At Film Heritage Foundation’s workshops, experts from across the globe aim to give new life to India's iconic works

Suryasarathi Bhattacharya

Nov 19, 2018 11:56:10 IST

One of India’s most iconic films Mughal-e-Azam — made in 1960 by K Asif — got restored; recoloured and re-released in 2004. The film, even after five decades of its filming and initial release, went on to become one of the top-grossing films of 2004 competing with Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara and Abbas-Mustan’s Aitraaz. Its continued success at the box office proved that films of the yesteryears were not only artistically and aesthetically sound, but were also capable of striking a chord with the newer generations — it was almost like a rebirth of sorts for an old classic.

However, this is not the story with most of the other films of that era or even earlier. A flourishing film industry — often touted to be the biggest in the entire world — that churns thousands of films every year, has been rather indifferent, negligent towards the films of the yesteryears. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, the award-winning filmmaker, archivist and restorer has been actively involved in creating awareness on preservation of India’s film heritage.

The non-profit organisation Film Heritage Foundation, set up by Dungarpur in 2014, is dedicated to supporting the conservation, preservation and restoration of the moving image and to developing interdisciplinary programs to create awareness about the language of cinema. The foundation, in association with Viacom 18, has been organising workshops on film preservation in India for the past three years. In its fourth year, the 2018 edition of the workshop which will have participation from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and Malaysia, and will be held in Kolkata from 15-22 November at the Rabindranath Tagore Center.

 At Film Heritage Foundation’s workshops, experts from across the globe aim to give new life to Indias iconic works

Film Heritage Foundation’s workshops in 2018. All images courtesy Film Heritage Foundation

Much of value has been lost over the decades. To give you an idea, 1,700 silent films were made in India between 1913 and 1931, of which only five or six survive, with another 20 or so in fragments, some as short as 149 feet (the average length of a film reel is about 12,000 to 13,000 feet). Of the 124 films and 38 documentaries produced by the film industry in Chennai (formerly Madras) during the silent era, only one film survives, the 1931 film Marthanda Verma. By 1950, we had lost 70 to 80 percent of our films. This is excluding the numerous missing short films, animation films, television programmes, advertising commercials, home movies, etc. Tragically, we had also lost our first sound film, Alam Ara.

In 2013 India produced 1,724 films in 32 languages. Of these films, 744 films were shot on celluloid. Even though India celebrated 100 years of cinema in 2013 and the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) its 50th anniversary in 2014, the NFAI just has about 6,000 Indian film titles in their collection.

According to Dungarpur, there are several reasons for this appalling state of our moving image heritage. “I think the most important is that we have never considered film an art form in India that is an integral part of our social and cultural heritage. We have always looked upon it as a medium of mass entertainment and even today there is scant respect for this art form. Even within the industry and the government, the dialogue about films is confined to taxes and censorship,” says Dungarpur with a voice of concern.

Cleaning of a glass plate negative at the Film Heritage Archive

Cleaning of a glass plate negative at the Film Heritage Archive

Celluloid film being a fragile medium is another important aspect behind the urgency to take film preservation seriously. “The earliest films were shot on cellulose nitrate base, which was highly inflammable. Many early nitrate films were destroyed in fires in studios, vaults and even during projection. After 1951, filmmakers began to shoot with cellulose acetate called ‘safety film’ as it was considered more stable. But this film had to be stored in temperature and humidity-controlled conditions if it had to be preserved for posterity and to prevent deterioration and damage,” he adds.

Unfortunately, for many years storing films meant dumping the film canisters in warehouses without any thought put into ensuring if the films would sustain in the drastically-changing climatic conditions of India — which are often detrimental to the longevity of the films — especially the metropolitan port cities of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta (now Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata) which were the hotbeds of emerging film industries in India in the 1920s.

The intensive week-long workshop, certified by International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) and conducted by Dungarpur’s Film Heritage Foundation, covers both lectures and practical classes in the best practices of the preservation and restoration of films and film-related paper, and photographic material. Classes are followed by daily screenings of restored classics from around the world. Covering every aspect of film preservation, the workshop is considered the most comprehensive of its kind in the world and has become the model for FIAF’s international training programs.

Cleaning of a glass plate negative at the Film Heritage Archive

Still from the Film Repair practical class conducted by Marianna de Sanctis of L'Immagine Ritrovata

For the workshop, a faculty of international experts is drawn from leading institutions around the world like, The Academy of Motion Picture, Arts & Sciences, L’Immagine Ritrovata, Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna, British Film Institute, The Criterion Collection, the Irish Film Institute, the Austrian Film Museum, Eye Filmmuseum, Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives), the Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive, Centre for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Media Inventions sc and ARRI.

The syllabi of this year’s workshop have a few additions too. Dungarpur explains, “We have introduced a new format and structure for the workshop curriculum this year with a focus on specialisation. This format will not only give participants an overview of different aspects of film preservation, but also enable them to specialise in one of four areas in small group sessions for hands-on training with the experts in their field. Lectures and the archive management module covering how management policies and funding strategies, running a mass digitisation project and programming and access are compulsory for all participants. They can then choose from one of four areas of specialization – film handing and repair, digital preservation and restoration, photographic and paper conservation and cataloguing.”

“Those who opt for film will have practical classes in film identification, film selection, film handling and preparation, film repair, film in serious condition, and scanning archive film (which will also be included in the digital section) and for which we have imported the latest ARRI scanner to be used in the classes. The digital stream will include small group sessions in digital archiving infrastructure, practical digital technology, colour grading, digital restoration and reformatting and restoring soundtracks. The non-film stream will deal with the conservation of photographs and paper that is an essential element of film archives all over the world,” he adds.

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Poster being restored at the Film Heritage Foundation archive, Mumbai

While Dungarpur handles the teaching bit of the workshops, Viacom18 facilitates whatever needful is required to make these workshops fulfil the stipulated objective, especially from the logistics and monetary front. There have been other contributors to these workshops including, Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation’s World Cinema, which has been supporting them from the first year itself; Tata Trusts which came on board in 2017 with a three-year grant that offer scholarships that has enabled 26 participants to do the course absolutely free of cost this year.

Sudhanshu Vats, MD, Viacom18, says, “Partnering with the Film Heritage Foundation for the workshop is our attempt towards saving and upholding India’s rich and diverse cinematic heritage. At Viacom18, we connect deeply with the ethos of Film Heritage Foundation in developing an ecosystem that promotes the preservation of India’s cinematic heritage. With the Film Preservation & Restoration Workshop India (FPRWI), over these four years we have been able to create awareness amongst film-makers, producers, artists and audiences to be aware of film archiving. We have hosted this workshop in Pune, Mumbai, Chennai and now in Kolkata with the objective to create a base of students and enthusiasts who are aware and equipped to save India’s cinematic heritage.”

Speaking about what the major takeaways have been so far, Vats adds, “The previous editions of the Film Heritage Foundation received excellent response. The FPRWI has been supported by industry stalwarts such as Kamal Haasan, Mani Ratnam, Rajkumar Hirani, Shyam Benegal, Amitabh Bachchan and many others. Support from such legends ensures that the industry stands up and takes notice of the initiatives needed to save our film heritage. With each passing year, we have seen an increase in participants from across the Indian subcontinent, with students coming in from Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.”

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Examining of a reel in serious condition at the Film Heritage Foundation archive, Mumbai

After organising workshops targeted at the films from the Marathi and Tamil film industry in their past three editions, this year the Bengali films happen to be the workshop’s subject domain. This year also marks the commemoration of 100 years of Bengali cinema which has seen pioneers of the likes of Hiralal Sen, JF Madan and also some of the greatest filmmakers of Indian cinema including PC Barua, Bimal Roy, Nitin Bose, Debaki Bose, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak.

“Calcutta, along with Bombay and Madras, is where Indian cinema can trace its earliest roots. But like the rest of India, the preservation of Bengali cinematic heritage has been woefully neglected. Very little of this great film heritage survives. Also holding the workshop in Kolkata would enable us to help train participants from neighbouring states like Orissa, Assam and Manipur who have also had an important film history that has been forgotten,” rues Dungarpur.

Given that India is the most prolific and diverse film industry in the world with at least 10 different film industries that vary both geographically and linguistically, we had to adopt the approach of making these workshops like travelling schools that could take our message of preservation and the training to different corners of the country.

“We have identified 100 Bengali films that must be saved. We are also working closely with the state government to train their personnel in the state archive to enable them to create a roadmap to save their films going ahead and equip them with the knowledge required to run a mass digitisation project of their films which is in the pipeline,” he further adds.

Still from Film Identification practical class conducted by Camille Blot-Wellens from FIAF

Still from Film Identification practical class conducted by Camille Blot-Wellens from FIAF

As much as preserving these films are important, they also need to be made accessible to the public for viewing. After all, right from the conception of cinema, watching films has been a communal, shared experience. “Preservation without access is hoarding,” remarks Dungarpur and further continues, “The idea behind preserving our film legacy is that future generations will get the opportunity to view the works of filmmakers and artists that came before.

Restoration becomes important in this context as when you restore a film, you give it a new life. World-class film restorations of classics are given red-carpet premieres at the most prestigious film festivals: Uday Shankar’s classic Kalpana was restored by Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and the restored version was given a red carpet premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Similarly, Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy was restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and The Criterion Collection and the restored films were given a theatrical release in the United States. In addition, quality Blu-Rays and DVDs, streaming platforms and film festivals ensure that these films are made available for viewing all over again and there is definitely an audience for these films across all platforms,” he adds.

Updated Date: Nov 22, 2018 14:00:50 IST