The National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai, due to open this year, will fill a long-felt gap in chronicling.

In India, the power of the visual medium is ruthlessly underestimated. Nehruvian belief, which considered cinema merely a form of entertainment and believed that a poor country like ours should have better priorities, is still not completely dead.

Films serve the same historical purpose as other forms of art such as painting, songs, books or theatre, representing social and cultural attitudes about gender, class, caste and ethnicity. Our films have not only chronicled wars, leaders and elections, they have documented other important aspects of our social histories. They give a sense of what it was to walk in Bombay’s Victoria Terminus in the 1950s, or the efficiency of Calcutta’s trams in the 1960s, or how mill workers of Bombay struggled through the 1970s.

Cinema is an important aspect of the subaltern history of a nation, and possibly the most impactful, given its visual capacity. But despite its obvious importance, cinema in India was not taken seriously until recently. Not enough academic study was done on the subject and preservation of film and its promotion was half-hearted at best.

Things are changing, though. A classic example is the National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai. “The history of cinema is also the history of humanity,” says curator Amrit Gangar, who fought several difficulties on this journey to chronicle Indian cinema through the ages.

Brian Shoesmith, author of several books on Indian cinema, talks of its three stages. The first was the cottage industry stage, where individual filmmakers raised money and shot movies. This stage is very tough to document, says Gangar. “During the silent era (1912 to 1934) over 1,300 films were made but the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) has in its vault not even one per cent of this. That’s mainly because it was established as late as 1964, 17 long years after independence. Many of the films had been destroyed in studios that often caught fire; they were inflammable nitrate-based,” he says.

The second stage of Indian cinema, according to Shoesmith, was the studio system in which films were produced in well-equipped studios, run like a factory, with artistes on a regular pay roll. Of the very first Indian talkie, Alam Ara (1931), there is nothing left, except a few stills. When major studios were closed in the late 1950s, records were not preserved.

Historians thus turn to film literature of that period. “The most important sources of information are song-synopsis booklets published earlier by producers, distributors or exhibitors of films as part of publicity material. These booklets not only provided song lyrics and synopses but also crucial details of cast and credits, including the labs where they were processed,” says Gangar. Other secondary sources are film journals, posters, lobby cards, stills, pamphlets, and so on. “To obtain as many as possible original displayable sources was a major curatorial challenge,” adds Gangar.

In the third stage, the star era, the industry revolved around stardom and stars who were brands in their own right. Now, the country slowly learned the importance of preserving film.

The Museum will showcase the long journey of Indian cinema, beginning with silent movies to modern-day filmmaking. It will not only have clips from benchmark films like Raja Harishchandra by Dadashaheb Phalke, but also a section housing posters, booklets and other mementos from the past eras of Hindi and regional movies. A walk along this corridor will be a virtual journey across the 100-year-old history of Indian cinema.

The museum, built on the Victorian heritage site of Gulshan Mahal, a part of the premises of the Films Division, on Dr. G. Deshmukh Marg, Mumbai has a budget of nearly Rs. 120 crore and is one of the Ministry of Culture’s most ambitious projects.