The last bioscopewallah


Mohammad Salim with his 100-year-old projector, from

We have written here before on the tradition of the travelling bioscope in India, film shows put on by men journeying from town to town with projector in a hand cart, some of whom work with equipment dating back to the early cinema period.

The subject has interested a number of filmmakers. There is K.M. Madhusudhanan’s feature film Bioscope, The Bioscopewallah by Prashant Kadam, Megha B. Lakhani’s Prakash Travelling Cinema (available in two parts on YouTube), Andrej Fidyk’s Battu’s Bioscope, Vrinda Kapoor and Nitesh Bhatia’s Baarah Mann Ki Dhoban and Salim Baba by Americans Tim Sternberg and Francisco Bello, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2008.

An article by Nilanjana Bhowmick on the man featured in that last film has turned up on Little India (an Indian newspaper published in the USA). Entitled ‘The last bioscopewallah’, its subject is Mohammed Salim, who tours Kolkata with his 100-year-old projector (apparently Japanese in origin) on a cart, accompanied by his reluctant son. It’s an evocative piece of writing, depicting a decades-old form of street entertainment that just about hangs on in the age of the iPod and the DVD, sustained by the belief of the bioscopewallah in the magic of literally bringing cinema to the people. These are a few choice paragraphs:

Bioscopewallah……bioscopewallah ayah….aao, dekho,nai purani filme sirf ek rupiya. (Here comes the Bioscopewallah, come and watch new and old films for just Re 1).

The throw-back cry from the 1960s and 1970s of Indian street vendors trying to lure children and adults to the magic of movies in a box still reverberates in the serpentine bylanes of Kolkata, mingled with the smell of moss and decay. The cry might not have the same verve, nor perhaps does it elicit the earlier enthusiasm. But it still attracts curious onlookers who crowd around as the last bioscopewallah of Kolkata sets up his shop near a school or a movie theater.

Children rush to his cart, clutching a rupee coin in their hands. Some older people might still remember the voyeuristic feeling of peek-a-boo cinema under the shade of the ominously grave-looking black cloth, but most have either forgotten or never experienced the charm of the movie in the wooden box.

Mohammad Salim, with his 100-year-old projector, is a relic from a forgotten era. He roams the streets of Kolkata, letting people experience in short bursts the often surreal world of the bioscope.

Salim’s voice has become weaker with age, but the enthusiasm remains undimmed. He is the thin string that binds Kolkata with its glorious past to the beginning of cinema — the Royal Bioscope Company, India’s first bioscope company. Salim is not only oblivious to the legacy he has carried on his shoulders for decades now, but he is equally nonchalant about his brush with international fame, which includes an Oscar nominated documentary on his life. He only understands his bioscope and beyond it everything else pales.

Salim’s journey on the Kolkata streets with his bioscope began more than 40 years ago. In his late fifties, he laboriously pushes along his archaic projector on a hand driven cart. These days often he is accompanied by one of his unwilling sons, for whom the bioscope holds no magic. Sometimes he is mistaken for an ice cream vendor, most times he is ignored. In this digital age, the wooden bioscope holds no attraction and Salim cuts a lone figure as he wanders from one street to another. However, as he sets shop and Bollywood music and dialogs burst forth from his bioscope, a small crowd gathers around him; a crowd that wants to lose itself in the garish, colorful, melodramatic and musical world of Bollywood movies. The glamour, thrill, drama and dreams of Bollywood are packed into three-four minutes of trailers that transport the viewer into a makeshift world of the movies — short lived, but an escape from the real world nevertheless …

… In the 1960s and 1970s the call of the bioscopewallah was eagerly awaited in the neighborhoods of Kolkata. However in this age of television and computers, the bioscope is as antiquated as the term itself. Salim recalls the golden days when his father’s bioscope ruled the roost: “When my father used to call out, people used to come rushing out of their houses, especially children and women. They used to stand in the balcony for hours in order to catch the bioscopewallah.”

Salim started with his father when aged just twelve. In those days there were many other bioscopewallahs, all of whom showed only silent films. To keep up with the times, Salim has had to adapt to sound, showing scraps of films that highlight songs, dances and fights.

Salim survives in an age dominated by iPods and DVDs by updating his equipment to keep pace with the modern age. His passion with the bioscope led him to experiment with it and add new features. The original bioscope had no provision for sound so Salim, realizing he will lose his audiences if he failed to add it to his trailers, acquired sound.

“I love my projector and the fact that this small box contains all the wonders of a cinema hall. And I told myself, there must be a way to put sound too! I went to the cinema halls and asked people about how they put the sound on the lip movements. We tried to replicate that in my projector and succeeded. It was because I went with the times that I have been able to keep this alive. If there was no sound, no one would have watched it anymore.” …

… The era of the bioscope will likely end with Salim. His sons are not interested in carrying forward the tradition of their father and grandfather. They are young men who have come of age in the digital era of mobile phones and computer games.

Salim is philosophical about his plight and the future of his craft. He insists he is not driven by money, otherwise he would have sold the projector — an antique piece — by now. “I have had offers from abroad to sell my bioscope, I have said no. It is the heritage of my country, why should I sell it to another country?”

It’s a delightful piece well worth reading in its entirety. Not exactly silent films, but definitely in their spirit.

One response

  1. Pingback: Salim Baba « The Bioscope

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