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Love at second sight

September 18, 2012


-Kalpana (1948).

The audacity notwithstanding, are we doing enough to save cinema? As a viewer you may line-up to see a re-release of Naya Daur or Hum Dono in color and even pay top bucks to buy a DVD of your favorite film but to make cinema truly forever entails a little more than that. For a film crazy people whose passion borders on being obsessive we are fooled into doing things for the love of cinema but that isn’t preserving film in the truest sense.

A film might be forever but not the negative it’s created on. The callous handling of the original negative by exposing it to heat, dust and a million other factors that permanently leave an imprint on all future copies shows just how we couldn’t care less for our cinematic culture. Remember the hundreds of scratches the last time you saw Khoon Pasina (1977) or the portions where the audio jumps randomly in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’s (1983) DVD? That’s all thanks to the sorry state of their original negatives from which these copies were made.

The lab where a film is processed is responsible for its safe-keeping but with thousands of films made every year the labs are not only running out of storage space but sadly, apply some home-grown method to decide which negatives need more attention than the others. This abysmal method of preservation has already killed over 1300 silent films made in the 1930s and threatens the future of thousands of films. What could be more shameful for the world’s biggest film producing country than this apathetic acknowledgement of its own heritage? For years, the National Film Archives, Pune was considered the home for the negative of every film made in India but forget temperature-controlled rooms, the body’s incommodious behavior has many of the prints scattered around in regular rooms without a care in the world. Neecha Nagar (1946), India’s only Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, lies in tatters while only the first and last out of the four reels of the first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra (1913), survive. And then let’s not forget the stray fire here or some other incident there which destroyed the only remaining copies of Alam Ara (1931), the first Indian talkie, amongst many others. Knowing the manner in which government bodies handle cinema, this could get worse but thankfully some change is underway.

The Indian government’s National Film Heritage Mission, a $150 million project that “envisages digitization of the film heritage of the country”, has initiated the digital restoration of 8000 films. Such an initiative becomes more important in the wake of an almost missing commitment from Indian filmmakers. Hailed as India’s first truly modern masterpiece that combines various Indian dance forms with western techniques Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948) is a favorite of many contemporary Indian filmmakers like Sanjay Leela Bhansali. But it took the legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese and his Film Foundation to come forward and restore Kalpana that was believed to be lost forever. The Film Foundation took a partially damaged negative and combined it with the only surviving positive print of the film to come with a digitally restored version to save a film that is perhaps one of its kinds in the world.

Across the world influential filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg take the business of preserving films very seriously and often personally contribute to save films. It’s a pity that Bhansali, who considers Kalpana and its exemplary artistic vision to be a strong influence on him, couldn’t marshal resources, in spite of his influential position to raise Rs. 1 Core that could have saved his inspiration.

It’s rather sad to see that the average viewer believes in doing more than such filmmakers. For most of them remaking many of these films is as good as preserving them. Bhansali’s disinclination to save Kalpana is understandable but why the reluctance to save his own films? It’d cost him a fraction of what he spent on producing Rowdy Rathore or the killing he made from the box-office success of the film to save Khamoshi: The Musical, whose negative, too, is destroyed. Sajid Khan, Farah Khan, Rohit Shetty and the likes are inspired by the past to rehash the films they saw as children into some meaningless litter that ends up making more money than the original. They dole out next to nothing to procure the rights of these films, if they feel like, and then make millions with their versions and even after that refuse to give out one single paisa to truly honor their inspiration.

Thankfully, there are a few good souls other than Scorsese who have taken it upon themselves to make cinema forever. Subhash Chheda of Rudraa Entertainment put in Rs. 1 crore and restored Garam Hava, one of the greatest Indian films ever made. Chheda’s company wanted to release the film on a DVD but the pitiable negative didn’t warrant a transfer and so, the film that regularly features in many ‘great Films’ lists, was finally restored. Likewise PVR Director's Rare has collaborated with the National Film Development Corporation to digitally restore Kundan Shah's cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro that would be re-released in October. Now, only if someone could come up with a process to do away with most of the present day mint fresh non-sense in the name of cinema that refuses to die!


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Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.