Penny Theaters Beam Joy in Gritty Calcutta

Associated Press Writer

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.

Because hidden inside the cart is a tiny movie screen, no more than a foot and a half 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 -- technically, it’s a bioscope, though they simply call it “the machine” -- can bring 10 minutes of joy for just a penny. Even around here, it’s affordable.

“Once I put on the music, the children come and they have to watch,” said Muhammed 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 years old, agrees.

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

“I love this thing,” said Zeeshan Farouq, who spends nearly an hour a 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 six feet long, it has a hand-cranked projector, marked 1898, that beams images into a rectangular metal box. As many as 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 one U.S. cent, brings 10 minutes of screen time.

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


“The kids don’t care [about quality], 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, Salim’s movies reflect a dramatically changed movie world, complete with buxom actresses, luxuriously swaying hips, and plenty of scenes of clinging wet saris.

“It’s been 70 or 80 years we’ve been showing movies,” said 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, Salim says, there are just two bioscopes in Calcutta, a city of 10 million people. A handful of others are thought to be scattered across India.


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.

The owner of a small tea stand, 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.

Salim’s 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.”

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.

From these films, mostly musicals with happy endings, a handful of scraps go to Salim.