TRAVELLING LIGHT by British playwright Nicholas Wright is about cinema. The play, which opened this January in London, is a fantastical retelling of the beginnings of Hollywood. In Travelling Light, the history of blockbuster films is traced to a nondescript shtetl in Eastern Europe where one Motl Mendl chances upon a cinematograph. Everyone wants to be filmed by Mendl because they want to see themselves as moving images, going through their everyday motions in what is in equal parts performance and reality. This is, perhaps, the fundamental draw of cinema: it is a delectable mix of fact and fiction. It draws from life and then renders it magical.
In Project Cinema City, organised by National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai and the Ministry of Culture to mark 100 years of Indian cinema, more than 20 artists, designers, technicians and architects present an exhibition that seeks to do what Mendl did—capture the relationship of cinema and life. Instead of a nameless village, their setting is what is perhaps Indian cinema’s most beloved city. Just as Travelling Light suggests that all the key tropes of Hollywood had their genesis in Mendl’s village, Project Cinema City would have you believe that Bollywood is a completely local product, born out of life in Mumbai rather than a magpie’s nest of shiny, borrowed elements. Although the theory is flawed, it’s romantic, which, alongside the elaborately presented exhibition, helps persuade the viewer to buy the illusion.
Put together by Majlis, an interdisciplinary arts initiative, and Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA), and curated by filmmaker Madhusree Dutta and artist Archana Hande, Project Cinema City is an ambitious and expansive show. It was conceived because of the duo’s interest in those that Dutta describes as “the invisibles of cinema”—technicians, extras and other little people who are integral to filmmaking but are rarely noticed by the viewers. (Fittingly, every exhibit in Project Cinema City has detailed credits, acknowledging the contributions of all those involved in the making of a work, including technicians and fabricators—a welcome change that is rarely seen in art shows.) The curators were also eager to explore the idea of “negotiating the city through cinema”. While roaming around the exhibits in Project Cinema City may not improve your understanding of Mumbai’s geography, it does leave the viewer with a sense of how critically important cinema has been to the city in terms of both reflecting aspects of society as well as moulding the collective imagination.