At one point the old exhibitor stands in his decrepit cinema hall and shouts out in frustration “This is cinema, big cinema”!
Kaushik Ganguly’s latest film is a tribute to the few remaining single screen theatres which are home to the projector and celluloid, the projector and the skilled projectionist.
Statistics at the end of the film inform us that there are less than 100 single cinema screens in Bengal.
The single theatre housed our early cinema memories and where our imagination gained wings. For our generation (and that includes the filmmaker) this inevitable shift from celluloid to digital technology happened in the last few decades.
The flip side of this change meant a proliferation of piracy and duplication from video to DVD formats. The rise of mall culture and multiplex cinema rang the death knell for single cinema economy.
In the city of Kolkata these large cinema halls loom like phantoms, here Silver Jubilee (25 week) and Golden Jubilee (50 week) runs were celebrated with such fanfare.
Helmer Ganguly misses the feel of film “the scratches, marks, projector rolls, shaky projectors” and makes a film to mark the farewell of this cinema culture, while the world celebrates digital.
At the Indian International Film Festival this film won the UNESCO Fellini award for “ preservation of the seventh art and creating a universal subject out of a local problem.”
Known for his tight dramatic narratives, Ganguly decides that this transition should serve as the centre of family conflict and turmoil.
Small town exhibitor Pranabendu Das sits like a king in his old cinema hall. Only that it is empty, no audience, no films. While running his family fish trade, he had built a cinema in his wife’s name.
Passionate about cinema, he neglected his family and his wife walked out. Today he lives with his alienated son Prakash (Parambrata Chatterjee) and daughter-in-law (Sohini Sarkar). Father wages a moral war with the son who sells pirated DVD’s.
Das spends all day at the cinema hall with his man servant/counselor Hari (Arun Guhathakurta) who is also the projectionist at the hall.
An early sequence lovingly explores details of the projector as the film reel is fitted, wound across, the white light that traps floating dust, and the images appear on the screen.
As the blinking bulb finally dies, Das looks lovingly through the projection trap at the screen and says “ Grand!”. The hall below is empty, the floors cracked, seats broken, street dogs wander in. In that morgue like space, the exit sign glows in red.
The exhibitor’s room, decorated with star photos and old records is his link with a grand past, a social status which he has enjoyed.
In a strange democratic way, the two old men drink and chat about past times, Das repeatedly recounts film stories and hears Uttam Kumar’s dialogues on the gramophone.
At home, his rebellious son refuses to carry on with the fish trade as his piracy business is catching on. An argument spirals out of control and things fall apart. Humiliated, the old man decides to sell his projectors.
Director Ganguly treats this death of the cinema like a funeral ritual as the projector is carried down the narrow staircase and then carried away in a truck. Projectionist Hari, already in depression, hangs himself. When the hall is set on fire, the metaphor works itself out. Cinema is dead. So is the exhibitor who locks himself in the burning theatre.
A film made with great economy builds on a web of relationships, dramatic tension and towering performances.
Poran Bandopadhyay delivers the most nuanced performance of his career. Arun Guhathakurta contributes to this world of inebriated banter and love for cinema.
Having excelled in Ganguly’s Apur Panchali, Parombroto Chatterjee impresses in his complex emotional graph. Playing his pregnant wife Sohini Sarkar plays out her dilemma between the two men.
But the lasting image of the old cinema and the two old men hovering around the projection room, dominate in this passionate yet tragic ode to cinema and the world it inhabited.
As Ganguly says, “Nobody in India is saying anything about this. The projectors are being sold as junk. There should be some sense of preservation about this world.”
So quick is the economic shift that he couldn’t even consider making this film in celluloid as most projection facilities in theatres have already been digitized.
‘Cinemawala’ is screened as part of the London Indian Film Festival. For full listings, visit www.londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk.