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Film Heritage Foundation founder talks about urgent need to preserve India’s cinematic history
December 1, 2014 Updated: December 1, 2014 05:38 PM
It was the classic Indian films of the 1950s such as Raj Kapoor’s Awara and Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool, which he was introduced to by his grandfather, that made Shivendra Singh Dungarpur fall in love with cinema when he was a boy growing up in the 70s.
Today, Dungarpur, a filmmaker based in Mumbai, fears that India’s rich cinema heritage – those beautiful old movies and many other classics that have brought joy to him and millions of other people – are at risk of being lost forever if urgent steps are not taken to preserve and restore them.
In an effort to prevent such a tragedy, Dungarpur set up the Film Heritage Foundation earlier this year, an organisation that aims to preserve and restore films and raise awareness about the importance of these priceless prints.
Many of these movies have already been lost, including the country’s first sound movie, Alam Ara from 1931, directed by Ardeshir Irani, and India’s first release in colour, Sairandhri, 1933, directed by V Shantaram.
Assessing the loss
“I realised that so much damage has been done,” says Dungarpur, who belongs to a royal family in Rajasthan. He is best known for making a documentary called Celluloid Man, about P K Nair, the founder of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) and a major source of inspiration for him. “By 1950 we had lost nearly 80 per cent of our films. We made about 1,700 silent films – only five or six complete films survive. It’s that drastic.”
India, which last year celebrated 100 years of Indian cinema, produces 1,000 films a year in more than 20 languages – yet there are only about 5,000 Indian films in the National Film Archive of India, located in Pune, he points out.
The Film Heritage Foundation has signed up to its advisory council the Indian actress and politician Jaya Bachchan and Gulzar, a lyricist and poet who won a Grammy for his work in Slumdog Millionaire. One of its first major initiatives has been to organise a one-week film preservation and restoration school in association with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, to be held in February next year.
The importance of preservation
Many of India’s oldest films were lost because the early reels contained nitrate, which was highly flammable, resulting in a number of devastating fires. In 1951, safety-based stock was brought in to avoid such fires. But they were still not safe from destruction. Black-and-white films contained silver, so they were often sold off as scrap because of the metal’s value. Films shot in colour were desirable because the colour dyes could be extracted. Other reels in many cases were simply not stored correctly. Classic film reels turn up in random locations, such as Chor Bazaar, a Mumbai flea market. But there is a deeper issue.
“I think the producers in India were never interested in preserving because India doesn’t have a sense of preservation at all,” says Dungarpur. “We’re more in an oral tradition, where cinema is seen as a form of mass entertainment rather than an art.
“These films were not kept in the correct conditions, they were not looked after, they were not put in the proper storage, but I think the main issue has been the way cinema is looked upon in India. It has never got the status of an art.”
The way forward
For its part, the NFAI, which is a government organisation founded in 1964, says that there are efforts under way to preserve and restore films at a national level: India is planning to launch a National Film Heritage Mission, which it hopes will help with restoration and preservation.
“First we have to assess our resources,” says Alpana Pant Sharma, the director of the NFAI. “We have to have the manpower in place. We have to have the monetary resources. It’s a huge exercise.”
Kiran A Dhiwar, the film preservation officer at the NFAI, says that the archive has been focused on acquiring films from producers and storing them in temperature and humidity controlled vaults. He explains that it has already completed the restoration of a number of films at laboratories in India, although many more need such work.
“The mindset is changing,” says Dhiwar. “Somebody has to protect all this otherwise the heritage will go.”
Dungarpur says that some restoration work that has been carried out in India has been superficial or may have only involved digitisation rather than a complete painstaking frame-by-frame restoration of the original films, which would cost about 15 million to 20 million rupees (Dh1.1 million) at facilities in Italy or the US. Dungarpur worked on the restoration by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project of Uday Shankar’s classic film Kalpana and was a sponsor of the restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent film The Lodger, carried out by the British Film Institute.
Raising funds to conduct restoration work is the biggest challenge the non-profit Film Heritage Foundation faces.
“We’re really struggling with that,” says Dungarpur. “I can’t understand that to preserve one’s own cinematic heritage, the films that have given so many millions of people joy, nobody’s ready to come forward to put in money.”
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