Mirroring its subject, the documentary Original Copy takes its time to show the attention that Sheikh Rehman puts into crafting hand-painted movie banners for a small theater in Mumbai, India. With this careful examination, the viewer is treated to not only a look at one man’s passion for his nearly obsolete craft, but also a reminder of the enchanting power that film can have on people. While it takes a little while to get going and perhaps spends a little too much time on the ancillary figures, the ending of Original Copy more than makes up for any slow spots with a jaw-opening and heart-wrenching final few minutes.
Sheikh Rehman is the last remaining movie banner painter in the bustling city of Mumbai. The theater for which he designs and paints his posters has practically been swallowed up by the city around it, serving more as a place where people can come and get in some cool rest from a hot and tiring day than the palace of cinema that it once was. Though the effect of changing times is felt by declining theater profits and the prevalence of plastic, printed billboards, Sheik Rehman proceeds through his work as seriously and thoughtfully as he can while showing a sense of humor and a deep love of the films for which he creates banners. Original Copy follows about a month of time in the life of this man, showing the inception and creation of one movie banner. It also delves into some details about the people with whom Sheikh Rehman works to create the banners as well as some insights into the married couple who operate the movie theater.
Sheikh Rehman takes his work very seriously. He wants the people who see his banners and posters to be able to understand the entire plot of the movie they will watch just by the look on a portrait or the color of the shadowing. He loves these characters and their stories and he is adamant in sharing this love with the people who will watch movies in the theater. Since the point of the banner is to bring people into the theater, Rehman also quips about how it has to be descriptive, saying how all the men should be holding guns and looking strong and all the women should seem both powerful and beautiful. Throughout the film, Rehman trots out old posters he has created and describes the effect the characters have and how he tries to capture their performances in his art. Doing this art is really all he has known and he throws himself into it with his small team, even sleeping on mats behind the screen of the theater at night to be as close to the work as possible. He is not without a little harshness, shown in the manner in which he treats the other painters, but it is all done with an attention to the final product that he feels cannot be overlooked.
Original Copy is at its best when it is following closely with Sheikh Rehman and his process. The imagery of the city, both pulled back to show a metropolis and in tight to show people sleeping on the streets and rushing around just outside the theater, is tender and important to the film as well. However, interviews with the theater owners are only minorly interesting and while they do set up the idea that this is a failing enterprise, they also take away from the focus of the overall film. This slows down what could be a great and poignant documentary. The end result is still very good. And, all that bogging down in the middle ends up making the finale of the film even more precious. Sheikh Rehman is a charming man with many stories and a willingness to share his thoughts about life and film. This film paints a portrait of him as intimate and accurate as the portraits he puts up on his banners.
The version of the movie I saw had a few issues with subtitle translation and a major issue with audio levels. The voices were nearly inaudible, but all of the background sounds, like traffic and birds, were very clear. While the subtitles were there anytime I wanted to understand what people were saying, this was incredibly distracting and took away from the viewing experience. Hopefully if this film goes on to a wider release, these issues can be resolved and more people can be wowed by the inimitable Sheikh Rehman.