Amit Madheshiya's photographs of Moviegoers at Maharashtra’s Travelling Tent Cinemas.
Looking at an image of someone looking at another image: it’s enough to make Roland Barthes do a double take. He wrote of photography as “mimicry”, and not the truest representation of humans, because our demeanor changes when we know the camera is focused on us (“posing”, as he presciently put it). Even Walker Evans’ Allie Mae Burroughs and Steve McCurry’s Afghan girl looked straight into the lens, an acknowledgment of their status as a curiosity to someone. There is no weariness in the faces of Amit Madheshiya’s subjects: they are looking, with wonder, at other faces.
Working with film maker Shirley Abraham, Madheshiya photographs travelling tent cinemas in rural Maharashtra. Often, the patrons have only seen films flicker across their television screens; they live too far from Bombay, and are not wealthy enough, to visit the theatre. The tent cinema is their periodical silver screen experience. These images are projected – from film reels, unlike any commercial cinemas in the country, which are all digital now – on screens like cloth skins. The film canisters are transported in burlap sacks. Moviegoers travel into town for the festivals. They are alerted to the event by trucks adorned with faded posters parading around the region. Bollywood makes up only the introductory act; Marathi cinema is the main attraction. There is the occasional dubbed Hollywood picture as well – Avatar was very popular, according to Madheshiya. And, of course, there are blue films (mild blues, though), which only men are permitted to attend. Madheshiya has an image of a young boy watching one of these on the reverse side of the screen. The child’s silhouette is a blur, like the reflections of the women. The night is a cover for the clandestine – the blue films are only shown very late – but movie screens burn brighter and hotter in the dark.
There’s no soft focus, however, on the faces in Madheshiya’s photos. There are children, young women, and old men, who star in the most striking photographs in the series. One gazes delightedly upward, with a halo of projection light over his head and a face full of awe, and one has a frown like a half-moon, with eyeglasses caught reflecting a frame of film. Madheshiya calls these photographs a more “intimate and organic” presentation of faces.
Take, as a point of comparison, the experimental film Shirin by Abbas Kiarostami. In it, a theatre full of women reacts to a film (we never see the screen, but hear the sound). It is a fictional film, but the actors reacted to real stories. Kiarostami made Shirin because he believes that art exists by its audience; it’s based on a previous work of his in which he filmed rural Iranians watching a traditionally performed Shiite play.
Both Shirin and Madheshiya’s travelling tent photographs are two stories, and two audiences: them, and us. The reaction of faces to one story opens up another in our minds; simultaneously, these reactions are like reflections of our own unguarded expressions. We, as subjects, are self-conscious with our faces to the camera, but our expressions of wonder remain intact when we face the screen. Madheshiya captures this to deep effect with his portraits of movie-watchers. The photographs also unselfconsciously communicate details about class, region, and so on, but the great appeal in these images is their universality. Perhaps we are interested in audiences watching because they’re not posing, and perhaps because, as Kiarostami told the actors of Shirin, “you are actually watching yourselves”.
Simran Bhalla is a writer living and working in Delhi. She begins a PhD in film studies in the fall.
Amit Madheshiya is an independent photographer based in Mumbai. He and Shirley Abraham are currently working on a documentary about the tent cinemas called like ants for sugar.
The travelling tent cinemas screen films in rural Maharashtra every October.
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