Come October, the standing crops have been gathered and the last of the rain-laden clouds have bid goodbye to the red-earth villages of Maharashtra. Following an age-old tradition, it is time for the village folk to set out on religious fairs, the jatras. A few hundred kilometres away from Bombay, devotees stream into the nondescript village of Pusegaon. And as they walk towards the temple, they find themselves exposed to the lure of noisy tents bulging out of a battery of garishly painted trucks. After bowing heads at the altar of the divine, many pilgrims give in to the temptation of watching their screen gods magnified in the belly of the tents.
These tents have traversed miles to reach here, along with film projectors in modified trucks painted in thick greens and reds, adorned with film posters. Travelling with the jatras, not very far from the cinema capital of India – Bombay – these tambu talkies (tent cinemas) hawk an eclectic mix of films from village to village. Traditionally considered a small parallel window of exhibition for Marathi cinema, they have now expanded to include other crowd-pulling films: old Hindi action films, dubbed into Marathi; Hollywood films; and regional-language films such as Don No.1, a hit Tamil film that did brisk business in the jatra last season. For remote villages like Pusegaon, tambu talkies are the only exposure to reel magic – these patrons of cinema still remain unexposed to standing, permanent theatres.
Lured by the silver screen, thousands come from neighbouring villages to the Pusegaon jatra. Vying for their attention are magicians, daredevil stuntmen, acrobats, folk-dancers, circuses, tamashas (traditional theatres) and the tambu talkies, which, unlike the others, visits only once every year. Here, a large tract of land is cleared, flattened and fortified for the tambu talkies to pitch their tents. The conical tent houses the screen and typically accommodates an audience of 300 – unless the walls need to be dispensed with, on days of special festivals, which draw more crowds. The barricaded enclosure, with about 15 tents, their respective trucks, hundreds of antiquated amplifiers, dazzling posters and teeming men, women and children, is transformed into a numinous space that would appear outlandish on any other day in this sleepy hamlet.
Watching the films beamed onto a taut white sheet from projectors housed in the trucks is a unique experience, and the audiences stock up on this ‘big screen’ encounter until the tambu talkies return next season. Children jostle each other to be able to squat as close to the screen as possible. Young boys advance raucously to stare at a poster of their favourite heroine, caged into a narrow, rusted, tin enclosure that doubles as a ticket dispenser. Shows run throughout the day, with a rest between 6 am and noon. These are personalised screenings, too – dialogues and songs are re-run on demand, and films can be changed midway if a majority of the audience finds it boring. The intermissions are technology-induced breaks, as the single projector unit takes time to load the next spool. All this comes at a charge of INR 15 per show.
In some places, the owners have been forced to retain decade-old ticket prices in a desperate attempt to hang on to the dwindling audiences. VCDs and round-the-clock cable television have had their impact even here. For an instant connection with their audiences, some local producers also draw their content from social issues affecting their audiences – farmer suicides, political satire and women’s issues, along with mainstream Bollywood films employed as teasers.
To make the venture more profitable, the exhibition and distribution committee of the Akhil Bhartiya Marathi Chitrapat Mahamandal – the official governing body for Marathi cinema – has also explored tie-ups with multinational companies. “These companies can put up stalls to sell their products, and we will show their commercials during the intervals,” says Ajay Sarpotdar, who heads the Touring Talkies wing. The association is also lobbying the government for permission to pitch the tent talkies in villages that have no permanent theatre during the months when there are no fairs.
As the tambus struggle for survival against the onslaught of slick, fast-paced modes of entertainment, one is overwhelmed by the charm of these antiquated rural multiplexes, which are determined to fight it out, before they fade away.
~ Amit Madheshiya is a documentary filmmaker and photographer in Bombay.