Lights, Camera, Action- The National Museum of Indian Cinema ©Sangeeta Venkatesh

A few weeks ago, I had attended a retrospective of the late actor, director and Kannada writer Girish Karnad at the Films Division of India located at Pedder Road, Mumbai. The auditorium was packed and the event was inaugurated by film producer and director Anand Mahendroo, who reminisced about his mentor and teacher. This was followed by some documentaries that I probably could have watched on YouTube, but there was a thrill of watching it on the big screen like old times. It took me back to the documentaries that were screened just before a film which quite often held greater interest for me more than the film itself.

After the show, I ambled around the vast campus of NFDC that is dotted with trees and greenery. In the centre is a magnificent heritage building called the Gulshan Mahal. I discovered that this building was now a museum that archived the history and progression of Indian Cinema. I also learnt that the museum was inaugurated by the by Honorable Prime Minister of India on 19th January, 2019. This was literally next door and I knew nothing about it. I thought that for a country that is so mad about its movies, a dedicated museum was indeed long overdue. I promised that I would be back soon to see it.

Gulshan Mahal- The National Museum of Indian Cinema

So here I was soon enough, along with my film aficionado husband to see what the museum had to offer. After buying the entrance ticket that cost us Rs.20/- per person, we were asked to first go to Gulshan Mahal first, followed by more interactive exhibits that are housed in the newer and more modern structures on the sides of Gulshan Mahal.

Gulshan Mahal, previously called ‘Gulshan Abad’, was owned by a Kutchi merchant named Peerbhoy Khalkdina (1816-1868). The 5-acre wooded area overlooks the Arabian Sea, although currently some other constructions have come in between the sea and the building. After the Partition of the country in 1947, the entire building was taken over by the government as an ‘evacuee’ property. The building was used to house the first office of the Documentary Films of India. The interiors of the property is exquisite with teak doors, Italian tiles and carvings of Plaster of Paris on the ceilings.

The interiors of Gulshan Mahal
Newspapers reporting the Indian Independence
The bust of Dada Saheb Phalke at the entrance of Gulshan Mahal

At the entrance we find a bust of the doyen of Indian cinema, Dada Saheb Phalke. 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’.
Origin of Cinema: The exhibition starts with a room dedicated to the ‘origin of cinema. The space houses vintage film-equipment such as the praxinoscopes, zoetropes and mutoscopes. Our guide, Mr. Sanjay- a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable person, demonstrated how these were used back in the day. 

William George Horner was a British mathematician who who wrote extensively on functional equations, number theory and approximation theory, but also on optics. The invention of the zeotrope was attributed to him

The phénakisticope was an animation device that created a fluid illusion of motion.

The room also has life size statues of the Lumiere brothers. Auguste Lumière and his brother Louis Lumière were French inventors and pioneer manufacturers of photographic equipment who devised an early motion-picture camera and projector called the Cinématographe (“cinema” is derived from this name). 

The Lumiere bothers
The Lumiere brothers showcased six films at Mumbai’s Watson Hotel and this marked the advent of cinema in India.

Cinema comes to India: The next room tells the story of how cinema made an advent into India. On July 7th 1896, the Lumiere brothers showcased six films at Mumbai’s Watson Hotel and this marked the advent of cinema in India.

This began the era of silent films. In 1913, Raja Harishchandra, India’s first full length feature film directed by Dada Saheb Phalke (Dhundiraj Govind Phalke), was released to the public. The actors were only men, who also enacted the female parts.

A representation in honour of Raja Harishchandra- India’s first silent full length feature film

This was followed by Kaliya Mardan in 1919 that featured his talented young 7-year-old daughter Mandakini Phalke as baby Krishna. Unfortunately, only 4441 ft of the original film survive now.

The first film with sound was Alam Ara (1931) directed by Ardeshir Irani. It was advertised with the tagline “All living. Breathing. 100 per cent talking”. This was so popular that police aid had to be summoned to control the crowds.

The Poster of Alam Ara
Phonofilm, was a system used in the 1920’s to provide sound synchronized with motion pictures. A sound track was photographically recorded on the film by a beam of light modulated by the sound waves.
Lobby Cards

Film Posters and Lobby Cards: A film poster is a poster used to promote and advertise a film. Studios often print several posters that vary in size and content for various domestic and international markets. They normally contain an image with text. Lobby cards are similar to posters but smaller and were used before 1930. They were usually 11 in × 14 in (28 cm × 36 cm), also 8 in × 10 in (20 cm × 25 cm). Lobby cards are collectible and values depend on their age, quality, and popularity. Typically issued in sets of eight, each featuring a different scene from the film. Viewers would typically decide whether to watch a film by looking at the lobby cards.

Some popular films down the ages in different languages. Can you identify them?

The Travelling Cinema: The era of Indian silent cinema (1912-1934), consisted as many as 1300 films. Exhibitors went around to small towns and villages and pitched a tent in each place and showed the films. They were known as picture palaces and the arrival of a travelling cinema was nothing short of a carnival.

The Travelling Cinema

We move to the newer building that houses rest of the exhibits. There are four levels and we are told to start from the 4th level down to the ground floor.

The fourth level is dedicated to cinema across India. It has a gallery that boasts of Cinematic achievements and Excellence in India.

Level 3 of the building presents facts and exhibits of ‘Technology, Creativity & Indian Cinema’ and describes the technical part of cinema making including special effects.

Level 2 is the ‘Children’s Film Studio’, that describes how animation and cartoon films are made.

Level 1 is known as ‘Gandhi and Cinema‘, which I found intriguing, as Gandhiji had seen just one film in his life as they mention in the exhibition – called Ram Rajya. However, it is said that he influenced many film-makers including Charlie Chaplin.

When you get to pose besides so many superstars!
An array of Censor Board certifications
Probably one of the first attempts at ‘special effects’
The Master himself – Satyajit Ray behind the camera
Lights, Camera, Action… and post production
The meeting of Charlie Chaplin and Mahatma Gandhi in London in 1931
Mother (s) India all!!
Saraswati Bai Phalke

And the best for last. Its not a cliche when they say that there is a woman behind a man’s success. And in case of Dada Saheb Phalke’s successful film ‘Raja Harishchandra, it was his wife Saraswatibai Phalke. Saraswatibai was born as Kaveribai Karandikar. When Dadasaheb lost his first wife to bubonic plague, his family pressurised to remarry and he married a 14-year-old who was nearly 19 years younger than him. To make her husband’s vision of making a feature film come true, she sold her jewelry to finance the film. She learnt to edit, develop the film and also became the financier and producer of the film. The movie became a hit and hence, she helped accomplish her husband’s dream.

Indeed, the museum was a revelation of sorts. I am sure I am gong back again to learn more about Indian Cinema. Hope you liked the photo-essay. If you do, do leave a comment and also follow my blog.

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