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Last Updated: Monday, 12 January, 2004, 13:25 GMT
Calcutta cart keeps film rolling

Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Calcutta

Cinema cart in Calcutta
Children pay one rupee to watch the 2-inch screen
When dusk falls on the crumbling city of Calcutta, Mohammed Salim begins rolling his cart, bringing Technicolor dreams to the city's poor children.

Using a 107-year-old Japanese projector and small, homemade loudspeakers perched on the curious coffin-shaped cart draped in black cloth, Salim hits the road with his unique, mobile pavement cinema.

"Here comes the cinema man, here comes the cinema man!" scream excited, bedraggled children from the rundown districts of north Calcutta where Salim's show is a big hit.

They crowd around his cart and huddle under the black cloth, which keeps out the light, waiting for the magic to begin.

Then Salim cranks the noisy projector to life, the sound boxes crackle with screeching music and down in the innards of the cart a scratched, grainy movie comes to life on a 2-inch-wide screen.

There are no flops on my movie cart. Every movie is a hit
Mohammed Salim

"It's a new film, it's a new film!" shrieks 10-year-old Alam from under the black cloth.

In an age of cheap cable television in India, Salim's sidewalk cinema still pulls in the crowds - mostly children but a few adults too - who shell out one rupee (two US cents) for a 10-minute film, often stitched together by the man himself.

Salim's moving cinema is reminiscent of the Giuseppe Tornatore movie Cinema Paradiso in which a grizzled projectionist takes pride in showing movies in a town recovering from the ravages of war.

Happy trails

For many children, Salim's sidewalk show is sometimes the only escape from a grim, poverty-stricken life in the crime-infested ghettos of Calcutta.

"People still watch my cinema. I guess it has to do with watching a proper film, like they show it in the cinema halls. It's also brought to their doorstep at a very cheap price," he told BBC News Online.

Mohammed Salim
Salim stitches film together with sticky tape and scissors

The 50-year-old cinema man picks up Bollywood film scraps dumped by distributors for the princely sum of 10 rupees a kilogram.

He mostly looks out for trailers.

"If I get an old trailer, my problem is solved. It is a quickie movie - songs, fights, dialogue, emotion. I just play the entire trailer."

Otherwise, Salim puts together a movie himself in his tumbledown one-room home.

He rummages through tons of random film stored in rusty cans and puts together what he calls some "wholesome stuff" - using scissors and sticky tape.

"Some songs, dance, fighting and angry dialogue and voila! I have made a movie," he says.

Improvisation

Salim began his career after his father bought the projector from a movie hall in Calcutta for 200 rupees, half a century ago.

He then had to improvise.

Mohammed Salim's projector
The 1897 projector has been refitted with a magnifying glass lens

When he realised that the projector's original lens was too powerful for his tiny cart screen, he took it out and replaced it with a three-rupee magnifying glass lens.

The projector was also originally designed to show only silent movies.

About 25 years ago, he almost went out of business with the advent of colour television in India.

So he adapted by adding an audio head and a sound roller to the projector, and built two loudspeakers.

"I learnt the ropes of improving, adding sound, cutting film by being with my friends who are projectionists in Calcutta halls," he says.

Salim now pushes the cart six hours every evening and goes up to 20 kilometres (12 miles) from his home to meet popular demand.

He says he makes anything between 100 and 150 rupees a day - enough to provide for his wife and six children.

But he does worry about how long his mobile cinema can continue.

"As long as the kids keep coming, I will keep going. But I don't think this will survive my children," says Salim, who is an old Bollywood buff.

But he says he has one advantage over the vagaries of Bollywood box office success.

"There are no flops on my movie cart. Every movie is a hit."


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