"Of all the tortures that the audience has to undergo while seeing an Indian film, the torture of hearing songs at unwanted places is the hardest. Instead of providing any entertainment, they simply become boring and get on one's nerves so that one feels like closing one's ears or running out of the hall." So reads a snarky letter to the editor in a March 1948 issue of FilmIndia, one of the many relics at the newly opened National Museum of Indian Cinema, which also houses lobby cards of yesteryear films such as Chacha Bhatija (1977) and Bemisal (1982), booklets of regional classics and even Satyajit Ray's two preferred cameras – the Arriflex and the Mitchell. There's also a typewritten publicity poster for a one-day-only screening of Billwamangal (1919), a wartime 'bombspotting' 35mm camera from the 50s and sound recorders the size of bank vaults. It's expansive, informative and easily takes three hours or more to view completely.
Built at a cost of Rs 140 crore, the museum spans two buildings at the sprawling Films Division campus at Peddar Road. The two-storey Victorian-Gothic Gulshan Mahal bungalow traces the history of Indian cinema, featuring replicas of some of the earliest artefacts of filmmaking, such as the Lumiere brothers' camera and curiously named devices like the mutoscope, zoetrope and the praxinoscope. The more modern five-storey glass structure next door has four exhibition halls, one of which offers hands-on tutorials in film editing, foley and animation. There's a floor based on Gandhi's influence on cinema (ironic, since he had no particular love for the medium), another dedicated to the evolution of lights, lenses, cameras, projectors and other filmmaking hardware and the topmost tier, which showcases great cinema from across India.
Curator Amrit Gangar, who started putting together the museum's eclectic collection in 2011, says he based his work on the '4E Theory' – entertainment, education, enchantment and enlightenment. "We have a beautiful word for the English word 'Museum' – it is Ajayabghar or Koutukalaya, a place that fills one with a sense of wonder, of magic, of curiosity. I wanted it to be a living, throbbing entity and not one that is fossilized. Visitors will get a holistic sense of India through her past that builds her future. They will know what has gone into our film history and heritage," he said.
With much of India's film history being destroyed or lost, Gangar credits the National Council of Science Museums in Kolkata with helping him find several vintage items. Others were sourced from the Films Division, which he calls "a great repository of Indian film history". He spoke about his five most interesting finds:
OXBERRY ANIMATION CAMERA
"This is a movie camera specially adapted for stop-motion or frame-by-frame animation shooting. The only other one is at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. I got this one from the Films Division. They have the oldest animation film department in the country – it started in 1956. If not for them, there would have been no chance of finding one. It's rare. We talk about computer animation all the time but all the great classics, all the animation films have been made on the Oxberry. Tree of Unity (1972) was made using it. Many experimental films, including Pramod Pati's Explorer (1968) and Abid (1972) were made on it."
AN ORIGINAL PATHER PANCHALI POSTER
"This is a hand-painted poster designed by Satyajit Ray himself. It was not easy to get. I got it from this this 93-year-old man, Naku Babu, in Calcutta, who has this fabulous collection. He had met the writer of Pather Panchali, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, once."
MOVIOLA EDITING MACHINE
"I got this from the Films Division too. It's important because you can't afford to have even one error in the frame. The Moviola was so precise, most of our classic movies were edited on it. Jhansi Ki Rani (1953), Pukar (1983), Sikandar (1941), Mother India (1957) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960) were edited on it. There are photographs of Sohrab Modi using it. If you compare it to any editing software we have today, like Final Cut Pro etc, it is still more precise. The Steenbeck machine came after it, but nothing can compare to the Moviola."
A SILENT FILM PROJECTOR
"I got this one from another collector in Kolkata. It's a vintage piece and is important in terms of the evolutionary process. Projection speed in the silent era, say around 1920s, varied between 14fps (frames per second) to 24fps, along with the camera speeds. Later, sometimes the speed at which the films were shot didn't sync with the projector speed (say the film was shot at 24fps and projected at 16fps) and you would find characters jumping funnily."
COSTUMES WORN BY MAMMOOTY, SIVAJI GANESAN AND MG RAMACHANDRAN
"Cinema is a popular culture and has popular influence on people's dress and hair styles, even their behaviour. Getting costumes has always been a big challenge. Fortunately, I met the director Jayaraj, who was very sympathetic. I got this set from him. They're important as they give us a glimpse of South film styling. I would've liked to get Mughal-e-Azam's costumes. They were designed by Maganlal Dresswala, who I was in contact with for a long time. Unfortunately, the original set was lost during the Mumbai floods. That film was important in terms of fashion, particularly silky anarkalis and kurtas, which are still popular today."