Original Copy is a film about an Indian screenpainter, Sheikh Rehman, who is the last man making movie banners for a cinema in Mumbai. 1 His composition is something that fans of poster painters like Drew Struzan and John Alvin will recognise, with explosions and pieces of action going off around blown-up profiles, as though caught in the orbit of sheer star power. The difference with Rehman is in his colours, which are a far cry from those Americans’ sun-kissed photorealism. Each figure is given their own dominant hue, from purple to golden to green to something else, which works with the aquatic backgrounds to create a lurid rainbow swirl of light and shade. It’s a very distinctive style from a very distinctive man, as we learn quite conclusively in the film, but in a twist that swerves far away from the traditional talking heads experience given to Struzan, the manner in which he mythologises himself and his co-workers at the Alfred Talkies picture house is the very subject of the inquiry made by father-son team Florian Heinzen-Ziob and Georg Heinzen. Far from a vanity piece, it’s a cry from the heart of a man who has married dignity to work and work to the power of mainstream cinema, and his directors follow that chain into a sublime work of documentary art.
Rehman is a man who embodies the oxymoron of a commercial artist. He has let the hallmarks of popular taste guide his subjects – heroes, villains, girls, explosions – but he bullishly draws the line when his own bosses tell him what to emphasise. He gives interviews ebulliently but in only enough words and gestures for us to get his point, which is fitting for someone who knows the big-screen archetypes like the back of the hand, and paints them in his unmistakable style week after week. So fond is he of those forms that he applies them to his own experience, like many enthusiasts, and quotes his favourite lines and moments to get to grips with an industry changing beneath his feet.2 What also lurks beneath the aphorisms is a yearning for recognition from his loved ones. His father taught him the ways of fine art, and he wishes his sons would at least respect this choice he’s made, so he could accept them not taking up the same craft. He finds consolation in his partners, particularly a young protege named Sunil, with whom he creates the towering banners from chalk and paint then dines with on the floor of the studio. They share a common and humble purpose, and so even as financial pressures smother the cinema industry, they continue to defiantly beam star-bright dreams into the minds of the Mumbai populace.
This work environment would be a compelling curio on its own, but it’s the exploration of the shrine they work in that propels Original Copy to inspiring heights. Heinzen-Ziob & Heinzen shoot its minutiae with a sense of time and space akin to a Frederick Wiseman picture, particularly in one utterly magic sequence framed around one of their four daily screenings, jumping between close-ups of the varyingly spellbound and slumbering patrons, up to the projector’s booth, and back down to the halls as everyone shuffles back into the streets outside. Framing the cinemagoing experience as a semi-religion is nothing revelatory, but only in these crowded urban developments and frames of DOP Enno Endlicher does it finally find glorious and unsentimental tactility, especially when set to the lilting strains of legendary Bollywood songs.
It is also found in the people, because by expanding their focus to other figures caught in the pull of the silver screen, the directors exert an even stronger authorship. Some of their decisions are endlessly curious, like their tracking a humble incense burner that blesses the people and equipment that make the place run, and their spectating of a man who appears twice in the lobby to try and pay for a ticket and snacks that he can’t afford.3 In the offices above, we meet the owner, Najma Loynmoon, and hear her tell a personal story that both demands a film in itself and completes the circle of life informing myths and vice versa, as she frames her trauma and injustice in a movie-plot way that can be reasoned with. She and cinema manager Huzefa Bootwala are both enthusiastic and crestfallen at the cinema’s ailing fortunes, which turns Heinzen-Ziob & Heinzen’s love letter into an elegy for a form as increasingly old-fashioned as Rehman’s trade.
One moment that drives home both Rehman and his cherished workplace’s ailing fortunes is with the manager, Huzefa Bootwala. He effuses about the type of films they like to get at the Alfred in his interview, but after seeing sober financial meetings between him and Loynmoon, we join him again and find him choking up with tears. His voice breaks as he reveals the reason why he has to soldier on through the financial misfortune. His job, his business, Rehman’s gorgeous canvases and cinema itself are all on the chopping block, and Bootwala is indirectly giving its most impassioned plea. Rehman’s workman soul sings with the same infectious spirit, and the film he anchors is a consummate joy to behold.