An Inertial Land
During a conversation with Anuj, I was telling him how there are so many villages where there is no electricity and as a result the main stream media has not touched such places – and the fact that a major share of Indian population belongs in these villages and how I wished that a number of films that we had had the good fortune of watching in the city, could be shown there too. I was repeatedly citing my village as an example of such an underdeveloped area. It's then that he said, ‘Why don’t you screen films in your village?’ Admittedly, a little-on-the-backfoot by this sudden demand, I asked, ‘My village? Dhenuki? Why not? ’ I did manage to say those words, but immediately I was flooded with memories of my village – and not a lot of them are pleasant. Nonetheless, the time was running out and I left the car with mixed feelings. All through the metro ride home, I was struggling to reconcile with the practicality of the mission I had quite willingly chosen to undertake a few minutes ago.
Regardless, the idea had been born and somehow I had to convince myself that the whole idea is doable – thus, even if in hypothesis, the Dhenuki Cinema Project was born. It was difficult to accurately anticipate the challenges I may face, since I had not visited my village in five years.
I have this love-hate relationship with my village – I grew up there but it is too far back in the past for me to actually have a real attachment to it. It exists as a mysterious object in the noon of my memory, one I can recollect, but never vividly. But we began discussing the idea seriously, and so one night on chat with Anuj, he pointed out that my village had a very beautiful name. ‘Really?’ I thought to myself. I realized it did.
Anyways, beauty of nomenclature aside, the fact remains that the organisation of a film screening in my village would require a lot more effort and resource than anywhere else. I was struggling with the cost-related math (all my approximations eventually turned out to be wildly speculative). Moreover, I was pretty convinced that there was no way I could find a projector anywhere close to my village - so I had to carry one from New Delhi. I made up a rough list and started scouting for the required items – a basic projector, DVD player / Laptop, sound equipment, screen, extension cables, connectors, a camera for recording / documentation, and a power generator for electrical supply. The initial plan was to screen one film every evening for three continous days, but if one is to keep the travel to-and-forth from Delhi to Bihar and back in mind, you can add another four days to the whole exercise.
The subsequent phone conversations with my father revealed that I may be able to source all of the requirements in and around the village. Although I didn’t believe him, but I had no choice since the rentals in Delhi are quite high and the price for a week of rental was daunting, add to that the security deposits that the three vendors I contacted mentioned to me.
The train journey to Chhapra was smooth and the train was a little delayed but that is fine since it dropped me by 2pm at the Chhapra station. I took another rikshaw to reach the bus stop and boarded the bus which would drop me to Dhenuki.
The bus dropped me to Dhenuki at nine in the night against the scheduled time of 6:30 pm. Nonetheless, I was home, I was meeting my family, my grandparents after four long years. Very soon, I was devouring the delicious fish prepared by my mother – my brother had gone fishing in the nearby pond and had evidently managed quite a good catch.
I: THE HARVEST
Summers are the time of harvest in the villages, the wheat crop is ready to be harvested and most of the village men who go to work in the cities, return during summers for the harvest. The next morning I too was harvesting the wheat crop in our fields. Cousins who stay in the village were much faster and better in it, and my father left no occasion to compare me, unfavourably, with them.
The next day I had a detailed discussion with my father regarding the films I had for screening. He gave me one of those mixed responses – neither here nor there – neither in the affirmative, nor in the negative. Since I did not know most people there, I needed him to help me out and introduce me to the people. Somehow, these crucial introductions got delayed and I couldn’t achieve anything substantial for the next two days.
The last evening I had met the village Mukhiya, Shri Parmanand Prasad, who after listening to my father and me understood our modest ambition and even seemed supportive. He wanted me to go ahead with the screenings and, to my pleasant surprise, offered his courtyard to us as the ‘screening venue’ The next morning, I was at his home and talked to him about cinema. talked and interviewed the people around and asked them about their experiences of cinema. I also managed to meet a woman who willingly got interviewed and shared interesting things.
II: THE PROJECTOR
After the interviews were over, as suggested by my father, I went to enquire about the availability of the projector in the nearby village Laguni accompanied with Raju who claimed to be my childhood friend but whom I didn’t remember very well. The owner of the projection system demanded a thousand rupees for one day, hearing which my guide indicated to me that it was very high and that we should try somewhere else. So we went to another person named Manu in the Maniya Tola. Manu enquired about everything and to my surprise he quoted Rs. 300/- as the price for 1 day. I felt like jumping, but my guide was in the mood of negotiating further. I felt the price was alright and so we made the deal.
My guide Raju told me that there was no point screening films for three days since the next day onwards it will be lagan – the auspicious dates for marriages all around, and so people will not turn up to watch films. And so, the three days of screening now got limited to just one day – today!
‘Brilliant!’ I thought wryly to myself, we still have to arrange for the generator to supply power and we have to publicize it. Anyhow, we booked the projector and returned with him to Mukhiya ji’s place where I learned that he has a mini-generator loaned to one of the shops in the bazaar and that it would be enough to provide the required power. It was 4 in the evening when we went to pick up the generator, which was loaded on a mini-van and driven down to the location. Three liters of diesel was acquired for 140 rupees to keep the generator running for three-four hours. At five, I started getting restless.
III: SETTING UP
I wanted to start the screenings a little early fearing that most people in the village sleep early by around seven generally, so they might sleep midway through the films. At seven, I was frantically trying to call up the projector guy but there is a very weak cellular network and I couldn’t manage to get through to him, Raju kept telling me that he would reach and I shouldn’t worry. I immediately had 4 volunteers to help me setup the generator and have the power connections ready before the projector arrived.
The projector arrived at seven and by then we had made all necessary arrangements. The two people who had carried the device started putting up the screen, which was basically two white bedsheets sewn together. By seven-thirty pm the whole setup was ready and to my surprise a lot of people had turned up to watch the films, even though they had no idea which film I was going to play.
The DVD player that was brought by the projector guys did not seem to read the DVDs I was carrying, this took another half an hour to reach the conclusion that it can read only CDs and not DVDs. Fortunately I was carrying two films in CDs – Musafir and Pushpak. At 8pm we were finally all ready to start the film. I addressed the gathering. I shared the motives behind screening these films and I spoke a little about the film which was to be played – Musafir.
The film started at 8: 10 and I did count roughly 70 people were present including children, women and men. A lot of old people including Mukhiya Ji were watching the film. Interestingly when I was clicking pictures to make a note of the occasion, I noticed that from a window two people were peeping and watching the film. I later learned that since they had contracted chicken pox so they were quarantined in one room and they weren’t coming out so they chose to watch the film from the windows. That moment was really surreal for me; nothing is rare than the satisfaction of a man on a simple mission to see so many people committed to his ideal.
The first film was over by 11 and some of the people and mostly children had left for homes while many of the kids had slept on the sheets where they were sitting. As far as the village is concerned that was actually too late in the night for the people to be up, since generally everyone goes to sleep by 7 or 8 pm.
I stood up and asked the remaining audience if they wanted to see another film since I felt that they might be really sleepy. To my surprise I heard a few voices who wanted to see another film, and some of the voices clearly belonged to the women in the village. So I played the second film – Pushpak.
Pushpak, a fun but silent Indian film that revolves around greed, romance, opportunity and a myriad series of expressions; they seemed to strike a chord with the people. Instantly they became more responsive and I could distinctly hear giggles from all corners. Silent films certainly have a universal appeal, and I was getting a first hand experience of it. It was interesting to know how even the minutest of the visuals was not missed by the audience.
When Pushpak ended, I was content to see a crowd of 30-40 people still present. It was 1:30 in the night and although every pair of eyes was heavy under sleep, they seemed like they wanted more and more to devour. However, I had to wish them goodnight and started wrapping up the setup. And people gradually moved to their homes in the darkness of the night following their torches. Some did stop to have a chat with me and fleetingly acknowledged that it had been a nice experience.
The Dhenuki Cinema Project had been executed successfully and more importantly, it had made me more content and more humble to the people, the medium and the idea of and about screening a film. I was noting down my observations during the screening and putting together points of reference regarding whatever happened in the 2 days when I was preparing for the project.