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'Touring Talkies' is a wacky film on the world of tent cinema where anything is possible - even morphed posters and scene mash-ups
John Abraham tilts his head as if embarrassed by his flared denims, Sunny Deol has shrunk so much that his scowl feels like a grimace and Aishwarya Rai is caramelising under the harsh yellow lights. The sari-clad woman sitting next to Rai could be either Hema Malini or Jaya Bachchan, depending on your angle of vision.
Beyond this glamorous semi-circle, lies a colourful tent at Worli's Jamboree Maidan. Inside, kids from the nearby chawls are busy shifting rows by climbing on to the plastic chairs as fairy lights flicker in anticipation around the movie screen. Touring Talkies, a Marathi film written and directed by Gajanan Ahire and shot in the scorching interiors of Satara, was shown to Mumbaikars at this air-conditioned tent last week.
In a way, watching this film is like living a scene from Christopher Nolan's Inception because the film itself is about tent talkies - nomadic troupes that travel from village to village on a truck that has a projector attached to its rear that beams movies into tents.
The 90-minute film is about the three and a half months its spunky producer and lead actress Trupti Bhoir spent touring with these nomadic talkies of Western Maharashtra and Vidarbha while trying to market her Marathi film Tujhya Majhya Sansarala Ani Kaay Hava. The film, Tujhya. . . , she admits, "bombed miserably" in cities but she was fascinated by the mela-like, if impoverished, world of travelling talkies, the drunk announcers and morphed posters.
"People don't judge films by reviews here but through posters and announcements, " says Bhoir, who replaced Sridevi's face with her own in a poster of her film. Here, Sridevi was seen holding a sword and had a child on her back. Mithun's face was also similarly replaced by the lead actor of Tujhya. . . .
Bhoir even sat at the ticket counter to dispense tickets, a standard publicity measure at touring talkies. Whenever she would enter a room to change during her stay, there would be an unwanted audience of small kids peeking. "It was very embarrassing, " recalls Bhoir, who even exercised bladder control for a day and a half. This embarrassment finds its way into the film Touring Talkies. When a visiting heroine of a Marathi art film asks for the loo, she is led to an open ground, handed an abandoned tyre and a mug. Two people hold up a huge poster of Bodyguard for privacy.
Bhoir narrated her experiences to Ahire, known for his realistic cinema. "I found the arid landscape backdrop full of colourful characters mesmerising, " says Ahire. Bhoir filled him in on the quirks of this dying culture that is over 100 years old.
The practice gathered momentum when a handful of farmers, lawyers and electricians carted off second-hand Bauer projectors from a Parsi businessman who was selling them on a Bombay footpath. Bhoir's stories include some gems. For example, to accommodate more shows during peak season, owners would pull the film reel so quick that it would turn Amitabh Bachchan's baritone into a meek squeak. Besides, editing, in moffusil Maharashtra, could mean that you might suddenly chance upon a scene from a different film.
Also, there was the incident of women fighting for space inside these tents. "The screen side of the tents would be open so the women would sit on the other side and watch the film, where the image was reversed. But they complained to the sarpanch - the film was in Marathi but it looked Gujarati because the women's sari pallus were now to the left, " jokes Bhoir.
In the film, the spunky Bhoir dons a boy's haircut and plays the crossdressing owner of a nomadic theatre that she wants to win back. It calls for a fair bit of swearing which she found cathartic as a woman. Bhoir did not bathe for 22 days of the shoot and even drove a 50-year-old truck that had no brakes. She pulled this off by asking for a roadroller to be placed in front. "For all practical purposes, I am a man, " insists Bhoir, who even cooked on a chulha for her crew throughout the shoot.
The plight of these tent talkies recently moved AR Rehman enough to adopt one
tent for a year. Where there used to be 2, 000 in 1985, only 30 remain. "There was a time we would mount the print on to elephants and go around the village, " says Anup Jagdale, whose tent talkies has been around for over 50 years and even boasts a 1930s projector model. Today, "we don't have government subsidies, and we can't insure our tents, " says Anup, who has to depend on private financers for funds.
Also, periodically, Jackie Chan and Salman Khan come to their rescue. Old Jackie Chan movies dubbed in Hindi draw in young audiences during the morning shows while a Salman movie equals Diwali for them. "We just have to erect a huge plywood cutout with lights around it for publicity, " says Jagdale, who has met all the Marathi superstars. He has a request. "We would be honoured if Salman could come down to our tent, " says Jagdale.
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