The truth is never quite what it seems

The Docker and the Rose, from

Showing at the National Theatre in London 12-15 August as part of its ‘Watch this Space‘ summer festival of outdoor entertainment is Movieplex, an entertainment that tells the story of a forgotten pioneer of Indian cinema, one Shanta Rao Dutt (1881-1987). Dutt, it seems, led a remarkable life. In 1896, when aged just 15, he witnessed a Lumière brothers’ film screening at the Watson’s Hotel, Bombay. Instantly struck by the magic of cinematography, Dutt – a porter at the hotel – discovering the unattended machine spooled with film ready for a demonstration the following morning, could not resist having a go for himself, and shot a film of the baby son of his landlord (‘negotiations are currently in progress between the Lumière estate and the Dutt family to release this print from the Lumière archive for public exhibition’). The prank got him fired from the hotel, but led him to pursue the Lumières to France.

There he was briefly employed by the brothers, before being fired for taking an unauthorised time lapse film. Undaunted, he worked for a time with Georges Méliès, before acquiring his own cinematograph camera. He returned to India in 1900, making films of his trip along the ay, then made a film of his brother Jeevan’s journey to Fiji as a bonded labourer (the only copy of the film was lost in a shipwreck). Dutt next took on commission from the British Raj, filmed in Japan, then went to England where he worked as a newsreel cameraman from Pathé, before joining British intelligence during World War One. He shot a film, The Docker and the Rose, in Liverpool in 1920, marrying its heroine. A copy was rediscovered in 2006. The Dutt family travelled to the Soviet Union in 1927 and met Eisenstein, then in 1933 Shanta founded the Movieplex company. He was knighted in 1945. The family continued its entrpreneurial activities, with one family member opening a cosmetic firm, and another opening the Movieplex Emporium on London’s Tottenham Court Road in 1975, selling VHS players. Shanta died in 1987, aged 106.

OK, enough of all this. You can follow the whole convoluted story, with chronology, genealogy, filmography and business promotions on the Movieplex site. The whole thing is a fiction, but one on which an extraordinary amount of effort has been spent. Aside from the main website and exhibition, there is a blog where an academic earnestly discusses Dutt’s films, a MySpace site from a young American fan who thinks Dutt was ‘some dude’, and a WordPress blog from a woman who says she is related to Dutt’s wife and has been researching the family history. Most brazenly, there is the previously ‘lost’ film The Docker and the Rose, an extract from which has been published on YouTube by the Liverpool Echo, which would appear from this press report to have fallen entirely for the story.

A 1920s tape discovered two years ago in a Wallasey antique shop was the inspiration for a major piece of outdoor art.

Movieplex is based on the work and life of lost filmmaker Shanta Roa Dutt and a nine-minute silent film, Docker and the Rose, which he made in Liverpool.

It was specially commissioned by Liverpool Culture Company and premieres in the city as part of The Imagine Festival which takes place next week.

The film was found in 2006 in the drawer of an Edwardian display box bought from an antique shop in Wallasey.

It was bought by Ajay Chhabra, co-artistic director of arts company nutkhut, who was in Liverpool with wife Simmy for the performances of Bollywood Steps.

He said: “My wife and I found the tape when antique hunting and borrowed equipment to watch it.

“We couldn’t believe what we had found.

“We decided we wanted to make it into a piece of outdoor art. Simmy and I enjoyed our time in Liverpool with Bollywood Steps so much and had made a number of friends, so we approached the Culture Company with the idea.

“They were very keen and commissioned us to go ahead. It seemed only right that a film made and based in Liverpool should come home in the Capital of Culture year.”

The specially commissioned piece of outdoor art features two containers, one with memorabilia from the Dutt family’s many films and history and the second a miniature cinema which shows the nine minute silent comedy.

A 1920s tape? Others have bought the story seemingly hook, line and sinker – for example, the Liverpool Post, Screen India and The Hindu. Even Manchester’s the North West Film Archive, as quoted in the press reports, has been ‘closely involved in the conservation and digital conversion of the film’, though one assumes they were rather less fooled than the papers and are playing along with the game.

What is going on here? The people behind the mischief are called nutkhut, a London-based ‘creative organisation’. Nutkhut in Sanskrit means ‘mischievous’, and nutkhut have applied considerable ingenuity to spinning a tale of enterprise and adventure, with just enough attention to plausible detail (the journey to Fiji, the VHS emporium in Tottenham Court Road) to dupe the unwary. In particular, the ‘lost film’ clips shows how many cannot tell an original from pastiche. Some of the publicity hints as an aside that not all may be as it seems, and the Movieplex website itself carries warning words on its banner – ‘The truth is never quite what it seems’. Others seem not to have realised this.

Why has it all been done? Apart from the impetus of Liverpool as a ‘City of Culture’ in 2008 (it was co-commissioned by Liverpool Culture Company Ltd), the show (or installation, or whatever exactly it might be) takes its inspiration from a general fascination with, but also confusion about, popular Indian culture in the West. There’s a story there of an independence of spirit, mixed with elements of film history vaguely known many, that has a quirky appeal. But is it good to publish so much false history? Will some hapless student end up trying to investigate The Docker and the Rose, or writing Dutt into a history of early Indian film? Is early film history just a game after all?

Movieplex plays at Theatre Square, the National Theatre, London 12-16 August, and Crawley Town Centre, 21-24 August. Exact times and other details are on the Movieplex site.

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