Louvre Abu Dhabi’s new exhibition showcases magic of Bollywood

Bollywood Superstars: A Short Story of Indian Cinema illustrates and celebrates the extravaganza of the film genre

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Louvre Abu Dhabi’s new exhibition, Bollywood Superstars: A Short Story of Indian Cinema, takes a look at the world of Indian storytelling.

The show, which has just opened and runs until June 4, is filled with detailed information.

Bollywood is generally used to refer to the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai (which used to be called Bombay). Films from Bollywood, as well as India’s many language-specific regional film industries — from Tamil Nadu to Kerala and West Bengal — are often characterised by elaborate stories filled with powerful musical numbers and intricately choreographed dance scenes in spectacular locations. They are a riveting experience, full of emotional highs and lows, often with larger-than-life storylines.

“It's a universal topic,” Souraya Noujaim, scientific, curatorial and collections management director at Louvre Abu Dhabi, tells The National.

“Everyone knows about Bollywood cinema in the Middle East. It’s a huge success in this region. It’s also a way to bring popular culture into institution. For me, that’s also the way forward. We need to break these walls and for us in Abu Dhabi, as a universal museum, this is one of our many shows [doing this].”

This is the first time Louvre Abu Dhabi has presented an exhibition that centres on film, and one that focuses on the Indian subcontinent, on this scale.

The exhibition was organised in partnership with Musee du quai Branly — Jacques Chirac and France Museums.

The exhibition is curated thoughtfully, with the aim of not only entertaining, but also educating and inspiring Bollywood aficionados or novices to the genre.

“The first purpose of the exhibition was to feature main movies and main actors of Indian cinema history,” says Julien Rousseau, one of two curators of the show.

“The movies on display are a work of art. They are not only here to illustrate the other works in the exhibition, they're really shown as art, like a painting or sculpture.”

The exhibition includes more than 80 pieces, including photographs, textiles, graphic arts, costumes and more than 30 film extracts that offer context around the history of Indian cinema, from its beginnings in the late 19th century to the present day.

The exhibition is not set out in chronological order. The experience is connected thematically through a mix of different types of Indian cinema and artworks from Louvre Abu Dhabi, Musee du quai Branly — Jacques Chirac, Musee de l’armee, Musee national des arts asiatiques — Guimet, Al-Sabah Collection, Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation and Priya Paul Collection.

Painted wooden panels showing scenes from the Ramayana. Victor Besa / The National

It is instead organised through three different sections full of works from the ornamental to the interactive, as each space is connected through vibrant colours and a mix of art, artefacts and film.

The three sections of the exhibition

The first section looks at the early devices of storytelling, from scrolls, costumes, shadow puppets and tapestries to magic lanterns. Most of these items were used to depict the story of one of two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India — the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

The show illustrates how these early vehicles of storytelling were used, and how they are still used today. Visitors will also learn how these stories themselves were translated and recreated to form the first films of India.

These items were also instrumental in dance. They were often used to demonstrate a character’s elaborate poses and movement.

“We wanted to show the importance of dance in Indian art because the choreography is like a language for Indian visual arts,” says Rousseau.

“These dancing positions express feelings. Dancing, of course, is also one of the main inspirations for the cinema.”

The second focuses on early blockbusters in the context of their historical and mythological influences.

This part of the exhibition features everything from posters and movie clips to an interactive section where visitors can stand in front of a green screen with a changing background and put themselves in various Bollywood films.

A display of black and white photographs from the movies of renowned director Satyajit Ray. Victor Besa / The National

The exhibition concludes with a focus on more contemporary cinema, as well as Bollywood's superstars. This final section includes a recreation of the ornate Art Deco single-screen cinemas of India, where audiences would go in the 1970s to see new releases and re-runs of classic films. Today, most are closed or abandoned.

“We decided to screen footage of Sholay, which is one of the first Bollywood blockbusters,” says Helene Kessous, the exhibition's second curator.

“The word Bollywood appeared during this time, in the 1970s, and this film shows everything [from the genre], romance, action, drama, everything all in one movie.”

The exhibition also makes a point to showcase Indian movies that don’t solely fall into the commercial realm.

“Cinema in India is a plural form,” says Kessous. “We wanted also to give a glimpse of another kind of cinema that presents another kind of India.”

As part of this effort, visitors can see footage and photos from black-and-white films, such as the work of renowned director Satyajit Ray, who was known for his slow, neorealist non-commercial films.

The curators hope that through the exhibition, visitors will leave with a deeper understanding of how this internationally loved film genre came to be.

“Mainly we try to show you how to appreciate and to understand this history,” says Rousseau. “We are not here really to explain the magic of the movies, because that, we cannot really explain.”

Bollywood Superstars: A Short Story of Indian Cinema is on view at Louvre Abu Dhabi until June 4

Updated: January 24, 2023, 9:17 AM