Preserving Indian Cinema

Right from the time motion pictures came to India on May 3, 1913, with the release of Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, cinema has enjoyed and served as a special form of entertainment. It mesmerised the viewer through a bonding that is both personal and larger than life because it takes one beyond the realm of possibility, depicts a kind of heroism that is imperceptible in modern times of nuclear warfare. Now a lot of this fantasia from the silent to the speaking images seems to have been lost due to not only sheer negligence on the part of the heirs to the precious stuff but also on the part of the state. At the same time, conceding the fact that a lack of information or value judgment on the part of stake-holders or their successors has resulted in this loss, the same cannot be said for the state. For anything that’s heritage constitutes the responsibility of the state, even more than the stake-holders as in the case of painting, sculpture, folk and traditional art forms, and archaeological finding remains—but not cinema, though the National Film Archives in Pune which has generally been in a state of limbo since the curator, PK Nair and his successor Sasidharan reached superannuation.

There are now plans afoot by IFTDA (Indian Film and Television Directors Association) to celebrate the centenary year with the pomp and show it deserves and as a precursor to make 2012 as a showcase by organising events, shows, retrospectives and other activities commemorating the occasion. But, unfortunately, no plans have been put forward to preserve classics that are dying an unnatural death. According to fellow writer and film-maker, Khalid Mohammed an alarming number of “over 5,000 films are in the danger of going up in smoke. Laboratories that stock the prints have either been selling them off for shekels or just shredding them. Surviving reels and footage of various musical entertainers as well as purposeful dramas top lining Madhubala, Ashok Kumar, Meena Kumari, Suraiya, Shammi Kapoor, Kishore Kumar and Balraj Sahni, among others, are likely to be exhumed any day as so much garbage—unless a miracle intervenes. Seminars are conducted ad nauseam about the present and the future of the movies but not even a millimetre of concern is spared for the rediscovery, restoration or preservation for the city’s film heritage. Why and where does one ferret the hidden masterpieces?” And this is in so far as films in Hindi are concerned as there seems no estimate of the loss in other Indian languages.

Khalid then goes on to list some of them such as Ashok Kumar starrers Meri Surat Teri Ankhen and Kangan; Shammi Kapoor’s Boy Friend, Coffee House, Miss Coca Cola co-starring Madhubala, Geeta Bali; Shashi Kapoor-Nanda’s Char Diwari; Kishore Kumar with Madhubala in Dhake ki Malmal; AR Kardar’s Dillagi with Suraiya; Meena Kumari, Pran and Ajit’s Halaku; Kidar Sharma’s Hamari Yaad Aayegi; Kishore Sahu-Mala Sinha’s Hamlet; Nanabhai Bhatt’s Madame XYZ with Shakila and Suresh. Some others whose whereabouts are unknown include Babubhai Painter’s 1925 silent classic Savkari Pash or The Indian Shylock; Sagar Company’s Indrasabha (32) that boasted of 62 songs; Ardeshir Irani’s Wild Cats of Bombay (27), and Cinema Girl (30) as also the unforgettable Alam Ara (31). And as labs close down more gems would become invisible.

A treasure trove of film memorabilia was set up in 1964, thanks to pressure and a relook at the 1949 SK Patil film Enquiry Report. The first steps were taken in 1961 to set up the National Film Archive of India in Pune to preserve not only the Indian cinema heritage but also the world classics to the extent possible with the mandate to acquiring National and State Award winning films, Indian Panorama films, box-office hits and films shown in international film festivals. Film adaptations of famous literary works, films representing different genres of Indian cinema, news-reels, documentaries representing the categories mentioned above also find their way to the archive. It has supposedly a repertoire of “10,304 films, 14,678 books, 14,264 film scripts, 55,406 photographs, 5,658 pamphlets, 5,131 wall posters, 1,072 disc records, 214 regular film magazines and journals”.

It is difficult to locate negatives or prints of old, especially the silent and the early talkie-era films. One estimate cites the availability of only 9 of the 1200-odd features, that also outside India. According to old film buff, Gautam Kaul, Raj Kapoor had to beg a private collector in London who alone had a print of Bobby after the negative itself got damaged. Similarly, five reels of Raja Harishchandra were retrieved from Paris Film Archives. The Satyajit Ray Film and Study Centre, UC Santa Cruz in collaboration with Academy of Film Archives in Los Angeles has restored 22 of Ray’s 36 works.

The negative of the English version of Dev Anand’s daring The Guide got destroyed in the lab in the US, there is no trace of his starrer with Zeenat Aman and Vietnamese actor Kieu Chinh directed by Lamberto V Avellana The Evil Within or O Boy and Three Girls with lyrics by Hrindranath Chotopadyaya, brother of Sarojini Naidu (Teen Devian, directed by the star himself but direction credited to publicist Amarjeet). No one in India saw these. So also Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal. These are just a few examples of the cinders of the lost frames of memorable films. But for the Paris archives Satyajit Ray’s first colour film, Kanchanjunga would have remained confined to cinema history alone.

Deviating from the task of pontificating in the corridors of power, CPI Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP making an exception through an outburst said: “We must end this year in celebrating the life and work of these creative giants (who died in course of the year) who, along with many others, moulded the collective consciousness of the country’s post-independent generations. The celebration lies in the resolve to carry forward their contributions to creating what is popularly called, a national psyche… . The generation of actors that gave expression to such a collective consciousness is no more but has left behind its everlasting images for us to cherish.”

Keeping in mind what has happened in the West, there are two distinct options. One is to evolve a national policy on storing digital archives deploying a standard format. Two, use of technicolour to enhance “colours on the black and white matrix. Since there are no dyes on the negatives, it does not decay for many years.” Some of the labs in India, especially the Prasad Film Laboratory in Chennai have started the digitisation process.

But what better way to urgently bring in a legislation demanding urgent steps to locate and restore invaluable cinema heritage from dying an unnatural death.

By Suresh Kohli

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