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28.01.2019

There are two museums at the new National Museum of Indian Cinema on Peddar Road. The bigger one is a modern glass-fronted quadrilateral, with marble floors inlaid with impressions of cinema reels. The second is its neighbouring 19th century bungalow, a frosted cupcake named Gulshan Mahal. The first houses the sort of museum exhibits you expect to see in 2019, but the second is where you’ll wander first.

Gulshan Mahal was once the home of a wealthy Ismaili family, confiscated by the Indian government as evacuee property. The spirits of its former owners, the Khalakdinas, are now joined by a bust of Dadasaheb Phalke, which guards a large gallery full of replica devices and trick cameras. To understand the movies, the Museum first invites you to look into zoetropes, thaumatropes, mutoscopes and other wonders of this ilk. The Lumière brothers stand sentinel with a replica of “le cinematographe,” fresh as daisies in sculptures that look like cast iron, but are - knock knock - plaster-of-Paris.

In government offices around India, peeling paperwork and hand-painted signs have given way to hastily printed flexes and low-res blowups. This is the prevailing aesthetic of Gulshan Mahal, where we pass from room to gorgeous room in search of a story. Instead of a clear, well-curated route through the exhibits, most museum-goers, like us, spin through the house looking for themed explanations (‘The Advent Of Sound,’ or ‘The New Wave’) that don’t amount to much more than Wikipedia lessons. This is a or fragment or stub.

Gulshan Mahal doesn’t feel like a museum about a modern art about which humans know a tremendous amount. Chased by ghostly echoes from the visual aids - occasionally cut through by the unearthly voices of Mohammad Rafi and Mukesh - it feels like we’re picking through the ruins of some great civilisation, bewildered by their ancient 35mm technology and clips from their silent dramas. Flipping through pixelated posters from the 1930s, Devika Rani in Durga arrests us. A tomb raider must have felt the same way, busting through QV66 and looking upon the face of Nefertari.

Fortunately, the trapezoid modern building exorcises many ghosts. If you have just half an hour to spare, race up to the top two floors, dedicated to creative and technical innovation. Film junkies will find it shockingly restrictive; sophisticates will roll their eyes at projections from Windows Media Player, which include file paths and progress bars. But the narrative, leading you from the silent movie that plays in a replica tent to Anil Kapoor and Manisha Koirala romancing in Dolby sound, is coherent and interesting.

Our favourite is a floor full of recording and projection equipment, a collection of beautiful objects that also represents a whole history of twentieth-century engineering. The bulk of the story is given over to Hindi cinema, but other Indian languages make significant appearances (breathe, cinephiles: there’s more Ray than Raj Kapoor here). A floor where kids get to learn how sound engineers and film editors work seemed like a great idea; we can’t even tell you what the lessons were like because it was thronged with kids queuing up to play with the AVs.

But the clearest indication of how this museum about the history of cinema is really a product of the twenty-teens is in its permanent exhibit on Gandhi and cinema. It’s a highlight reel of how the great man influenced a generation of filmmakers even though he hated the cinema. It’s also an attempt to rewrite the history of nationalism in Indian movies, a long and complex relationship that really tells the story of modern India. Poor Gandhiji sits in a chair on this floor, facing a screen playing clips from the only movie he ever saw, Ram Rajya (1933), as a legend displays the words “Gandhi’s RAM RAJYA / An IDEAL state.” At least Amar Akbar Anthony would have made him laugh. Maybe Sairat would have made him cry?

All museums are political, and so is all cinema. In India, our movie history was shaped by the crazy dreams and wild ambitions of fiercely political artists, including Tamil nationalists, communists, Nehruvians  - and in Bombay, by generations of writers and film-makers who crossed over or were torn away in the storm of partition. Many of them are minimised, or missing entirely, from the stories in the NMIC. For all its refurbishments, Gulshan Mahal still feels a little bit like evacuee property.

Getting there: National Museum Of Indian Cinema, Films Division of India, Peddar Road. Rs 20 for a ticket, but counters were unmanned when we visited this weekend.

Accessibility: Gulshan Mahal is not wheelchair-friendly, but the new building is fully equipped with lifts, toilets and escalators.

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