First Indian film museum to open in home of Bollywood

MUMBAI - Seven years in the making and costing nearly US$20 million (S$25.4 million), the first Indian film museum is set to open in the home of Bollywood, more than 100 years after the country's celebrated movie industry was born.

The government-funded National Museum of Indian Cinema, set in an elegant 19th century heritage bungalow in south Mumbai, traces Indian cinema's history from the black-and-white silent era to its musical modern blockbusters.

"It's about time India had its own film museum. We have archives, but not a museum and today a museum can become vibrant because of technology and interactivity," said curator Amrit Gangar as he gave AFP a preview tour.

Spread across two floors of the 6,000 square foot building, the museum showcases original artefacts, memorabilia, recordings and film-making tools.

Visitors can see an original painted poster for the 1957 epic "Mother India" and listen to songs by K.L. Saigal, considered the first superstar of Hindi film.

The idea is to celebrate not just Hindi-language Bollywood, but also the films made in the various regions and languages across India, a country that produces nearly 1,500 movies a year.

"All the filmmaking centres of India have been represented," said Anil Kumar, head of marketing at the government's Films Division, who said the museum was ready and would open within the next few weeks.

'Many things lost'

The curators of the project were faced with big gaps in the country's rich cinema heritage - many of India's early films, for example, were not preserved.

The last remaining print of India's first "talkie", the 1931 film "Alam Ara" (The Light of the World), was destroyed in a fire in 2003.

"Many things have been lost. We have only one per cent of early silent films left. Therefore this is not a museum of collections but a museum of information, interaction and education through a sensory experience," said Gangar.

Procuring original memorabilia was also a challenge for the museum, say its creators.

"We didn't get much, but we got a few things through donations and purchases. Many things have previously been amassed by private collectors," said Kumar. "This museum will be more educational."

Via a touch screen panel, visitors can watch clips from the few remaining silent films such as "Prem Sanyas" (The Light of Asia, 1925) and "Prapancha Pash" (Throw of Dice, 1929).

Among the moving pictures featured is "Raja Harishchandra", the first all-Indian feature film brought to the silver screen in Mumbai on May 3, 1913.

A tale from the Hindu epic book "Mahabharata", the film quickly became a hit despite its female characters being played by men at a time when women acting was widely frowned upon.

Kumar said the museum would take visitors "through the journey of Indian cinema, from pre-cinema to the silent era to talkies to songs, the studio system, new wave and digital."

Unlike Hollywood, a physical place in Los Angeles, the term Bollywood is a nickname for the Hindi-language film industry that is largely centred on Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay.

Much of the studio action now happens in a "Film City" complex in the city's north - or in picturesque foreign locations - while old heritage gems, such as the once-famed Bombay Talkies studio, have been left to deteriorate in recent decades.

But a few projects have sprung up celebrating the city's movie history in recent years. In 2012 a "Walk of the Stars" was set up on a seaside promenade in the style of Hollywood's Walk of Fame, with handprints and signatures of various leading actors.

Ahead of the industry's centenary last year, a Mumbai artist also began painting giant murals of classic film posters on the walls of the street.

Bollywood tours

It seems authorities may now also be recognising the potential for Bollywood to bring in tourism revenue - not only through the museum, but also through movie tours of the city.

Tourism officials of Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, have recently begun offering "Bollywood Tours", including drives past the homes of the stars and visits to Film City's studios and costume galleries.

The higher-end tours, for 3,250 rupees (52 dollars), offer a chance to glimpse the liveliness and chaos of a shooting set with lights, reflectors, cranes and heavily made-up actors hastily taking position.

While tourists are more likely to spot a TV actor, with some luck visitors might even catch a glimpse of a recognizable Bollywood star.

"The idea of the tours is to give a peek into Film City and its various locations and also how Bollywood functions," said Manoj Gursahani, chairman of TravelMartIndia operating the tours.