The hand-painted horse came to life as I spun the barrel for the umpteenth time. I watched it gallop choppily through the slits of the zoetrope, a 19th-century animation device, captivated by the simplicity of this drum-shaped precursor to film. Tinkering with antique contraptions isn’t what I expected at the National Museum of Indian Cinema in South Mumbai, but it was the first of many delights.
The country’s only film museum, the NMIC opened in January this year. India produces close to 2,000 films in 22 languages annually. Here, film entertains, influences and reflects society—it wields power. A museum like this has been a long time coming, and I was curious to see it.
So I found myself in the manicured gardens of Gulshan Mahal, a 19th-century bungalow on Peddar Road that houses the first phase of the museum. The white verandahs and elegant arcades of the mahal lent a Victorian charm to the estate, juxtaposed against the adjacent new museum building, distinguished by its modern glass façade. As instructed, I began my tour with Gulshan Mahal. I might have interrupted the siesta of the museum attendants, but the odd afternoon hour meant I had the building largely to myself.
The exposition is divided into nine sections, each in a different hall. The first room, with its carved arches and chequered marble floor, traces the origins of cinema with animation devices, like the zoetrope and praxinoscope, as well as statues of film pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière, standing next to their revolutionary cinématographe. The Lumière brothers brought cinema to India in 1896, with the screening of their short films in Old Bombay’s Watson Hotel.
The next section documents the advent of cinema in India, and the silent film era. Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian full-length feature film, played a loop on a screen while I read about Indian cinematic trailblazers, such as Dadasaheb Phalke and Baburao Painter, and iconic early films like Kaliya Mardan. With the release of Alam Ara in 1931, the silent era gave way to the talkies. Visitors can flip through a collection of vintage lobby cards and even see clips of the first Hindi and regional talkie films on multimedia interfaces. The endless film titles and wordy plaques got a little monotonous, but my restlessness dissipated as I entered a spacious verandah overlooking lush foliage. The long verandah chronicled Indian cinema through movie posters of watershed films, like the 1948 magnum opus Chandralekha, or the 21st-century tragedy Devdas. Other exhibits unpacked the symbiotic relationship between the socio-cultural climate and cinema, exploring the impact of Gandhian values, World War II, the Partition, and popular literature on the silver screen.
India’s thriving regional film industry seemed underrepresented, but surely a museum dedicated to national cinema would not ignore non-Hindi films? My inquiries about a regional cinema section were met with reluctance, but nevertheless, I found that there is an exhibit dedicated to all things non-Bollywood upstairs. The staircase leading to it was almost hidden, tucked away behind a room with no signs. Intentional or not, this obscurity seemed symbolic.
If quaint Gulshan Mahal imbues its historical exhibitions with nostalgia, the new museum’s glass building nods to contemporary film technology. The ground floor hosts two large auditoriums, one of which has screens films and documentaries at 4 p.m. every day.
This museum is intended to be viewed top-down, so I took an escalator straight up to Level 4, “Cinema Across India.” The capacious hall, with its dark walls and panels resembling film reels has audio-visual kiosks, a brightly-painted bioscope, and even a tent of the sort used in the days of travelling cinemas.
Level 3 covered all things technical; film equipment of all shapes lines the walls, while a sophisticated audio mixer seemed to be the pièce de résistance. While the nuanced mechanics of film-making eluded me, I was happy to acquaint myself with the skeletal life-cycle of a film, from its inception as an idea to its culmination into a visual masterpiece.
Level 2 was home to the Children’s Film Studio, but I take issue with the limiting scope of this designation. I was one of the many adults around amusing themselves with the studio’s manifold offerings. I toyed with rainbow-hued lights in the Chroma studio, while a couple green-screened themselves onto a Swiss Alps backdrop, their kids playing with the Foley sound studio, a whimsical interlude from a didactic afternoon.
The last leg of my filmy mission took me to the Gandhi exhibit on Level 1. Right off the bat, I wondered why the Mahatma deserved an entire floor to himself in a film museum. A lifelike statue of Bapu sat in front of screen, watching Ram Rajya, the only movie he ever watched in his lifetime (that too, partially). Gandhi did inspire much cinema—his views on industrialisation even influenced Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times; yet I can’t help but feel that a smaller space would have sufficed for the memorial, with one level better serving the museum’s purpose with artefacts or costumes from iconic film sets.
Anil Kumar, marketing head at the national films division, mentioned that there are plans to include elements of popular film, like costumes and objects from famous films. Other ideas include erecting a film set on the museum lawns, getting hand impressions of stars such as Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, acquiring Dadasaheb Phalke’s car, and increasing exhibits about contemporary films. Now that’s a show to look forward to.