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10 December 2023

India's reels on wheels facing the end of the road

By Reuters

The sleepy village of Ond comes alive for a week every year when trucks loaded with tents and projectors reach its outskirts.

The tents are pitched in open fields, converting the trucks into projection rooms for screening the latest Indian blockbusters to exuberant villagers, who otherwise have few chances to see a film at all.

But now, this decades-old tradition known as the ``talkie'' is under threat in the face of cable television and a flood of pirated CDs and DVDs.

``People used to like touring cinemas a lot, but after these new modes of entertainment only about 10 percent of the people come here to watch films,'' said Anup Chadha, the owner of Anup Talkies, one such company.

Anup, 31, inherited the firm from his father, who started in the era of black and white and ran the company for 40 years.

In Ond, some 350 km (218 miles) south of Mumbai, India's cinema capital and home to its Bollywood film industry, three different companies of touring talkies show films of different genres, in a bid to attract as much of an audience as they can.

Each company runs five shows of three hours each, with the last film show ending at three in the morning. Tickets cost less than half a dollar, about 15 to 20 Indian rupees.

The shows are packed with people of all ages, who stare raptly at the films as they are shown. Children jump and clap along with the scenes, although some lie down in their parents' laps as the hour grows late, eyes still fixed on the film.

For women, who often have few chances to leave the four walls of their homes, it is an eagerly awaited outing. Dressed in bright saris, they queue at ticket counters for what is one of their only forms of entertainment.

Despite this, though, the threat to the ``tambu'' - tent talkies -- looms larger every year.

``There were around 50 such tambu talkies in Satara district 10 years ago, but today only seven or eight are left,'' said Jaywant Thorat, 45, the owner of Ayodhya Talkies.

``We are running these theatres just because of our passion for it. If we shut down our tambu cinemas, regional cinema will find no audience since they don't show these films at multiplexes in the city,'' he added, referring to the fact that local language films are also shown.

Not all the owners are giving up without a fight.

Some have devised new marketing strategies, such as distributing packets of shampoo and pocket-sized pictures of film actresses with the tickets, but the money from this is small.

Anup Chadha forecasts that touring talkies will be extinct within five years if the government doesn't step in.

``Sometimes I want to shut down this business but there are so many people associated with this talkie that I hang on for them,'' he said.

If that happens, the only cinema available to people in the villages may come from local devotees such as Suresh, a farmer who is also the owner of Akshay Talkies and has converted a vintage truck to a projector room, using a tractor to pull it.

``We can't afford to go to watch a film in a theatre, especially with the nearest town being 70 km (43.50 miles) away from here,'' said Vikas Shinde, a farmer who waited eagerly at the counter to grab his ticket.

``These talkies are just 100 metres (yards) away from my house.'' 

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