Salim Muhammad

Kolkata, India

Cinema Cart

I was born here, in India. I grew up here. I got married here. My kids were born here. Everything is here.

I don't remember my year of birth but I know I am fifty-five years old. I have a wife, four sons, two daughters and one son-in-law.

And I work the cinema car. It is a very old machine—a hundred years old. I have been running it since 1965—and now it is 2006.

Everyone is seeing many different things, but no one is able to show old things. That is why I have kept this alive.

Your father, his father, they have all seen this.
It still exists . . . so now you can see it too.

My father worked with it before I did. He got it when they didn’t use sound in films. Then when my father passed away, I started going out with it myself. I’ve learned to use it very well.

I work six days a week. The best day is Sunday, since kids and adults have that day off and movie halls run a ‘full house’. In our movie hall, we also run a ‘full house’.

Some neighbourhoods may prefer songs, some like really good trailers. Whatever is popular in a neighbourhood, that’s what we play. No matter if it’s kids or old folks, when they see our cart, there’s always a crowd around my machine. Parents tell their kids ‘we used to see this when we were young and you should too’.

Nowadays there are many types of films . . . some shameful to watch. The directors and actors are not the same as they used to be. As a child I'd go out with my father and his projector.

After he died it made me sad and worried. With so many CDs and videos coming out, could I survive?

First I met the operator at the theatre, then I met the engineer and I’d watch them work. I used to ask them: ‘Babu, what is this?’ He would tell me: ‘This is the sound . . .’ Or this does this or that does that . . .

That is where I learned the different names of things. Father hadn't taught me those names. I brought home the things I had learned, added sound to my machine and became happy.

There are many types of films. I have around fifty films here in my house. I get the film the way I always have. The scraps of film which the theatres reject, parts that get caught, the ones that end up on the floor, someone collects these and sells them to people like me.

I learned everything from my father when I was younger. The way he edited. He kept some songs on one side, some dialogue on the other, and a little bit of fighting.

Today my sons watch me do my editing. Within the scraps there is good and bad. If we see a scene that we like we cut it. We mix things up to the way we like it and create our own reels.

When a real movie plays there could be a fight scene for half an hour, dialogue for half an hour, then a song could go on and on. We take a little bit of each —song, dialogue, and fighting—packed into a short amount of time.

This keeps the public happy. They feel that they got to see all three without waiting too long. I don’t work much on current movies. My son works with those. I have a modern operator for modern times!

Sometimes, when people see me on the street they ask: ‘Why don’t you come out as much?’ I tell them: ‘What can I do? I am getting old . . .’ I don’t have much strength left to push the cart.

My four sons younger and older have all come with me and seen me at work. When people see me with my sons they understand that they are running the cart now. This gives me peace.

copyright © 2007 Ropa Vieja Films

Planetary Projection is pleased to present these excerpts from a film about the itinerant Indian projectionist Salim Muhammad, who has been projecting short films from his film cart in the streets of Kolkata (Calcutta), using an ancient Cinématographe Lumière projector, for nearly 50 years. Salim Baba, directed by Timothy Sternberg, was nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary category in 2008 and for an Emmy Award in 2009. Salim Muhammad’s commentary from the film has been graciously provided to us by Mr Sternberg and this material is copyright Ropa Vieja Films, the film’s producer. Visit the film’s web site here.
This can be used in a flashlight or in a car. But I had the idea to use it as a headlight for the film. I use this for the front and behind the sound box another lamp is needed, so I use another auto lamp here. Over and over, we are always replacing these. It lasts about a day.
Here are our films. This is my stock of the films I show. Whenever I need to, every few days, I come up here and get a new one.
The lenses they use in the movie theatres are much more expensive and they probably come from abroad. This is the lens used for reading palms. We turned it into a lens by putting it on this thing. The ones in the theatres are much bigger. So we made ours much shorter, for a two foot wide picture. The idea of using this two rupee lens for palm reading, I came up with this myself. First insert the plastic piece, then the lens, and then the other plastic. It makes the picture bigger.