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This is a museum, not an archive," says co-curator Amrit Gangar as he guides us through the freshly minted National Museum of Indian Cinema (NMIC). Housed across two buildings on the Films Division estate on Pedder Road, Mumbai, the NMIC traces the origins and development of moving images and cinema in India from the early 19th century.

“An archive is more concerned about preserving originals (primary source material), whereas a museum is more educative, referential," Gangar adds as we walk through the ground floor of the 6,000 sq. ft Gulshan Mahal, a 19th century heritage bungalow. Just before entering the ground floor exhibition space, look out for an original banner painting of Mother India that hangs to the right.

The main exhibition begins with the advent of moving images in India and an introduction to earlier traditions of storytelling. There are interactive replicas of storytelling machines such as the Magic Lantern, Praxinoscope (an early animation device with a strip of images placed in the inner surface of a spinning cylinder) and a Mutoscope, the camera used by the Lumière Brothers.

In an adjacent room, you can leaf through original film posters, carefully sandwiched between acrylic sheets, and marvel at not just the poster art but recall some great and near-forgotten films.

This two-storey building is divided into nine exhibition spaces, including The Origin of Cinema, Indian Silent Film, The Impact of World War II and Regional Cinema. Besides two new auditoria in the new wing, Gulshan Mahal is equipped with a 30-seater mini-theatre.

Gangar sourced the restored clips of Franz Osten’s 1929 silent film A Throw Of Dice from the British Film Institute (BFI), London. In Kolhapur, where Baburao Painter had established the Maharashtra Film Company in 1918, he found early Marathi cinema posters. One of these is Painter’s 1924 historical film Kalyan Khajina.

A statue of actor Raj Kapoor at the museum. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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A statue of actor Raj Kapoor at the museum. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Most of the equipment, such as cameras, editing and sound recording devices, has been sourced from Films Division and is authentic. Often, however, as we pause in front of posters and reproductions, Gangar wistfully says, “We were late in archiving and conserving film and related materials."

Considering the rich and long history of Indian cinema, hardly any silent films or early memorabilia have been conserved. Many of the surviving originals are in private collections. “Indian film history will always be fractured, because the primary source—the film itself—no longer exists," says Gangar, who worked closely with the National Council of Science Museums (Kolkata) to conceive and execute the gallery and exhibits.

Expanding on the curatorial challenges, Gangar says, “Fortunately, the Films Division (established in 1948), on whose campus this museum is located, is itself a repository of some vintage film equipment and artefacts such as the Moviola editing machine, old cameras, etc., and some old and rare film footage." Other equipment, such as Satyajit Ray’s Arriflex camera, came from Kolkata.

But when it came to feature and fiction films, a great deal more legwork was required. “We had to do some fieldwork across the country. We were also fortunate to get some costumes from producers and film-makers such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Jayaraj, Sivaji Ganesan’s family, etc. Some posters came from the National Film Archive of India, the Children’s Film Society of India and the National Film Development Corporation," he adds.

An upper floor in the new wing is dedicated to the technology involved in the various stages of film-making, through explanatory plaques, representative images and equipment. Interactivity is a consistent feature, including stations where you can listen to recordings of soundtrack music.

One display informs us that Dadasaheb Phalke experimented with time-lapse photography as far as back as 1912 and made animated films like Lakshmicha Galicha (Animated Coins) and Agkadyanchi Mouj (Matchsticks’ Fun) in 1916-17.

There are a few obvious “selfie points" too. One is near a statue of the late actor Raj Kapoor. There’s also a seated Mahatma Gandhi on the first floor of the new building, intently watching clips from Vijay Bhatt’s film Ram Rajya (1943), the only movie he ever saw, at age 74. “This is the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and we thought of having one whole gallery for ‘Gandhi & Cinema’," says Gangar of the special exhibit (on till 2020). “As we know, Gandhiji himself never liked cinema and his statements and views are on record. But he was one of the most filmed persons in the world—wherever he went, the cameras followed him."

Another 800 sq. m floor is dedicated to Cinema Across India, including parallel and regional cinemas. “The function of the museum is to be immersive and to enrich. People will come in with lots of stories about cinema in their minds. But their screen, like the vintage film projectors, is still 8mm. Hopefully, when they exit, they will leave with a 70mm screen. The NMIC’s aim is to broaden horizons, give a national view of cinema and connect the country," says Gangar.

The NMIC is currently in a soft launch phase (it is open from 11am-5pm, Tuesday-Saturday). Some of the displays (such as the Children’s Film Studio, an activity area that will acquaint children with film-making processes), the food court and a few interactive stations are not yet fully functional.

China, Germany, Australia, France, the US and UAE, among others, have museums of cinema. For a country with a rich, century-old tradition, a museum dedicated to the moving image is an overdue addition to Mumbai’s cultural topography.

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