Bioscopewallah is the debut (documentary) film of Prashant Kadam. It is a charming work, likely to leave those
familiar with the bioscopewallah from their childhood in India and South
Asia (and, perhaps, beyond) nostaligic about a dream-making machine of
their past. As the text which precedes
the visuals explains, at one time bioscopewallahs were commonly encountered
in India, but they have now been pushed to the absolute periphery of Indian
life, and are likely to be found only in relatively small or remote villages. Before very long, they will almost certainly
disappear from India and become, so to speak, an extinct tribe.
Though the bioscope is defined in dictionaries as an early movie projector, in India it has been known as a wooden box, the interior of which has pictures that can be viewed through four circular holes. The Sanskrit suffix, “wallah”, designates a person who does something: thus a subziwallah is a vendor of subzis (vegetables), just as a rickshawallah pulls rickshaws. To moviegoers, the term wallah is especially pregnant with memories: Shakespearewallah, an early film by Ivory & Merchant, comes to mind, as does Kabulliwallah, the short story by Rabindranath Tagore that was rendered into a film by Tapan Sinha as well as Bimal Roy. The Kabulliwallah was not merely a man from Kabul who arrived in India with his wares of dry fruits, but he was even more so a gifted teller of tales who had an unshakeable audience in the form of the little girl Mini. The thread that runs through these films is clear, since the Bioscopewallah is, in his own inimitable way, not merely a purveyor of cheap entertainment but a teller of tales.
The subject of Kadam’s short documentary is an eighty-five year old Dalit bioscopewallah, Rau Kisan Waghmare. Apparently interested in being an entertainer since his childhood, in 1971 Waghmare left the rural part of Maharashtra where he had lived his entire life when drought deprived him of his livelihood. He moved on a drought-relief train to Bombay, where he saw bioscopewallahs at work. There is, of course, something perfectly apposite about encountering bioscopewallahs, who engender dreams of a smaller kind, in Bombay, itself known as the city of dreams. Waghmare didn’t stay in Bombay for long: he wisely saw the enhanced prospects of a livelihood as a bioscopewallah in his native village, and he returned to it after a few months in Bombay. In recent years, he has relocated to Pune. He lives now in a hut, less than 100 square feet in area, still plying his trade; but age his crept upon him, as it has upon bioscopewallahs in general.
The Bioscopewallah, for all its brevity, gives rise to numerous interesting ideas. As Rau Waghmare himself points out, his clientele has over the years consisted largely of children and women. If in the city street life has become in many ways the domain of men, the public spaces of the village were often the preserve of women and children. As the bioscopewallah turned up at the street corner, at the village mela, or under the banyan tree, children would rush to him. Bioscopewallahs often plied their trade around village and town melas (fairs), and the bioscope was one of the ways in which the country dweller came to know of the city. Pictures of Bombay and its sights were among those which were likely to be viewed through the lens of the bioscope, and it is even possible to argue that modernity first came to village inhabitants in the form of the bioscope. The bioscopewallah did not appear to his eager customers in the position of anonymity, and the personal satisfaction that the bioscopewallah experienced at witnessing the pleasure of his customers cannot be captured through the idioms of modern market exchanges or mass technologies. As Kadam states towards the end of the film, we should recognize the bioscopewallah as a folk artist, as one committed to his art and the practices of story-telling, and not as a mere purveyor of entertainment.
Article by Vinay Lal, copyright: 2 July 2006
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