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India’s Vanishing Films Need Urgent Policies to Avoid a Bleak Future

September 15, 2015 | By

Destroyed by nitrate fires, stripped bare of silver, decaying in locked cans in hot and humid, unfavourable weather conditions or sold by the kilo in flea markets, the films of India, including the classics are meeting a tragic fate. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, founder of Film Heritage Foundation highlighted the critical lack of preservation and restoration initiatives in India, emphasizing urgent need for policy framework and awareness.

Thousands of feet of celluloid stripped

Thousands of feet of celluloid stripped

Consider this:

  • 1000 kg of film is stripped in one go, which means 50 films stripped bare to extract three kilograms of silver, in a ramshackle workshop in Pathanwadi, in the slums of suburban Mumbai. The silver scavenger who goes by the name Bipin “Silver” has been doing this for the last 40 years.
  • Raja Harishchandra, Dada Saheb Phalke’s 3,700 feet 4-reel film, which was advertised as “a performance of 57,000 photographs. A picture two miles long. All for three annas” has only a mile of it surviving – reels 1 and 4.
  • India has lost 90 percent of our silent films. 1700 silent films were made in India, of which the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) has only 5-6 complete films and 10-12 films in fragments.
  • Madras film industry made 124 films and 38 documentaries of which only one film Marthanda Varma (1931) survives.
  • Jamai Babu is the only surviving Bengali silent film.
  • By 1950, India had lost 70-80 percent of its films.
  • NFAI, the only official Indian archive, has only about 6,000 Indian films in its collection.

These mind-bending figures were shared in an exhaustive and revealing presentation and lecture “The Future of Indian Cinema’s Past: Film Preservation and Restoration” at The School of Arts and Aesthetics (SAA), Jawaharlal Nehru University by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, filmmaker, archivist and restorer and the founder-director of the Film Heritage Foundation. “Cinema is the reflection of who we are and where we came from,” Dungarpur said, adding, “One can only imagine the colossal loss of our rich film heritage.”

Elaborating on why films are lost or damaged beyond repair, Dungarpur said, the main reasons were:

Destroyed by fire

Early nitrate films were inflammable and could spontaneously combust in vaults and studios and even during projection. Most film stock, until 1951, used cellulose nitrate as the film base. Commonly known as gun cotton, cellulose nitrate or nitrocellulose was a known explosive.

* Raja Harishchandra’s last surviving print was consumed by a fire, forcing Phalke to reshoot the film in 1917 and what we see today is the second version.

* B N Sircar’s New Theatres’ Studio battled a fire breakout in the Second World War that took with it many original negatives of the classic New Theatres’ films of the 1930s. Sircar, unlike many of his contemporaries understood the importance of preservation and worked hard to collect prints from distributors to salvage some of those films.

* Almost 150 films of the 1930s and 1940s, many of them box-office hits, including K L Saigal’s debut film for the Bombay film industry Bhakt Surdas (1942) succumbed to a devastating fire in Ranjit Movietone warehouse in Bombay, in the late 1940s.

* Original camera negatives and prints of 45 films were destroyed in a fire in the vaults of the erstwhile Prabhat Studios at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, in 2002. Some of the original nitrate material that Mr. P.K. Nair had collected from the Phalke family, and some important films of Prabhat Films went up in flames.

* As recently as July 2014, there was a fire at the office of the Bombay Talkies studio at Borivli that reduced the prints of several classic Indian films to ashes.

Stripped of silver

Silver was extracted from nitrate films, leaving them white and barren as nitrate film base has higher silver content than other film bases. Even classic films were sold by their producers and distributors for silver.

One of the most famous films to have met this tragic fate is the Ardeshir Irani-directed Alam Ara / The Ornament of the World (1931), India’s first talkie. Dungarpur played a clip from Celluloid Man where P K Nair recounted the incident when he had approached Ardeshir Irani to persuade him to archive Alam Ara. Irani had agreed asking him to take away the few cans lying in his office. Later Irani’s son Sapurji had confessed to Nair that he had sold the film for silver long ago without his father’s knowledge. All that remained of Alam Ara were a few empty cans and the dilapidated Jyoti Studio where it had been shot, a mute testimony to a lost legacy.

Just like black and white film stock is stripped for silver, colour film can also be melted and re-moulded into coloured bangles or maintained in a liquefied state to be used as coloured dyes. In Maharashtra for instance, this has resulted in the development of an entire informal industry producing coloured bangles, ladies’ handbags, wallets, etc.

Victims of adverse climatic conditions

All three main film producing centres – Bombay, Madras and Calcutta were colonial port cities with high heat and humidity levels that were extremely damaging to nitrate films. With no proper storage facilities, films were stored in labs or warehouses, where the adverse climatic conditions ate into them.

Producers typically paid an annual deposit fees to a lab to keep the original camera negative. If the film was not successful and the producers stopped paying, the labs would send the prints away to old warehouses where they would be forgotten and left to decay.

Even families of filmmakers did not take adequate care of their classics. Recounting one such incident of “heartbreak” Dungarpur said that when he had learnt that he could get access to the original camera negative of Debaki Bose’s Ratnadeep / The Jewelled Lamp (1951) and had rushed to his son’s house in Kolkata, he was dismayed to have found that the cans containing the negatives had been left in the open. The jammed and rusted cans could be opened only after much effort but the brittle negatives in them could not be saved.

Unwitting archivists

Interestingly, some films have found their way to NFAI by default rather than by design, with the Indian Railways playing an unwitting archivist. Explaining this, Dungarpur said, “Often, after a film had had its run at the box office, producers found themselves with several prints in hand. Not knowing what to do with them, they put them onto trains with no destination marked on them. They knew that if the prints were unclaimed, it would be the Indian Railways’ legal responsibility to deal with them. This is how thousands of cans have found their way to the NFAI, courtesy of the railways.”

P K Nair’s yeoman service to archiving Indian cinema lies in his dedicated and steadfast work through his 27-year-long career with the NFAI, building up the archives “can by can”. Then there was the late Abdul Ali of Cine Society, an unsung archivist, who single-handedly helped NFAI in retrieving over 350 films from warehouses across the country, including Achchut Kanya / Untouchable Maiden (1936) and Izzat (1937), both directed by Franz Osten and Mahal (1949), the iconic film directed by Kamal Amrohi.

Films sold by the kilo at 'Chor Bazar' in Mumbai.

Films sold by the kilo at ‘Chor Bazar’ in Mumbai.

Some of the shopkeepers in one of India’s largest flea market, the ‘Chor Bazaar’ in Mumbai, double up as guardians of film heritage as they have been stocking rare memorabilia and film-related artefacts for generations. Dungarpur revealed that he had acquired the original camera negative of the Guru Dutt-starrer Bharosa (1963) that had been discarded by a lab. “Films are sold here by length and weight: 8mm films for Rs. 300 a reel, entire films on 16mm for Rs.4000 and 35mm films for Rs.100 a kilo,” said Dungarpur.

A film may be viewed different at different points of time. Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Guru Dutt’s bold attempt to introduce cinemascope in Indian films, did not enjoy box-office success when released initially. In the eighties, the film became a regular view at film societies and there was a renewed interest in it. Today, it is considered a classic of Indian cinema.

Restoration Test 2014 – Kaagaz Ke Phool from FHF

Life span of media matters

Film making has undergone radical changes in technology. The erstwhile celluloid film and the soft whirring sound of the projector has now made way for the digital format. Hence, along with the making of new cinema, the digital era has brought about pathbreaking innovations in technology which is helping restore films to see them the way they would have been on the day they were released.

Interestingly, celluloid outlives all other formats according to the ‘Life Span of Different Media’ statistics that Dungarpur presented:

  • CD/DVD – 3-5 years
  • Hard disk – 6 years
  • LTO (Linear Tape-Open) – 30 years
  • Magnetic Storage Media – 30-50 years
  • Celluloid film – 126 years and counting…

“People are now talking about the death of celluloid. This is a very emotional topic for me as I grew up watching films on celluloid with the sound of the projector, the flicker, the smell of the film. While I have to accept the reality, I will continue to shoot on celluloid as long as I can,” said Dungarpur.

Restoration of the Apu Trilogy

Two decades after its original negatives were burned in a fire, Satyajit Ray’s breathtaking milestone of world cinema The Apu Trilogy (comprising the three films Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished), and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)) has got a fresh and new lease of life in a meticulously reconstructed new 4K restoration by made by the Criterion Collection in collaboration with the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The restoration has taken several years as each and every frame that was burnt, damaged or torn diagonally from the middle was worked upon to be brought to the original state, the way Ray had filmed it.

Apu Trilogy Restoration Trailer from Criterion Collection

Restoration involves complex and exacting processes including research, selection, physical repair, cleaning and various photochemical and digital techniques for repairing the image and creating new materials.

The challenges were many. It was difficult to figure what might have been the original Ray film when compared to other prints that FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) acquired from various sources (FHF is an associated member of the FIAF). Each print had some differences. Sandip Ray and Andrew Robinson (the author of the celebrated Ray biography ‘The Inner Eye’) were roped in to help identify the finer nuances of the original negatives. The idea of restoration is to keep the original colours, hues and artistry intact, emphasized Dungarpur.

The sound challenge

Another great challenge is restoring the sound in the film. The sound strip is embedded in the left side of the frame which typically faces upwards when the film reel is kept in the can and hence is vulnerable to maximum damage. To retrieve the sound, one has to go back to the original magnetic source and also one has to keep in mind how the sound would have been recorded originally, to retain the quality of the recording in those times.

Due to extensive damage to the original negatives, in some films the sound could not be restored at all, such as India’s first Konkani film Mogacho Aunddo / Love’s Craving (1950). When Dungarpur had been given this film by National Award-winning filmmaker Bardroy Barretto and he found that the reel was brittle, scratched and had fungus on it and had become hardened over the decades, he had sent it to L’Immagine Ritrovata, a laboratory in Bologna, which does world-class, full-fledged film restoration.

After reading Martin Scorsese’s interview about Bologna in 2010, Dungarpur had decided to visit the place and that had sparked the idea for the FHF. The association led to a deeper collaboration with Scorsese and his non-profit organisation, The Film Foundation and World Cinema Foundation, to restore Uday Shankar’s film, Kalpana (1948) and Dungarpur had worked hard to acquire the copy of the original negative preserved by the NFAI and send it to Bologna. Kalpana enjoyed a world premiere at the Cannes Classics 2012 programme which showcases restored prints of classic films and masterpieces of film history.

Kalpana – Before and After Restoration from FHF

Film industry turning “it’s back on celluloid”

Speaking about the urgent and crying need for preserving and restoring our films that rapidly plunging towards irreparable loss, Dungarpur said that of the ten different film industries in India, producing the largest number of films, with the South Indian film industry accounting for 60 percent of films produced. But the industry megastars have not done anything for the cause of preserving our cinematic history, despite their political clout. The industry too is making a pronounced drift towards digital technology, turning “it’s back on celluloid”.

“This arises from the widespread ignorance of the importance of these originals among filmmakers, copyright holders and industry stakeholders. Labs are shutting down all over the country and throwing films on the scrapheap – the producers are not interested in taking charge of them. None of the Indian laboratories engaged in film restoration has photochemical facilities. Producers, copyright holders and the public at large are quite satisfied with basic low-cost digital restoration, poor quality DVDs and accessing films on YouTube. There is a general lack of understanding that a full-fledged film restoration goes beyond just digital scanning and cleaning,” emphasized Dungarpur.

The task of restoration is clearly laid out and challenging. Repairing the original camera negative should be the primary criterion. One has to study the film, its making, the year it was made, the crew and the intention behind the film – the information has to be gathered from all film and non-film related sources. “We must know the story of that film to be able to work on it… Every element has to be back to its original creation,” added Dungarpur.

‘We’ve not even started’

The presentation was followed by a panel discussion anchored by Ira Bhaskar, Professor, Cinema Studies and Dean, SAA. Ashish Rajyadhaksha, the author of Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema and the seminal book on the legendary director Ritwik Ghatak: A Return to the Epic observed that the kind of attention being paid to the Apu Trilogy and Kalpana cannot be given to thousands of other films. This scale of restoration cannot happen en masse. The government on its part cannot and will not take up such a task.

Agreeing with Rajyadhaksha, Dungarpur pointed out that not a single full-fledged restoration of a film has happened in India till date. “We have not even started,” he rued. The film fraternity has not woken up to the need for restoration and the families of the legendary filmmakers who hold the copyright to the films are not keen either.

Besides, India has just one film archive, the NFAI, which is designated still as a government media unit. Short on funding and skilled staff, the NFAI is ill-equipped to handle the mammoth task of preserving the rich and diverse cinematic heritage of the country. Emphasizing on the need for decentralizing the system, Dungarpur said, “Each film industry in the country should have its own regional archive with a mandatory acquisition policy. Film storage facilities should be improved, expanded and optimised: saving original source materials is of utmost importance. But preservation is just the first step. A detailed inventory and classification of the films in the archives is essential to facilitate public access for reference and research.”

A silent film of India

A still from a silent film – not a single full-fledged restoration of a film has happened in India till date.

Sudhir Kapur, the music connoisseur whose grip on the subtleties of Hindi film music are well known  through his critical work in archiving songs on AtulSongADay and digitizing the Hindi Film Geet Kosh, threw light on the huge lot of material still available which has been converted into digital form and turned into DVDs.  “There has to be some sort of an archive that would at least host and preserve those collections also,” he emphasized to which Dungarpur agreed.

Policy perspective needed to recognise cinema as national heritage

Speaking to this author after the session, Sudhir said, “The neglect towards preserving our film heritage has been paramount. It is basically a shared inaction that the government and the industry both must be blamed for.  The industry has not been looking at this as a heritage of its own. For them it should be the most important thing.  But they are not in that mode at all.”

Referring to the examples that were given about film preservation and restoration in the USA and UK, Sudhir said, “They have been preserving everything right from the beginning. In the UK, the BFI as far back as 1938, had got everything they required in place and beyond that it was just a process to be completed. In India we do not have any such thing.”

“The main problem which Shivendra also mentioned is that the government does not have a policy on this. The recognition of this whole material as a national treasure and a national heritage and its archiving has to happen from a policy perspective. And that policy must be implemented,” Sudhir said.

“Given the current restoration process that Shivendra is going through, it is completely mind-boggling to even imagine that he will be able to restore everything of what is available, forget about what he still has to trace.  That is not possible. Funding for that cannot be made available, unless of course the industry steps in and a cultural philanthropy type of activity happens. In that sense, I can empathise with Shivendra that he will try and restore and films that are most important. Hence, he is going after Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray and Ghatak, and that is understandable from that perspective,” Sudhir added.

The Golden ‘50s: India’s Endangered Classics

The Golden ‘50s: India’s Endangered Classics

Pictures used in this article are courtesy Film Heritage Foundation

More to read

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Salaam Cinema – An Extraordinary Tribute
History, Rare Heritage Stars Of Osian’s Film Memorabilia Auction
Bollywood In Posters: 25-Year-Long Journey With Film Memorabilia

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Editor in Chief, Learning and Creativity; Consulting Editor, Silhouette Magazine. A former business journalist, Antara writes extensively on the changing trends of music, direction and filmmaking in cinema. Her articles aim to provide well-researched information on the legends of cinema for the movie and music enthusiast. She is also the Founder-Editor of Blue Pencil, a New Delhi-based publishing house. She edited and published Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, the biography of SD Burman written by HQ Chowdhury. She has co-authored a chapter on Hemant Kumar's Bengali music in the acclaimed book The Unforgettable Music of Hemant Kumar, written by Manek Premchand. Her articles have also been published in and Antara is Editor-Creative Director of Wisitech InfoSolutions Pvt. Ltd.
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5 thoughts on “India’s Vanishing Films Need Urgent Policies to Avoid a Bleak Future

  • Antara

    Thanks so much AK! I am delighted you liked the article.

    Yes, life span stats given by Shivendra Singh show that celluloid outlives all other media by years. And that is why despite getting burnt and torn, scratched and damaged, some of those original negatives could still be restored. Maybe that is difficult with other media.

    Thanks again for reading and for leaving your valuable feedback. 🙂

  • Atulul

    I was not aware that Celluloid has more life than other media. I would like to have comparison of the lives of various media by experts. I feel that other media, like say CD/ HD etc have the advantage that one can copy movies of these media cheaply and in multiple numbers, so the likelihood of movies stored on CD/ HD etc surviving longer is more that the likelihood of celluloid based movies seeing that making its copies on celluloid in no longer economically viable.

  • Antara

    Thank you for your comment Atul ji,

    These stats were indeed surprising. CD/DVDs earlier used to be more expensive but now their prices have dropped. The Quality too has come down. I lost a few high priced DVDs simply on account of them getting stuck to their DVD covers in the Delhi heat.

    If I get to talk to Shivendra Singh Dungarpur again, will ask him the questions you have raised.

    Thanks again for reading.

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