KOLKATA: Kaushik Ganguly’s latest film Cinemawalla (Bengali)”has been honored with the prestigious UNESCO-Fellini award at IFFI 2015. It has been selected by New York Indian Film Festival, 2016, Hidden Gems Film Festival, Calgary, 2016, Chennai International Film Festival- (CIFF), Pune, International Film Festival, Indian Panorama Film Festival-Delhi, IFFK, Kerala and Bangalore International Film Festivals and so on.

The film, according to the director, is a tribute to single screen theatres in West Bengal that are slowly pulling down their shutters due to the change from 35mm which is almost redundant in the film industry across the world to digital projection of films through QUBE and other technological methods.

In his director’s statement, Ganguly states: “Perhaps most filmmakers of my generation have not had the opportunity to make their first ten films on celluloid. Even after having embraced the digital cinema completely, memories of the nitty-gritty of working on celluloid, from shooting to receiving the final print, remain unfaded.

Today, all cinema hall owners are selling their projectors as junk. Single screen theatres are closing down one by one. I cannot help thinking about the innumerable workers who had mastered the craftsmanship of celluloid, but are left unemployed now. Also about those numerous projectors that remain piled up, unused, like a heap of debris. The tragedy of celluloid burdens my heart. That is why I made Cinemawala. For, I too, am nothing but a Cinema-Wallah”

This is a touching cinematic yet real statement, filled with the pain of nostalgia, the angst of a loss, the fading away of a close social world when filmmaking was a more filial and intimate experience filled with feelings of comradeship and camaraderie than the final edit being done away in Mumbai through a hard drive or pen drive when the director is not present and has no clue about the final quality of the film that will grace the screen. It is an atomized world where technique and technicians are distanced from each other, working in mental cubicles often with mechanical precision.

Cinemawalla, the film as a work of art where powerful storytelling rubs shoulders with the finer nuances of skilled and imaginative technique polished over with brilliant acting will go down in the archives of Indian cinema as a moving social comment on change which is inevitable and unavoidable but is tinged with the pain of loss.

But it is more of a personal tribute from an individual filmmaker to an individual owner of a single screen theatre who refuses to execute the change even when his theatre runs empty than a tribute to single screen theatres in West Bengal. Pranabesh Das’s projectionist Hari, also his lifelong companion, finds it impossible to bear the loss of the projector he wielded for 23 years when buyers cart it away. There are three stories of three men woven into this single film. One is Prananesh Das, a theatre owner of Kamalini theatre who runs a successful hereditary business in wholesale fish. The second is his projectionist, man Friday, friend and philosopher who practically lives in the cobweb-filled theatre where stray dogs freely move in and out. The third is his self-respective son who, failing to convince his father that change is necessary and unavoidable, takes the short route to buying and selling pirated DVDs in private tents and public fairs.

This makes for a truly beautiful film but it fails when logic and reason are applied to its micro-level story when placed against the macro-level issue of the closure of single screen theatres in the State. In the end of the film, title cards inform us that of 700 single screen theatres in the state, only 250 remain. Why? The film is silent on this million-dollar question. Insiders in the industry state that QUBE, in collaboration with Shree Venkatesh Films Pvt Limited has funded this conversion form 35 mm to digital for all single screen theatres willing and convinced to surrender to the demand for change. “Want of money for the conversion is not the reason for single screen theatres to close shop. The funding and/or infra-structure are being provided by these two. The problem lies with the changing tastes of the audience who wish to watch films at malls which is a one-stop shopping mall for savouring snacks, dinner, bags or shoes or anything including watching films,” says Atanu Ghosh, an eminent filmmaker from West Bengal. Globalisation of which the multiplex shopping malls are a microcosm, has changed the pattern of film watching among the audience.

When asked how middle-class people can afford to go to multiplex theatres in shopping malls, Ghosh says that they have cut down on their quota of watching films in theatres because the costing is high but whatever they watch, they prefer going to the multiplex theatres that probably give them a ‘feel-good’ experience. “In any case, there is always YouTube and other similar channels to fall back on if one does not want to spend money and yet watch films,” adds Ghosh.

“Cinema halls, whether they are single screen theatres or multiplex theatres in shopping malls, now screened through digital projection, are not able to pull enough audience to keep a film running for weeks at a stretch. This cuts across the language, nationality and projection barrier. Both are financially in bad shape. However, one must remember that for the producers, financiers and exhibitors, the change to digital has been very viable in financial terms because it is much cheaper than shooting a film in digital and screened digitally than 35 mm. Projectionists charge high salaries and digital needs minimum skill and technique which can be learnt within a short time. So, it is not the conversion or the lack of it that has hit the box office viability of Bengali cinema but the declining audience footfall,” says Nitish Mukherjee, whose new film Char Adhyay based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, was released recently in the State.

“There is definitely a dilution in the quality of the finished product,” informs Ghosh who says that digital screening and shooting cannot produce depth-of-field the way 35 mm could. But one cannot turn away from change. It is a boon for directors who lack producers willing to invest in a film which they know will not run for more than a week. In a recent interview, Ganguly himself said, “Even if one shoots in film, the richness and the texture will anyway be downgraded when it is converted to digital to be screened. The projection systems in most of the theatres have been digitised.”

So what is wrong with Cinemawalla? If one takes a holistic perspective, the tragedy of Pranabesh Das is neatly undercut by the reality of the film (a) having been produced by Shree Venkatesh Pictures Pvt Ltd, (b) being shot and screened through QUBE (c) being premiered and released mainly in multiplex theatre chains. Journalist Sankhayan Ghosh writes “For someone who has made 10 of his 16 movies in film, it is ironic that Kaushik Ganguly’s latest, about the magic of celluloid, has been shot in digital. Even as globally celebrated directors like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan kick start a campaign to keep film alive –– by entering into a contract with Kodak that will produce the much revered 35mm for their productions –– shooting in celluloid is an impractical and rather romantic idea for a regional filmmaker like Ganguly. For him, films are made on moderate budgets.” (The Hindu, December 11, 2015.)

It is nothing new for any feature film’s content being in conflict with its funding, technology or crew. This has happened before and is happening all the time. But Cinemawalla is a film that laments the tragic story of a rigid single-screen owner who refuses change on the one hand while on the other, Ganguly as director uses the very infrastructural changes that the old man resists to narrate the story. The quality of the product is unquestionably high. It is a beautiful film. But the raw material that led to its production is a sad compromise. This contradiction between content and technology is the hidden statement that can be read between the lines if one can cross the surface applause to reach behind and touch the sad reality to be able to see the dark lining behind the silver cloud.