold-blooded killer…
In fact, Nawazuddin [Siddiqui] had seen Raman Raghav on a bootleg VHS a long time back. When he told me this, I said we should do Badlapur like that, very raw.

Raghubir Yadav, who plays Raman, was, like you, a few years into his career then.
He was quite popular because of [the TV show] Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne. People didn’t know his movies so well. Massey Sahib nobody knew, but Mungerilal was a success. He used to have this comic sort of image, so the producers were worried about whether he would be any good. I thought he was fab. He’s the main reason you can watch the film today.

It’s a pretty brutal, unforgiving film. Did you have hopes of it being released?
That was my first film, so there was no such further thought. I was just happy I was getting a chance to make something. By then, we had done enough to know that you can turn out pretty bad stuff too, so we were just trying to get something good out there.

There’s one scene that’s dominated by a large ‘C.I.D.’ poster, with a ‘Jagte Raho’ poster in the background. Did you see a thematic link between these films and ‘Raman Raghav’?
Jagte Raho I wanted because it’s about a guy who’s mistaken for someone else by a lynch mob. And C.I.D. is a lovely poster. We were shooting the scene in Esel Studio, which was quite tacky. I remember wondering how we could make the scene a little interesting. The C.I.D. poster gave me Dev Anand’s eyes, which was a cheap thing, but fun.

‘Raman Raghav’ has many elements of a crime noir, with the incessant rain, the shadows, the opening confession, the fractured mental states. Were such films on your mind at the time?
I wanted very much to emulate the style of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. Raman Raghav was shot on location, but there are many stylistic things in it. I like this mixture of documentary and extreme stylization. Another movie I was conscious of at the time was Wim Wenders’ The Goalie’s Anxiety At The Penalty Kick. The whole minimalism of it hit me tremendously—it kept me on the edge. I wanted a lot of that here.

There were a lot of dark, rainy noirs in 1950s’ Hindi cinema. Were you an admirer of these films?
I’ve seen them all on the big screen. We used to have matinee shows when I was in school. All the old black and white movies used to come back, so I’ve seen C.I.D., Baazi, Taxi Driver, Aar-Paar...

You’ve also spoken about your love for Vijay Anand’s thrillers.
I think Johny Mera Naam was the first film of his I saw, when I was 10 or 12. It must have done some wonders, because I still enjoy it. When you’re a kid, you don’t know about style and all that. Now I can see the techniques he used and how advanced it is in terms of the cutting pattern.

You can see a shift from the Navketan noirs of the 1950s to the suspense thrillers of the late 1960s and 1970s. The fatalism is largely absent…
Absolutely. Johny Mera Naam, Teesri Manzil, Caravan—they are all more fun. I can’t think of many dark films, 1970s onwards. They are one or two. Have you seen Do Anjaane, with Amitabh Bachchan? That’s an odd film.

Your films have strong connections with pulp literature. You referenced James Hadley Chase in ‘Johnny Gaddaar’ and based ‘Badlapur’ on an Italian crime noir novel.
It probably started with Chase. Those weren’t exactly pulp but that was what was available. Chandler, Hammett came later. And I kept discovering more writers. Cornell Woolrich is a favourite of mine. I did one of his stories—unofficially, of course—on Saturday Suspense. It’s a story called "Nightmare", about a guy who has a vivid dream about having killed someone.

The cinematic meta-reference has become something of a trademark of yours after ‘Johnny Gaddaar’. How did the nods to ‘Johny Mera Naam’ and ‘Parwana’ come about in that film?
The references don’t come when you’re starting the script. It’s dangerous when that happens. In Agent Vinod, it may have happened like that a little bit, though this may also be me finding reasons for why it didn’t work.

As far as Johnny Gaddaar is concerned, this is what happened. Neil Nitin Mukesh’s father, Nitin Mukesh, asked me one day why the film is called what it is, doesn’t it sound a little B-grade? I said, that’s what I like about it; plus, I like Johny Mera Naam. But there’s no one called Johnny in this, there’s no connection, he said. This kept troubling me. I thought, I have to justify this title somehow. There’s one point in the film where Neil’s character has to give a fake name. We had already thought of Parwana playing there, so I figured let’s use Johny Mera Naam instead.

I had to really fight hard to get the rights to Parwana. Till the last minute, we weren’t sure if we would get them. We paid quite a sizeable amount for that.

What drove you to have a one-take song sequence that’s pure neo-noir in the midst of a big action movie like ‘Agent Vinod’?
We were shooting a lot of action in Riga. I went a little overboard—it was my first location, so I thought I should exploit it. It became pretty lengthy, 7-8 minutes of different things happening. Two scenes later, there was another requirement of an action sequence. I thought, forget the viewers, I’m getting bored of this action. Then I also had this song, "Raabta", which I loved and hadn’t been able to use. So I thought, screw the bloody action, let’s do it as a song sequence.

There’s a Vijay Anand film called Black Mail. It has a song called "Mile Mile Do Badan", in which two people consummate their relationship while being hunted by the baddies. So this song is going on in an action sequence. I remembered loving that, showing it to people.

The action has a fluid, dreamlike quality, like something John Woo might do.
Let me tell you something about that. I had been shooting Agent Vinod for a long time and there was a lot of chaos in different departments. In between, I was actually looking at John Woo action scenes and wondering how he enjoyed shooting them, since I wasn’t. There’s this interview where he’s talking about Hard Boiled, about a point in the shoot when the whole unit was uninspired. He figured that a single-take scene would fire everyone up, because the whole unit would be working as one. So he did this great sequence in the hospital. And I thought, wow, this is a great way to get my unit together.

Are you content with the perception of you as a genre director?
I’m pretty happy where I am. I would like to go even more specific with the genre stuff, like maybe a giallo. What does a giallo look like in today’s India? I love Franju’s Eyes Without A Face and Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. I’m not talking about remaking those movies, but possibly finding a story here that has elements like that.

‘Badlapur’ was a box-office success in spite of its very dark tone. Do you think today’s audience can take a lot more compared to when you were starting out?
I think they are willing to check it out. For me, Badlapur is a terrifically emotional film. I won’t say that for many other so-called “dark subject” films released in the last five years. You may have something very dark, but if it’s not working as a movie, nothing can help you. But if the film comes together right, viewers today are definitely willing to go much further than they would earlier.

This interview appeared in Mint Lounge. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse: Review

Considering this is the third superhero movie in two months, you might be wondering if X-Men: Apocalypse is worth your time. Ask yourself this. Do you ever wonder why Professor Xavier went bald? Or how Scott Summers got his glasses? If the answers you desire are more complex than “receding hairline” and “nudged an old lady with his car”, then this might well be the film for you. It has answers to these and other burning questions: such as how is Quicksilver, Eastern European-sounding and dead at the end of Avengers: Age Of Ultron, alive, American and looking like Andy Warhol here?

The long answer is that the rights to Quicksilver are shared between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the X-Men Universe, and both have different origin stories and conceptions of the character. The short answer, of course, is that no one in their right mind should care. I’m glad they featured him in some form, because Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver is responsible for the best sequence in the movie, in which time seemingly freezes as he zips around saving people from a collapsing building. It’s an expanded version of a similar scene from X-Men: Days Of Future Past—not the only borrowed idea in the movie, but done with humour and some style.

Like nearly every film in the franchise before this, a large part of Apocalypse is a recruitment drive, with new X-Men found and old ones resurrected. The world’s oldest mutant, En Sabah Nur, has awakened in Egypt after a five-and-a-half-millennia slumber, and apparently gotten out of the wrong side of the crypt. He is now called Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, buried under blue prosthetics) and he wastes little time in finding his Horsemen—Grumpy, Bashful and Dopey (actually Famine, Pestilence and Death). And, on the non-apocalyptic side, there are younger versions of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

It takes about half the film to get the opposing forces ready. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is living a quiet life in Poland before he faces another loss in what has been an astonishingly unhappy life and reverts to being Magneto. His reappearance and the threat of Apocalypse draws Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) back to the school for mutants, where she and Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till) fend off an attack by Apocalypse, while the new recruits battle an old enemy (old for us, that is). It all leads up to a giant battle in the desert between the reunited X-Men and Apocalypse—who, as his name suggests, is bent upon destroying humanity.

I went in expecting dull writing (“wreak havoc,” Xavier tells Havok) and uninspired direction (quick zoom-in signals important line about to be uttered), but what surprised me was the number of references to god in the film. Magneto sinks to his knees, raises his arms towards the heavens and shouts, “Is this what I am?” Nightcrawler makes the sign of the cross. Apocalypse notes that he’s been called Ra, Krishna and Yahweh. My guess is that Singer wants us to vaguely equate Apocalypse with ISIS: an ancient enemy from the Middle East, big on mind control, bent on establishing an ancient empire. Xavier even tells him, “You’re just another false god.” At least he doesn't say 'false prophet'.

This review appeared in Mint.

Sarbjit: Review

That Sarbjit favours emotional manipulation over restraint or logic is evident at several points, but one moment in particular stands out. After years of incarceration in a Pakistani jail, Sarbjit Singh (Randeep Hooda) will finally be set free. We see him emerge smiling from behind the guards at the border and cross over to the Indian side. As his sister, Dalbir (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), wife Sukhpreet (Richa Chadha) and daughters rejoice, he kisses the ground. Then, without any noticeable change of perspective, we see a different person standing where he was. The Pakistanis have released another prisoner in his place, Sarbjit’s still in prison and the scene we’ve witnessed is a lie.

Imagine if director Omung Kumar had played this moment straight. It would have been a kick in the gut, to see hope fade from the faces of the family members once they realize their 22-year wait for Sarbjit isn’t over. But by going too far—by trying to wrench that extra tear from the viewer—Kumar and screenwriters Utkarshini Vashishtha and Rajesh Beri squander the emotional possibilities of the moment, initially confusing and then irritating the viewer. Which is also the story of the film at large.

In 1990, Sarabjit Singh, a farmer from Bhikhiwind, Punjab, crossed the India-Pakistan border and was arrested by authorities there. He was jailed and accused of spying for India and setting off blasts that killed 14 people in Lahore and Faisalabad. Though Singh denied these charges, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. The death sentence was stayed indefinitely in 2008, but he remained in jail there till 2013, when he was murdered, allegedly by other inmates.

In telling Sarabjit’s story, Kumar removes everything that might obstruct the viewer’s sympathy. The possibility that Sarabjit might have been a spy—as an unnamed source told the Hindustan Times in 2013—isn’t entertained; neither is the rumour that he converted to Islam while in prison. These stories might not be true, and even if they are, Kumar has every right to exclude them if they run counter to the spirit of the film. The problem with Sarbjit isn’t so much the material as the constant emotional hectoring. Dalbir, working desperately to free her brother, spends most of the film shrieking over the bullying background score. As the story winds on, her speeches become more grandiose and simplistic; at one point, she challenges the Taliban, declaring “Hum Hindustaniyon ne kabhi peeth dikhana seekha hi nahi hai”.

There’s little doubt that Rai is moved by the character she’s playing. You can see her get lost in the emotion—voice hoarse, eyes red, body quivering with rage. The result is a lot of visible hard work, but not quite a great performance. Chadha, catatonic for the most part, still manages to inject a few shades of doubt and jealousy into her under-written character. Rai shows us Dalbir’s determination and little else. She attacks every scene with such hoarse fervour that she turns Dalbir into something less than a character and more of an ideal.

Even as Rai becomes more strident as Dalbir ages, Hooda’s performance as the older Sarbjit attains a kind of broken poetry. The wheezing voice he adopts is as shocking as the man’s emaciated, ravaged body; to use a Bob Dylan phrase, the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of his face. It’s difficult not to get swept up at certain points in the film, like when Sarbjit is visited for the first time in jail by his sister, wife and daughters. But this moving, brief reunion is immediately followed by a crude protest scene outside the jail and another croaky lecture by Dalbir. In its efforts to maintain a stranglehold on the audience’s emotions, Sarbjit forgets to leave well enough alone.

Travelling to Cannes

In 2015, the Cannes Film Festival instituted L’Œil d’or (The Golden Eye), an award for the best documentary in any section. This year, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s The Cinema Travelers will compete for this award, as well as for the Caméra d’Or (Best First Feature). When I met the duo at a Yari Road coffee shop in Mumbai, a day before they left for France, they appeared pleasantly freaked out by the heady company they found themselves in. “We’re in competition,” Madheshiya said disbelievingly, “with the great Laura Poitras.”

Abraham and Madheshiya’s first collaboration was when they were in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia: a short documentary on the Yamuna, for which they journeyed from the river’s source to its end. The Cinema Travelers, their first full-length documentary, tracks a different sort of journey, that of the travelling cinemas of Maharashtra. For decades, these tent cinemas have brought the experience of film-watching to areas where no theatres exist. Often touring in conjunction with religious fairs, they play films ranging from contemporary Bollywood to soft porn, Mithun Chakraborty actioners to Avatar, for Rs 10-30 a ticket.

The project was conceived in 2008. For a couple of years, single-screen theatres had been shutting down across metros, and this led Madheshiya and Abraham to wonder how this experience was reflected in villages. They began visiting tent cinemas in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Maharashtra. “It was a sight you’ve never seen before,” Abraham said of the first screenings they witnessed in Maharashtra. “So many travelling cinemas, so many tents hitched to the back of trucks, with screens erected inside and people watching. We were so curious: How does this still exist?”

Though it was their intention from the start to make a documentary, Madheshiya and Abraham wouldn’t start the actual business of filming for another three years. Instead, they dove into research, visiting archives and compiling oral histories. Information wasn’t easy to come by; it’s as if travelling cinemas barely existed as far as the larger narrative of Indian film was concerned. Eventually, they traced the first mentions of tent cinemas back to the mid-1940s, though they are fairly certain that the tradition dates back to the preceding decade. It began when people from villages came to Bombay, as it was then called, saw the cinema, and were so enamoured of it that they took back the technology. An early source of equipment, according to a recurring but unverifiable legend, was a Parsi businessman who sold projectors outside the Roxy theatre in Bombay.

By 2011, things were looking up. That year, Madheshiya won the prestigious World Press Photo award for his still photographs of night-time viewers at a tent cinema. Their research was nearing completion, with the help of funds from the India Foundation for the Arts and a fellowship from the Heidelberg University in Germany. They had also arrived at a theme that lent some artistic urgency to their project: the adverse impact of digital technology on travelling cinemas, in terms of changes in equipment and the erosion of the community experience of watching films. “We had travelled enough with our people to know that their association with a certain form of cinema—with film, with film projectors—is alive and deep and profound,” Abraham said. “We knew that this could be a lens to look at their lives, using that moment of change to explore something.”

From 2011-15, they shot the film, Madheshiya handling the cinematography and Abraham the sound recording. As with the photographs he had taken earlier, he decided to use only natural light while shooting. “I think the aesthetic really emerged from that limitation,” he said. Abraham added: “Our film isn’t ‘constructed’ the way films like, say, The Look Of Silence are; it’s more about instinctively following people. So in terms of not having a light, it’s about keeping close to what you see.” Not that they’re averse to constructed documentaries. Errol Morris, who used radical crime scene recreations in The Thin Blue Line, is a favourite. So is maverick German film-maker Werner Herzog.

Though they hadn’t edited a film before, Abraham and Madheshiya took the advice of Jonathan Oppenheim (editor, Paris Is Burning) and decided to do it themselves—it was edited, with “plenty of false starts”, from 2014-16. They qualified for and participated in Sundance Labs—residential workshops run by the US-based Sundance Institute in which directors can work out kinks in their work-in-progress films in collaboration with experts in a specific field. For the Sound Design Lab held at the Skywalker Ranch in California, they were paired with Pete Horner, a former collaborator of Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Murch (another of Madheshiya’s heroes) and boasting of an impressive filmography himself, from Upstream Color to Best Of Enemies and Jurassic World. After the workshop, Abraham and Madheshiya asked Horner if he would like to do the sound design for the entire film. He agreed.

After about two years of editing, the film was finally complete. Now, its makers are headed to France, the land of the Lumière brothers, the first directors ever. This dovetails neatly with something Madheshiya said after winning the World Press Photo award in 2011 for his images of patrons of the travelling cinemas. “What is most romantic about these cinemas is that they still preserve the primitive experience of watching cinema,” he said. “When cinema was first introduced to the world in 1895—and 1896 in Bombay—this is how the first contact must have been. This bond is something that still exists in these cinemas.”