Salim Baba – street cinema in Calcutta

November 9, 2008

Another analogue, but this time unconscious street VJ from India, my dear virtual travellers…

Documentary film Salim Baba directed by Tim Sternberg with cinematographer Francisco Bello is a small character study and almost an anthropological vignette lasting only for 15 minutes… but the film is a great unintentional comparison between the birth of cinema and today’s digital age… although, not showing anything of digital devices…


Tim Sternberg’s cinema career started in the editing rooms of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco during his high school days. Later on he moved in New York City where he was working as editor on the film ‘Mediterraneo’, than as sound effects recordist on films for Nora Ephron and Robert Benton. Recently, he was working as music editor on Milos Forman’s ‘Goya’s Ghosts’ and documentary ‘The Taint of Yingzhou District’ directed by Ruby Yang. He is a script consultant for the IFP and American Zoetrope.

About four years ago Sternberg stumbled at BBC’s News website on story about Salim Muhammad and his travelling bioscope. He found Salim Muhammad’s idea pretty cool, especially from the perspective of a person being deeply involved into cinema industry. Surely, he also had a dream to shot his own film one day.


Since Sternberg’s wife is working as a textile designer, residing in India every year during the winter for several months, the situation was perfect to shot a short film on Salim Muhammad. The film was shot in less then a week in 2006.

So, why is Salim Muhammad so special?

He is a 55-year-old man living in a very poor area in Northern Callcuta with his wife and five children, having a very special task. He inherited an old Lumier movie projector from his father when he was about ten years old… it’s an hand-cranked device used for showing film scraps Salim has spliced together with an ordinary tape, tailor’s shears and rusty scissors… Salim and his sons are making their own films from trailers and scraps he’s buying from cinemas or at street fairs of Calcutta…


With his projector he is ‘riding’ than through the poorest parts of Calcutta showing his films to kids ‘who appreciate seeing and hearing dialogue, music and fighting without having to wait too long’, as he said.

Although, it’s not a long movie you can get an layered insight view into his life and the relation he has with his sons… coz they are helping him with the editing process and repairing the remarkable Lumier projector. Salim uses mini auto lights and magnifying glass lenses in his bioscope where films are projected onto a foot-and-a-half-long paper screen. The viewer has to put the head into a small dark chamber and, voila, the cinema is in town!


But the situation is pretty much realistic… ‘We had all of these ideas of the death of cinema, and he’s going to have some great Buster Keaton or John Ford one-reel film that’s been waiting since the teens. We had these fantasies that he was the living link to the age of Lumiere and the origins of cinema — how cinematic technology was distributed through the colonial paths. When we got there and we tried to talk to him about Satyajit Ray and the history of cinema, he was very practical. He was like. “I remember those movies vaguely from years ago; they were in black and white. I think I have one black-and-white film left; the rest I just threw away.” What he had was from 1989. He was like, “The kids don’t want to see that!” He has to make living. So we all had to recalibrate. He kind of humbled us.’ (

Authors invited Salim Muhammad to tell a story of his life, and here is as Sternberg says: a story about his father, from whom he learned the trade, and about his four sons, to whom he is passing on his expertise.’

p.s. The film Salim Baba received many awards: 2007 Woodstock Film Festival – Best Short Documentary, 2007 Sidewalk Film Festival – Best Short Documentary, 2007 Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films – 2nd place: Best Documentary.
p.s.1. See here an interview with Tim Sternberg at Tribeca Film Festival
p.s.2. Salim Baba was selected and screened within the documentary programme of ZFF 2008

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