A long time coming

The National Museum of Indian Cinema offers as much a contemporary cinematic experience as it enchants with the bygone era

The National Museum of Indian Cinema offers as much a contemporary cinematic experience as it enchants with the bygone era

For a nation that consumes more than 800 films each year, the museum of cinema may have come as a late arrival to some. After all, the first indigenous Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra, released in 1913. Since then the evolution on celluloid has been dramatic, to say the least. The National Museum of Indian Cinema captures the drama and romance of this journey in a 19th-century bungalow called Gulshan Mahal in South Mumbai’s Pedder Road.

In a city that scrambles for every inch today, the estate originally consisted of structures on five wooded acres of land overlooking the Arabian Sea. After Independence, the building had housed the office of the then Films Division. In 1976, its offices were shifted to a new building constructed on the same campus.

An imposing heritage structure, Gulshan Mahal commands as much awe as the treasures it holds. For those with a more visual memory, parts of Munnabhai MBBS were shot here. It was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 19 at a star-studded opening.


Gulshan Mahal, a 19th-century building in South Mumbai,
commands as much awe as the treasures it holds. Photos by author

It is, however, only one phase of the museum. Quite symbolically, it houses the more nostalgic part of the structure, leaving the more modern, interactive experiences to the new phase that is a swanky new building in the NFDC campus. Built at a cost of more than Rs 140 crore, the museum is spread over 9,906 sq m, out of which the exhibition area constitutes approximately 2,674 sq m.

Veteran film-maker Shyam Benegal heads the The Museum Advisory Committee, and it is supported by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Entry for Indians is Rs 20.

We recommend starting the tour from Gulshan Mahal just to soak in the vintage charm of the place. The building is divided into eight categories — ‘Origin of Cinema’, ‘Cinema Comes to India’, ‘Indian Silent Film’, ‘Advent of Sound’, ‘Studio Era’, ‘Impact of World War II’, ‘Creative Resonance’ and ‘Advent of Sound’.

Inclusion

Unlike what we had imagined to see, there wasn’t any memorabilia, props or costumes from famous films. The exhibits largely include life-size photos and text on the walls, tracing the journey of cinema. While most of it is dedicated to Hindi cinema, one level explores the world of regional cinema as well. The space is dotted with a few exquisite recreations of vintage film-equipment such as the praxinoscopes, zoetropes and mutoscopes to name a few. One can tinker with these to get an idea of how things worked back in the day.


A praxicoscope, 'a device to overcome picture distortion
caused by viewing through moving slots.'

Naturally, Raja Harishchandra holds a place of reverence in the museum, with a big screen playing the film at all times amidst sculptures that depict a scene from the film. Old hand-painted movie posters of films such as Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, rare photos of film stars and audition calls for actors are a few of the other possessions that recreate the magic of a sepia-toned world.

A studio calling on female actors for an audition, for instance, categorically mentions that it is an opportunity for ‘cultured ladies only!’

The modern building is a state-of-the-art structure that boasts of two big-screen theatres, one of which plays a documentary daily. On the day of our visit, it was Dream Takes Wings. Bapu holds a prominent space in the museum, too, with the first level of the modern building called ‘Gandhi & Cinema’, a section that has been incorporated as part of the government’s efforts to commemorate 150 years of the Mahatma’s birth anniversary.

Mahatma the muse

It explores Gandhi as a muse and inspiration in multiple films. A life-size wax statue of Bapu sitting across a screen playing the 1943 film Ram Rajya welcomes you to the room. This is a popular selfie spot for the visitors. Level 2 is the ‘Children’s Film Studio’, an activity area of sorts that aims at providing visitors and especially children an opportunity to explore the science, technology and art behind the film-making process including special effects. The exhibits include virtual makeover studio, stop-motion animation studio, immersive-experience studio among other touch-screen activities.

Level 3 of the building is called ‘Technology, Creativity & Indian Cinema’.

It traces the technological advancements in film-making and displays some precious old pieces of equipment that pull you into a time warp. Sound and editing equipment, camera, microphones, lights, film reels, lens filters, television sets — it’s a handful if you’re one to stop and stare. The range covers those used in the silent era to the contemporary ones. The items create as much drama offline as they do online.


Vintage filmmaking equipment 

Lastly, the fourth level dedicated to cinema across India is a gallery that boasts of cinematic achievements in India by displaying awards, certifications, film festival mentions, legendary studio facts etc.

Exhaustive in terms of exhibits and content, the museum compels you to spend at least a couple of hours, if not more. A beautiful building with state-of-the-art technology, it’s a huge gem in Mumbai’s star-studded landscape.

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A long time coming

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