If I were asked about the one sound in the world I love, hands down the answer would be the whirring of a film projector. In this day and age, when digital is king, I still remember the joys of watching films at my uncle’s house, the whirr of the projector, the dancing of dust in the light in front of the lens and – joy – the ability to send the thing into reverse, which gave us countless hours of silly pleasure. I still remember the excitement of learning how to use the projector myself, a skill that I’m sure has grown rusty as I’ve enjoyed a world of media streamed right to my computer.
The changing nature of the film business in India acts as a catalyst to explore the relationship between a father and a son in Bengali director Kaushik Ganguly’s latest film, Cinemawala. Pranabendu Das (Paran Bandopadhyay in a wonderfully subtle performance) sees himself as a true “cinemawala”, a film exhibitor, a grand merchant of hope and passion of dreams that will allow people to forget the troubles of the world as well as their own. He is ashamed of his son Prakash (Parambrata Chatterjee), who sells pirated DVDs, an illegal business that his father finds both immoral and a desecration of everything he holds dear. His son is a thief, and his thievery is causing the decline of cinema halls, of a beautiful world that allowed people to forget their problems.
Pranabendu Das lives in the past: his world is the one of India post-Independence, post-partition, when people needed distractions to lighten the burdens the world placed on them. His is a world filled with stories of Supriya Devi and Uttam Kumar – especially of Uttam Kumar, whom he calls the prince of fairy tales. His son’s world is whatever people want to buy – usually the latest Dev or Jeet film on DVD. The irony, of course, is that Pranabendu compares cinema to alcohol, allowing people to forget their pains and sorrows, but he drowns his own sorrows at the disappearance of his kind of cinema world in a bottle of rum, each glass prepared by his projectionist Hari (Arun Guhathakurta), who sits and listens to his ramblings and tries to take care of him now that he no longer has films to project.
Frustrated by his father’s judgement of him, Prakash decides to use a gold bracelet given to him by his mother Kamalini (Aloknanda Ray), for whom the family cinema hall is named, to buy a DVD projector in order to show movies at the local fair, and it’s a decision that serves to bring the relationship between father and son to a confrontation. Prakash refuses to work in the fish wholesale business anymore, calling his father a fisherman, which the old man sees as the ultimate insult – not because the work itself is demeaning, but because he sees it as Prakash’s rejection of the one bit of honourable employment he has, in favour of something illegal. “No business is demeaning, if it is truthful,” Pranabendu tells his son, asking him how he will justify what he does to his own child, already on the way.
Judging which of these worlds is better – old or new – is not as simple as it seems. Pranabendu raises a temple, in which cinema resides, but he is estranged from his family – his wife, Kamalini, for whom the cinema hall is named, has left him; though his son and daughter-in-law live with him, the relationship is anything but warm (though the long-suffering Mou clearly cares for her father-in-law, she is caught between father and son). “Now that you have a family,” Kamalini tells her son upon learning that her daughter-in-law is pregnant, “give it time. Don’t make a Taj Mahal in her name and then forget her.”
Ganguly’s films, especially Shabdo and Chotoder Chobi, have marked him as a filmmaker willing to explore the stories of marginalized professions and communities, and Cinemawala is no exception. But Cinemawala, perhaps, is a film that represents the concerns of a modern, globalized world and the society and moral values it is struggling to replace. Ganguly asks not only what it means to be a cinemawala in this age; but what it means to be a human being? What things will we place value on? What choices will we make, morally, socially? Are there values we should be hanging on to, even as we replace the things that represented them?
A wheel of change is turning, but change doesn’t mean anything more than different joys and different sorrows. And a father’s sorrows over his son need no retribution in this turn of the wheel – it’s the next generation, as a son becomes a father and discovers his own son’s betrayals, that will make up for the previous generation’s sorrows. Children betray their fathers; husbands betray their wives; and the world continues to turn.
Which brings me full circle: Ganguly’s storytelling is brilliant, as in the scene presenting the removal of the projectors from the Kamalini Cinema as a funeral procession for a disappearing art. I am, most definitely, firmly entrenched in the digital age; but I couldn’t help but shed tears at this moment, and, like Pranabendu, feel some sorrow at a world that will never experience the pleasures of seeing an actual film, and hearing the sound of a proper film projector.