- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

CALCUTTA — Just about every night, when the workday ends and this crowded, crumbling city comes alive with evening shoppers, two boys push a battered metal cart through the streets, looking for a place to set up their century-old machine.

And every night, when they start turning the crank, the children come.

Hidden inside the cart is a tiny movie screen, no more than 18 inches high, where a 19th-century projector throws up haphazard clips from Indian musicals. The scenes are blurry, the sound quality worse, and the plot — if that’s the right word — is nothing but random slices of random musicals.

But in a city where poverty is the norm and most homes are moldy concrete hovels, the Salim family’s mobile movie theater — the technical term is bioscope, though they simply call it “the machine” — can bring 10 minutes of joy for just a penny. Even around here, that’s affordable.

“Once I put on the music, the children come and they have to watch,” said Mohammed Salim, 50, a graying, potbellied man whose father began showing movies on Calcutta’s sidewalks decades ago, and whose adolescent sons now work the machine most nights. “It’s doesn’t really matter what’s on.”

The audience, mostly 8-to-10-year-olds, agrees.

They could see much the same thing on television, but that would miss the point: The bioscope is a novelty; it’s watching gears rattle; it’s the freedom of spending a little — and around here there is little — money.

“I love this thing,” said Zeeshan Farouq, who spends nearly an hour per night at the bioscope.

In action, it’s a bizarre sight — a clattering, shrieking crate that seems to be spilling children from its sides.

About 6 feet long, it has a hand-cranked projector, marked 1898, that beams images into a rectangular metal box. Up to a dozen children can crouch along the sides, watching through a slot. A blanket hangs over their heads, blocking out light, and a cheap speaker plays soundtracks at screechingly high volumes. A half rupee, or about 1 U.S. cent, buys 10 minutes of screen time.

Mr. Salim’s movies are cobbled together from movies shown over the past decade. Fishing through bins at film recyclers, he finds dance scenes and splices them into one film.

“The kids don’t care, as long as people are moving on the screen,” he said.

For three generations, the Salims have brought movies to the streets of Calcutta, beginning long before World War II, when India was a British colony and thousands of bioscopes played silent black-and-white films.

These days, Mr. Salim’s movies reflect a dramatically changed movie world, complete with buxom actresses, swaying hips and plenty of scenes of clinging wet saris.

“It’s been 70 or 80 years we’ve been showing movies,” said Mr. Salim, whose father depended on the bioscope for his entire income. “There used to be many more of these machines. … But when the talkies came, most couldn’t afford to convert to sound.”

These days, Mr. Salim said, there are just two bioscopes in Calcutta, a city of 10 million people. A handful of others are thought to be scattered across India.

The owner of a small tea stand, Mr. Salim runs his machine to earn a little extra money — maybe 100 rupees, or $2.25, on a good night — and, in no small part, out of nostalgia.

“It reminds me of my childhood,” he said.

His children are less romantic.

“When I grow up I’ll do this,” said Jasin, 12, who hopes to become an embroiderer. “If there’s no work, I’ll have to do it.”

Mr. Salim is, by his own admission, a fairly simple man. His tattered button-down shirt is stained. His needs are few. His children are barely educated.

His love of the bioscope reflects a nation obsessed with movies.

Bollywood, India’s Bombay-based movie world, cranks out more than 800 films a year, making it the most prolific film industry in the world.

Most are musicals that run well over three hours and follow a strict boy-meets-then-loses-then-gets-girl formula. Unhappy endings are nearly unheard of, and most films have at least a few scenes where the actors suddenly burst into elaborate song-and-dance numbers.

Urban movie theaters are often packed, and across rural India movies are shown on portable screens trucked to small towns and powered by generators.

From these movies, a handful of film scraps end up with Salim.

And when he finishes with them, their life continues.

He sells his used film by the pound to men who cut it into individual frames. Those frames are mounted inside plastic binocularlike toys that offer one more view of India’s movie stars.

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