Ask anyone about the quintessential vehicle they associate with India, and chances are the first image that whooshes into their mind is the autorickshaw. Sure, most of us have dealt with more rejection from rickshawalas (rickshaw drivers) than from our crushes, or paid exorbitant amounts for nearby destinations, but there’s no denying that the motorised three-wheeler vehicle is synonymous with the spirit of India. And it’s this spirit that a French artist who goes by the moniker Le Gentil Garçon is harnessing for his newest project.
Say hello to the Rick-show, a mobile cinema that packs a movie theatre experience into the three-wheeler vehicle. While people have previously pimped out their rickshaws to look like Spiderman, sled dogs or the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, the Rick-show is an attempt to use the convenient contraption to take relatively unknown art films from around the world into the streets of India.
A collaborative effort between the Alliance Française Trivandrum, the College of Architecture Trivandrum and Le Gentil Garçon, the Rick-show is a mobile cinema experience built to revive the sense of community and collaboration that street theatre offers. For the French artist – whose name translates to "the nice guy" and is the result of an experimental art show he did in 1999, where he walked across museums and public spaces wearing a mask in the shape of an oversized toy – the purpose of his project is to capture the freshness and excitement of discovering something new, that feeling that that we often experienced in our childhood.
“This concept was inspired by the Japanese art form of Kamishibai, a form of storytelling that usually involves a wooden theatre on a mobile device like a bicycle,” Le Gentil Garçon told VICE over a video call, requesting we only use his moniker to protect his artistic integrity.
Kamishibai, literally translating to “paper theatre,” was a Japanese art form popular before the advent of television, where a narrator popped up on street corners with sets of illustrated boards that were placed on a miniature stage on their bicycles, and then changed each board to communicate the storyline.
“About 10 years ago, I met an old Kamishibai storyteller while working on a project in Japan’s Villa Kujoyama, which inspired me to work on my own project,” he said. “I created a Kamishibai setup, but instead of using illustrated boards, I used a television screen. About 2 years ago, I thought about how I could use this concept but in a bigger way to reach more people when I was approached to do a project in India.”
While Le Gentil Garçon was motivated to make a mobile theatre that made arthouse cinema accessible to people from all walks of life, scaling his simple Kamishibai model was a mammoth task. At the same time, the onset of the pandemic and its lockdowns meant that the artist had to find a way to work remotely to turn his idea into a physical concept.
“My first idea was to buy a rickshaw, and transform that rickshaw itself into a mobile theatre, but we quickly realised it was almost impossible to buy one due to administrative processes,” he explained. “So, with the help of the architecture college, we decided to construct a structure that can be adapted on any rickshaw that we could rent very easily.”
The prototype for the Rick-show involved building a box-like structure that could also transport the elements required to set up the street cinema, including a stage, projector, lights and seating for the audience. This structure can easily be placed onto a long autorickshaw rented in each city on the tour, and took about Rs 700,000 ($9,131) to build.
Once he had figured out how to build the basic structure, Le Gentil Garçon then moved on to curating a programming of international arthouse films that were nearly impossible to access in India. The artist worked in collaboration with Fonds d’Art Contemporain de la Ville de Genève (FMAC) and Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain Occitanie-Montpellier (FRAC) – contemporary art funds based in Switzerland and France respectively – to curate his unconventional programming. “The programmes are divided into categories like identity, choreography, cosmogony and some of my own films,” he explained. These include relatively obscure art films like Kontinuum I by Ingrid Wildi Merino, The Dummy’s Lesson by Jean-Pierre Khazem and Eric Duyckaerts, Human Radio by Miranda Pennell, Patterns Of Life by Julien Prévieux and Color-Blind by Ben Russell.
“To make it more universal, we purposely chose films that either have English subtitles or simply use music instead of words so that even those who don’t speak English can understand,” the artist said.
At each showing, the Rick-show runs an eclectic mix of these programmes to offer their audience a diverse range of cinema they’ve probably never seen before. So far, the Rick-show has toured through the streets of the Indian cities of Trivandrum, Kochi, Pune and Kolkata as part of the French Embassy’s Bonjour India arts festival. On the tour, the Rick-show seeks out large, open spaces like gardens or street squares, and then sets up the projector, seating and stage to draw in an audience.
Le Gentil Garçon’s idea is to take a medium usually limited to upper class social circles, museums and art shows, and unleash it onto the streets where they can be consumed by all those who pass by.
“Even the audience is a moving one, which is the purpose of the project,” he pointed out. “When we did our first few shows in Kochi and Trivandrum, many people were surprised to see what this object was and stayed out of curiosity. In fact, I also saw that many people who were out for an evening walk or jog stopped, watched a film or two, and then went back to their workout.”
The run time for each showing is about two hours, with each film being 10-20 minutes long. This attempts to reel in passersby with bite-sized content and makes it easier for an audience to shuffle in and out. “The way these films are broadcast is confidential or only have a small audience of specific art lovers, so the idea was to spread that art to communities who have little access to it.”
Of course, given that the project depends on the availability of public spaces, the Rick-show has run into its share of bumps.
“We had to cancel two shows, one because of bad weather conditions and the other because of a workers’ strike that made it difficult for us to use public spaces,” said Le Gentil Garçon.
But despite it all, the Rick-show enshrines a simple ideology: of uniting communities over art to broaden their perspectives and worldview.
“I liked the fact that many people who didn’t think they were going to see an art film on this particular day start to see something made by an international artist, and it’s kind of interesting,” said Le Gentil Garçon. “Making a mobile cinema was very important for me because it takes cinema back to its original form.”