Hit or flop? A walk through India’s first film museum
A group of Class 6 students gather around their guide at the National Museum of Indian Cinema, Mumbai. Before them is a display of seven posters under the title ‘Devdas’. A small board provides the year in which each of the films was released, and adds there have been multiple retellings in different languages — Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Assamese, Tamil and Malayalam.
“The first Devdas was made in 1935,” the guide says. The group moves on. And so it goes across much of the building. India’s first film museum does little to convey to the visitor the drama and ingenuity that drive the world’s largest generator of movies by number. It’s been 16 years in the making, but a corner on Satyajit Ray’s camera technique holds not a single video. Other epochal films and filmmakers are, similarly, represented only by posters and title cards.
There are no separate sections on the villains, the heroes, the cult hairstyles. There is a combined costume and make-up corner with about half a dozen items on display.
Music and visual effects have the most interesting interactive elements — you can pose against a green screen and pick a background to be shot against; or record your own voice over a soundtrack. But the section on film songs offers you just menu after menu of tracks to listen to, with no explanation for why they’ve been picked or how they matter.
Built at a cost of Rs 140 crore, spread across a five-storey glass building and the 19th-century heritage bungalow Gulshan Mahal — both on the Films Division campus in south Mumbai — the museum was inaugurated by prime minister Narendra Modi. So it’s not money, space or political will that have held it back.
Batches of school children have been having a field day at the site, posing in the ‘VFX studio’, singing on the playback recorder, inspecting camera models dating back to the early 1900s. But they take back virtually no insight into how our cinema has evolved, or how the story of movies in India is woven into the fabric of our society.
Take the wall at the restored Gulshan Mahal, dedicated to Devdas, the classic novel by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay. “There are only posters here. Nothing about the tremendous impact this film has had, in so many Indian languages, or why it has been so popular. There is hardly any insight,” says Meenakshi Shedde, film curator, critic and South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival.
A FLAWED SCRIPT?
For a national museum, there is also an unreasonable tilt towards Hindi. Walking through the displays, you could get the impression that most Indian films, and almost all Indian films of note, were made in Hindi. Or that the Hindi film industry was, if not better, certainly bigger than all other forms of Indian cinema put together.
A museum that has opened in 2019 in a medium with such immense possibilities as cinema must offer information and experiences that visitors will find memorable, Shedde adds. “For a country making films in 43 Indian languages, we have mention of greats from a spectrum of Indian cinema, like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, other than from Hindi cinema, but we get very little knowledge about the rest. Sometimes, there are film posters with no other information than their title.”
Veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal, who headed the Museum Advisory Committee, agrees that diversity is an issue. “The various cinemas of the country have not got enough space yet. These things will start falling into place once the museum has a curator and the collections increase,” he says.
He adds that one of the tragedies of Indian cinema is that some path-breaking works were treated like yesterday’s newspaper, and so their remnants are hard to find. “A lot of people have bits of stuff across the country which they hold as family heirlooms. They don’t want to part with them. Some of the people who have them and want to sell, want to sell only to the highest bidder,” Benegal says.
He points out that the museum still does not have the kind of collection or equipment that he would deem ideal. “If you wish to know what India was like and what its middle class aspired for, that is yet to take place,” he says. “It is an evolving thing. There should be much more interactive stuff. You should be able to step into a film of the 1920s or ’40s. It should be as interactive as modern technology will allow it to be.”
HERE & THERE
It’s too verbose, is how Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, film director and founder of the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF), puts it. “Mostly dry details. In this day, a museum should not just tell people history in text, but make them feel for that history. The National Museum of Cinema, Turin, Italy or Cinematheque in Paris don’t just offer details but an experience that people from across the world travel for.”
Inexplicably, there’s an entire floor dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, a man well-known to have been entirely disinterested in cinema. Much of this floor is taken up by memorabilia around films with a link to Gandhi. In one corner sits a statue of the leader, watching on a loop the only film he ever did watch — Vijay Bhatt’s epic-based Ram Rajya (1943).
Despite a room in Gulshan Mahal dedicated to films representative of major political and social movements (there’s some non-Hindi cinema represented here), there is no mention of the LGBT movement at all.
“We had hoped that, after the historic judgment last year striking down Article 377, representation of the movement in cinema would find a place,” says activist and filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan, who also spearheads the annual Kashish queer film festival in Mumbai.
He plans to suggest a list of films that could be added. “No museum is or should be stagnant and we hope that’s true in this case too, that things will be added over time,” he says.
There are certainly plusses. “Many things, including its collection of beautiful posters for films like Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala (1961), its collection of old cameras, and its interactive visual-effects tools display— as well as the restoration of Gulshan Mahal itself — are very impressive and delightful,” Shedde points out.
The setting up of the museum was spearheaded by the National Council of Science Museums. It is now run by the Films Division of India, which is in the process of recruiting a full-time curator. “An advertisement is out,” says Prashant Pathrabe, director general of the Films Division. “Being a government organisation, the committee had involved the National Council of Science Museums as they had the experience of designing a museum.”
Pathrabe says the Films Division welcomes suggestions on how to add value to the museum.
“It is a great positive step that we have a museum for cinema after more than 100 years of making films,” Benegal adds. “Any museum is only a work in progress. With the huge size of our cinema industry, we will definitely also need more museums in different cities.”
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