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Touring talkies on life support

 

Abandoned by the state government and buffeted by changing market dynamics, Maharashtra’s itinerant tent movie theatres are in danger of going belly up, writes Chandran Iyer
CHANDRAN IYER | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : 100 years of Indian cinema | Marathi films | Touring talkies | Dadasaheb Phalke | Raja Harishchandra | Jatras |
 

At a time when we are celebrating 100 years of the inception of the Indian movie industry as we know it, it is growing in leaps and bounds and its folowing is spreading far and wide. But one of the oldest traditional systems of watching cinema - the touring talkies - is on the verge of extinction. For decades, Marathi films have been screened around the state in specially erected  tents by companies that have survived the ravages of time. These itinerant cinemas are known as touring talkies. Their numbers are dwindling very fast. At one time, there were nearly 2,000 touring talkies that thrived in Maharashtra. Now, only 38 of them are running.

The eclipse of the touring talkies has been caused by obvious reasons: the emergence of modern theatres, the advent of television in practically every household,  the growing availability of  other forms of entertainments and continued government apathy. The touring talkies outfits that are still managing to run are gasping for breath. It will be no surprise if all of them go belly up sooner than later. That would mark the end of Marthi cinema's last living link with its past.

The touring talkies were one of the most important forms of entertainment for the people in villages across the state of Maharashtra. People used to come in hordes to watch the movies in these specially erected tents. In fact, Dadasaheb Phalke, the doyen of Indian cinema, had screened Raja Harishchandra – India’s first full-length motion picture - in a touring talkies tent. The touring talkies thrive for six months in a year from October to the first week of May when there are Jatras (village fairs) in different districts of the state.

The Jatras are popular cultural theatres/festivals that are run by touring groups in rural areas and have been around for many years in India. They are the most popular form of entertainment and celebration for farmers and their families.

The audiences for these screenings are predominantly farmers and farm labourers. The  jatras are very popular in Maharashtra and they  attract around five to six lakh people from rural areas of Vidarbha and Marathwada.
In India, the touring talkies was started in the year 1904 by a person known as Monik Sethina. At that time there were hardly any theatres. With the aid of a 16mm projector, he showed the first film in a makeshift tent, using a piece of white cloth as the  screen.

Slowly the concept became very popular. From a 16mm projector, it evolved into 35 mm film and now many of them are shown in good airconditioned tents with Dolby sound system.  But after attaining a peak in the 1980s, the downslide of the touring talkies started and now most of them are loss-making ventures. They are a strain on the limited resources of the owners. The latter have appealed to the state government for assistance. But no help has been forthcoming.

“Now cable television, cinema theatres, multiplexes and other available forms of entertainment have practically killed the touring theatres. In the whole of India now only 38 touring theatre owners are continuing this legacy despite acute financial constraints. If the government of Maharashtra does not intervene soon, then this legacy will soon be history,” laments Vijay Kulkarni, the owner of a touring talkies that is based in Satara district of Maharashtra.

Kulkarni says, “We have appealed to the Maharashtra government several times to save the dying industry, but unfortunately it has only turned a blind eye to our problems. In sharp contrast to the stand of the Maharashtra government is the approach of the Goa government, which is encouraging us to take the touring talkies business to their state as it could be projected as a novelty for tourists."

He adds: "If the Maharashtra government continues to show this kind of apathy, then we would have no choice but to shift our base lock stock and barrel to that state. After all, it is a matter of our survival.”

Raju Phulkar, director of Marathi films and noted scriptwriter, echoes Kulkarni's worries. “The touring talkies outfits of Maharashtra are on their last legs. Once upon a time they were thriving busines because at that time the only means of entertainment in Maharashtra were plays, tamasha and the touring talkies. People used to make a beeline for the touring talkies whenever they used to come to the jatras," he says.

In Maharashtra, jatras are held across 75 villages for around six months of the year, avoiding the monsoons. These are held around religious places that allow thousands of families to visit these as well as be entertained at the film screenings.

Anup Jagdale, owner of Anup Touring Talkies, says: “What is killing us is not just the multiplexes, single screen theatres and television. What is destroying us is the government’s apathy. The Marathi film industry is exempted from entertainment tax, but yet we have to shell out tax. When the Marathi films are shown in multiplexes or single screen theatres, the owners do not have to pay any taxes. But when we screen the same movies in our tent theatres, we have to pay exhorbitant taxes. Isn’t this an anomaly?” he asks.

His father, Ashok, was one of the earliest pioneers of the touring talkies in Maharashtra. In 1963, he started the touring talkies after purchasing a second hand 1930 projector which was made in Japan. Now Anup is continuing the legacy but isn't sure how long we will be able to carry on in the face of the mounting challenges.
Nita Devkar, who has produced a number of movies for the touring talkies, says: “Another reason for the decline of these talkies is the petty-mindedness of film producers who seem to be interested only in short-term gains rather than long-term profit and survival of this industry.”

Devkar, who produced hit Marathi films Hirva Kunkoo and Nawra Majha Navsacha in 2006, says: “Most of the films that are shown in the touring talkies are tailor-made for the rural audience – especially women. This is because if a film appeals to the women, then they come to see the film with their entire family, which includes her husband, children and in-laws. If the film appeals to her taste and sensitivity, then other women start thronging the touring talkies because of word of mouth publicity. But some of the film producers started bribing the touring talkies tent owners to show their films which were mainstream movies and which did not gel with the culture and taste of the rural audiences. This also had an adverse effect on the industry as a whole.”

Though two of her films became huge hits on the touring talkies circuit, her last film, Oxygen, proved to be a flop. She candidly admits that “the reason why my film failed was because it was meant for the urban audience and not the rural moviegoer”. The film dealt with the issue of sexual harassment of a woman at the hands of her father-in law - a complex and bold theme that did not appeal to the traditional touring talkies constituency.

Asked what prompts them to stick to this loss-making industry, Anup says: “It is the continuing sense of emotional attachment. If we shut down the talkies, what will happen to our employees who have been working with us for years together? They will be also on the streets. Besides, who is going to buy our moveable properties, which include the old projectors and trucks? So we are hanging in, despite all the odds,” he says.

It is pretty obvious that running a touring talkies business is no longer a commercially viable proposition. The overheads are rather high and the returns are minuscule. The expense for a whole season of six months is well in exces of Rs 1 lakh and that includes the cost of the film reels, travel, commercial power rates and the steep entertainment taxes. Moreover, there are nearly 20 people who work in each of the touring talkies companies. Among the regular staff are the projector operator, generator boy, door keeper, booking clerk and the tent labourers as well as the  cooks.

Anup says: “Whenever we have approached the government in the past. they have given us only lofty but empty promises. But in practice we have got nothing."

What are the touring talkies owners looking for the government? Says Anup: "What the government should do is waive the entertainment tax altogether and give us subsidies of the kind that they give to the tamasha mandals."

Also on the list of their demands is supply of electricity at at non-commercial rates and a combined licence license to put up tents in all the districts of Maharashtra. Under the exiting system, the touring talkies require separate licences for separate districts, a practice that makes their business cumbersome.

Vijay Kulkarni, on his part, says that the government should also encourage the touring talkies by giving them a steady flow of government advertisements. That would help them survive, he adds.

The touring talkies of Maharashtra may be a legacy of the past but their value in present times canot be ignored. They are an integral part of Indian cinema history and  deserve to be saved from extinction. But the writing on the wall isn't encouraging.

If the government does not step in soon enough with an effective solution, the day is not far when the touring talkies will become a thing of the past.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017