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A showcase for the biggest show on earth

The new National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai is as expansive and impressive as
the behemoth that the film industry of the India is

URMI CHANDA-VAZ

Intro

A young boy furiously spins a charkha, while he intently peers at a screen before him. He stays
rooted to the spot for a few minutes, turning the wheel backward and forward, egged on by
someone who could be his father. Just before you can roll your eyes or begin to feel the irritation at
the frivolity of it all, you realise what he is doing. He is trying to operate an interactive exhibit, where
a digital film ‘roll’ is on display. On the screen is a timeline with some key dates and information.
Turning the charkha makes the timeline move. But you turn it too much or too little, and the words
get cut off with half the paragraph on the screen and half outside it. You realise what the charkha
manoeuvres were all about, smile and move on. A little distance away, ‘Gandhiji’ sits still on a bench
watching endless loops of the film ‘Ram Rajya’, while people line up to take selfies with the
Mahatma.

It’s the first weekend after its inauguration and I’m at looking at some exciting exhibits (and excited
visitors!) at the new National Museum of Indian Cinema. This special Gandhi and Cinema section
seems to be part of the government’s efforts at commemorating 150 years of Gandhiji’s birth
anniversary across all political and cultural platforms. But the museum has a lot more to offer.

Built-in symbols

Situated on Peddar Road, Mumbai, within the Films Division complex, this new Cinema Museum was
inaugurated on January 19, 2019 by Shri Narendra Modi. It coincided with his several recent
meetings and discussions with the film fraternity – especially Bollywood – including several
‘Trudeau-esque’ photo ops.

On the occasion, our ambitious prime minister said that the “government is also working towards
setting up a National Centre for Excellence for Animation, Visual Effects, Gaming and Comics. …a
fully dedicated university for Communication and Entertainment is a need of hour and urged Film
personalities to suggest and contribute on this. He also suggested the idea of Global Film Summit
similar to Davos Summit which would focus on the expansion of market for Indian Cinema.” The film
industry and its fans have certainly a lot to look forward to. The museum certainly makes for a good
start.

The museum is housed in two buildings – an old 19th century large heritage bungalow and a swanky
five-storeyed structure with angular lines and (those tiresome) glass-façades. A project that cost a
‘cool’ INR 140.61crores and took XX years to build is spread over XX s sq. feet and represents over a
century of the history of Indian cinema.

The heritage structure is called Gulshan Mahal and was built by one Peerbhoy Khalakdina sometime
in the mid-1800s. He was a ‘pious’ merchant from the Khoja Muslim community, and when he came
to Mumbai from Kachch (Gujarat) with his wife Rehmabai and son, Jairazbhoy, he built this sprawling
mansion overlooking at Arabian Sea. It was called Gulshan Abad then. A couple a generations and a
Partition later, the bungalow was declared an evacuee property and has since been used by the
government for various purposes including being rented for shoots (parts of Munnabhai MBBS were
shot here). The Indian Heritage Society conferred upon it the Urban Heritage Award in 2001, making
it an ASI grade II property, and today it houses within itself the story of India’s film heritage.

This opulent Victorian-style bungalow seems awkwardly juxtaposed with the glass-and-steel tower
next to it at first. But these two structures sitting side by side may well be symbolic of just how far
cinema has come in the last century, both in terms of content and technology. The new building has
its own enchantments – the kind that technology offers. It is divided into four exhibition halls and a
cafeteria across its five floors. The levels include ‘Gandhi and Cinema’, ‘Children’s Film Studio’,
‘Technology, Creativity & Indian Cinema’ and ‘Cinema Across India’.

Parde ke peeche kya hai?

It is important to start the visit to the museum at the Gulshan Mahal before proceeding to the new
building, for it transposes one to the previous century with many of its vintage artefacts. Fittingly,
the exhibits within its precincts are static like in old museums, and in our age of instant, high-tech,
and compact phone cameras, it is amazing to see cumbrous and curious-looking instruments like
praxinoscopes, zoetropes, mutoscopes that were once essential to filmmaking and showing.

The Gulshan Mahal features the early history of Indian cinema, starting with that famous first show
at Watson’s Hotel in 1896 by Lumiere man, Marius Sestier. It moves on to speaking about the
pioneers of filmmaking in India, the era of silent films, the transition to talkies, and early
breakthroughs in regional cinema among other things. Old lobby cards, hand-painted posters, and
black & white showreels displayed along the halls and hallways are enough to induce nostalgia
among even the least enthusiastic among us.

In the new building, once the visitor has gotten past the Gandhi section, the narrative takes a
futuristic turn. The second level houses a fun and interactive Children’s Film Studio, where many
interactive exhibits (like the charkha!) allow children to engage with the process of filmmaking
rather than its history. The ‘studios’ exhibited include Chroma, Stop-motion Animation, Virtual
Makeover, Sound Effect and Mixing, Photo, and an Immersive Experience Zone.

Level three with exhibits about technology and creativity are especially exhaustive and impressive.
To see an array of cameras, lenses, lights, mixing apparatus with stories of how ingenious filmmakers
and technicians used them to create screen cinema is most fascinating. As you read plaques about
Phalke’s pioneering animation, P.C. Barua’s flashback techniques, Shantaram’s tilted camera shots or
Subrata Mitra’s bounce light effect, there are several ‘Aha!’ moments. Much that we take for
granted in contemporary cinema is put into perspective as one is introduced to terms and
techniques like Oxberry Animation Camera, X-Ray Digression Technique, Arriflex time-lapse camera,
and Parallax Barriers among others. A production timeline is also useful in understanding just how
much work goes on behind the screens before a film is made available to the public for consumption
in theatres and digital platforms.

The topmost tier about Cinema across India is dedicated to its quintessential history featuring great
films, artistes and filmmakers – much like in the Gulshan Mahal – only more swish. The difference,
though, are additional brief narratives on costume & make-up, film music and dance, film festivals,
film institutes & bodies, popular foreign locations, legendary studios, documentaries, the influence
of art, politics and literature, certifications and awards.

A sombre bust of Dadasaheb Phalke, a most familiar statue of a grinning Raj ‘Joker’ Kapoor, a large
mural dedicated to Satyajit Ray, a huge poster of Madhuri Dixit and even a huge reel pattern on the
lobby floor punctuate the museum experience as symbols of what we associate most and love best
about Indian cinema. That the National Museum of Indian Cinema should find a home in the
entertainment capital of the country that produces the most number of films in a year is only fair.

The National Museum of Indian Cinema is open from Tuesday – Sunday, 11 AM to 6 PM, and will
remain closed on Mondays and Public Holidays.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a writer and researcher who engages with Indian cultural history.

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