The art of the film poster is something that has often been lamented about and it is quite true that traditional hand drawn film posters recognisable by a painter’s signature style has all but disappeared. Sheikh Rehman is a relic of a bygone age but what a wondrous vestige he is. Rehman lives in his own secret world, in a makeshift studio behind Alfred Talkies, a single cinema screen in old Mumbai. His life, following in the footsteps of his father who was also a film poster painter and artist, has been defined by the larger than life masala simulacra of Indian cinema. Rehman is not the star of this documentary; films, cinema and movies are. Alfred Talkies, a cinema that exists on good will, screening re-runs of B films is a dream palace populated by the tired, the hungry and the poor. In the cinema auditorium an usher who takes his job very seriously wanders the aisles, clearing the screen with his stick, ensuring a strange discipline is enforced so that the masses can perform the ritual of entering the kingdom of shadows with the minimal disruption. The manager of Alfred Talkies, a sentimentalist, confesses they rarely make a profit and that the cinema exists because of the social function it is providing; they have to do this even if it means making a loss.
By situating the observational gaze on the spectators in the cinema, recording their many different reactions, anthropological thoughts emerge that point to the violation of a sacred time and space beloved by many as completely their own. Rehman’s reflections on his artistic invisibility to his children is a moving one, riddled with nostalgia, bitterness and an unbridled exultation of cinema magnificently realised in his spectacular film paintings. Let’s not forget the supporting cast; the diligent projectionist, the argumentative Candy man, the emotive woman who owns Alfred Talkies, Rehman’s team of painters and his committed understudy. The frayed edges are what makes this world an endearing one, providing a vitality, a sort of lifeblood holding everything together in this timeless urban story of Mumbai and its people.