India has the world’s lowest survival rate of cinema. And this heritage needs attention

Cinema might fire India’s imagination, but both imagination and passion fail when it comes to preserving the country’s rich cinematic legacy

One of the most unorthodox directors to emerge during India’s parallel cinema movement in the 70s and 80s was G. Aravindan. With 18 films, seven national film awards, and a Padma Shri to his credit, he is rightly seen as a cinematic icon. Yet, appallingly, not one of the negatives of his films has survived. They are either lost or irreparably damaged. Finally, 30 years after his death, his film Kummatty (1979) has been restored and it premiered at the Cinema Ritrovato festival last month.

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The restoration of Kummatty, hailed by Japan’s foremost film scholar and critic, Tadao Sato, as the most beautiful film he had ever seen, was done through an international collaboration, under the World Cinema Project initiated by Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, the Film Heritage Foundation in India and the Cineteca di Bologna film archive in Italy.

In his book, The Death of Cinema, Paolo Cherchi-Usai refers to an article published in 1897 in which the life of a cinematograph frame is arithmetically worked out as ‘one-and-one-third seconds’. So, Usai says, it is the most ephemeral of things, whose life is even shorter than that of a firework, and he wonders whether film eventually exists only in the minds of its viewers. If so, physical preservation of film becomes secondary. Indian culture, with its penchant for concepts like maya and transience, seems to follow a similar attitude to cinema.

This is in spite of the fact that cinema, its images and sounds, stars, singers and stories inundate our everyday life and imagination. But when it comes to its preservation or archiving, attention and care are strikingly lacking. The National Film Archives of India (NFAI) was established in 1964 — a decade and a half after Independence — and whatever we have today in terms of the rich and varied legacy of the celluloid era of Indian cinema owes greatly to P.K. Nair, who headed the institution in its first decades (1965-1991). In his tenure, he collected over 12,000 films, of which 8,000 were Indian. Interestingly, Nair retired from the Archives when television was beginning to swamp the media scene and much before digital technologies changed the rules of the game.

The new technologies made preservation and storage of visual image easier and faster, and with significantly less spatial and infrastructural facilities. But has this actually given a boost to the quantum, quality and pace of film preservation, archiving and restoration in India?

According to Prakash Magdum, director of NFAI, “During the silent era, some 1,350 films were made in India, and only 30 survive now, and that too not in their complete form. It is to be noted that there is no legal deposit system in India that mandates the producer to keep one copy of the film at NFAI. Efforts are on to amend the Cinematograph Act, 1952, to bring in this provision, so that we can preserve the films cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification. NFAI currently has more than two lakh reels in its collection and we have managed to source more than 5,000 films in the last five years alone.”

Film historian and theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha estimates the pure celluloid survivals at 8-10% of the films made. This is by far the lowest survival rate of cinema in the world, when compared to countries and industries of similar magnitude such as China (31%) and Argentina (30%). In other words, for governments, cinema has always only meant mass entertainment, one that needs to be curbed through censorship and leached through taxes.

South story

According to Theodore Baskaran, film scholar and historian of Tamil cinema, “Neither the government nor trade outfits took any initiative till the 1960s to preserve films. According to the Registration of Books Act of 1867, all published books have to be preserved in one of the national libraries. There was no such provision for films. It was only after half a century of filmmaking in India that the need to preserve films was felt.” Despite being a young art and of the print era, even written material on cinema is sparse. “If you look at the Tamil magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, you will hardly see any reference to cinema. They did not take any notice of the birth of a cultural colossus in their midst.”

Baskaran observes that, even from the first decade of Tamil talkies (1931-1941), when more than 240 films were made, only about 15 have survived. Interestingly, Marthanda Varma, made in 1931 (produced by Sunder Raj and directed by P.V. Rao), survived not due to any archival effort but for a legal imbroglio: after its initial screening, the film was confiscated following a copyright case filed by the publisher of the book on which the film was based. Decades later, in 1974, the film was salvaged from a book depot in Thiruvananthapuram; but only 7,915 out of the 11,905 feet of the film managed to survive.

This is how Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, who set up Film Heritage Foundation in 2014, traces the troubling statistics of our celluloid legacy: “Of the 1,338 silent films made in India, just 29 survive, many in fragments, some as short as 149 feet. Of the 124 films and 38 documentaries produced by the film industry in Chennai, only one film survives — Marthanda Varma (1931). By 1950, we had lost 70-80% of our films. This is excluding the numerous missing short films, animation films, television programmes, advertising commercials, home movies, etc., often forgotten in the shadow of the silver screen, but as important, and the fabric of our visual history.”

An old Hindi film poster under restoration;

“There is something very wrong with the way we are taught to dismiss the art of seeing as something ephemeral and negligible,” said Martin Scorsese. But apart from the general apathy towards cinema as a vulgar mass art, unworthy of serious attention leave alone preservation and archiving, several other factors have contributed to the sad state of affairs. The sheer diversity, quantum and locations of production scattered across the country have proved to be a major hurdle.

On the scrap heap

The nature of the film stock itself was film’s worst enemy: its nitrate content was prone to rapid deterioration in tropical climates, and most film reels were scrapped and destroyed to salvage the silver content. After films completed their run in the theatres, they were forgotten and left to decay, or found their way to the scrap market. Many nitrate films were destroyed by fires at vaults, studios or even during projection. Even the more stable and non-inflammable cellulose acetate ‘safety films’ that came later are prone to decay if not stored in humidity- and temperature-controlled conditions.

While conscious, committed, institutional efforts to preserve films were slow to evolve, technological shifts helped to salvage them to a great extent. The advent of video technologies popularised the circulation of films through VHS cassettes, thus extending their lives. The advent of television spurred a new demand for old movies and, in turn, their transfer to video formats. The digital revolution that followed offered cheaper and easier storage formats like VCD and DVDs. Finally, the emergence of Internet platforms and sharing modes such as YouTube and torrents endlessly replicated whatever was left of films and made them available in the public domain. But the flip side of this quantum leap was the loss of quality and care for fidelity, leading to low-resolution reproductions and truncated versions.

According to Scorsese, the terms ‘preservation’ and ‘restoration’ are being indiscriminately appropriated by marketing experts “who know nothing about preservation itself but are aware of the economic potential of its public appeal. Many of the films made available today through electronic media are misleadingly hailed as ‘restored’, while nothing really has been done to enhance their chances to be brought to posterity.”

How to choose

Added to this is the problem of choosing which films to preserve. When there is a trade-off between the number of films and resources at hand, issues such as prioritisation, its criteria, agency, and timeline emerge. Even though FIAF’s (International Federation of Film Archives) 70th Anniversary Film Manifesto pleads, ‘Don’t Throw Away Film’ and considers every scrap of film as a visual document to be preserved for posterity, one can’t expect state institutions to be fired by such passion or inclusivity.

When priorities for preservation and restoration are set — like age, awards, critical acclaim, historical importance, and material condition — films that do not ‘qualify’ fall outside the scanner. In the process, works that were ‘ahead of their time’ may lose their only chance of survival. Political dispositions and biases of the state can also lead to ‘selective preservation’, which could relegate oppositional voices to oblivion. The essential precondition for proper restoration is the availability of the film material — good quality negatives or prints that are kept in temperature-controlled environments. Considering the number of films made in India, the facilities available are minuscule. As old technologies fade out, the basic production processes also disappear — for instance, the facilities for photochemical processes have become non-existent now. Added to this is the indifference of even the established production houses and banners towards preservation.

Even more tragic is the case of independent and experimental filmmakers. Most of their works were made on shoestring budgets raised through informal and personal sources of finance; they seldom had any established producer/ production house or even a permanent office address to follow up on the negatives kept in laboratories. Whenever there is pressure on storage space, or a shift in technology, the negatives and prints of these ‘orphaned’ films are the first casualty. As a result, the negatives of films of even the most eminent filmmakers in the country are not available for restoration.

New initiatives

One major initiative in the recent past is the establishment of the National Film Heritage Mission under NFAI that seeks to preserve, digitise and restore India’s cinematic heritage. The Mission has ambitious plans to conserve around 1,50,000 reels of film, digitise around 3,500 films and sound tracks, and restore around 2,000 landmark films. But the stupendous, costly and complex task of preserving India’s film heritage calls for more financial and technological resources, public-private partnerships, and curatorial synergies. It also requires coordinated and sustained involvement on the part of the film industry, film historians, curators and professional organisations in the field, and for international partnerships to bring in state-of-the-art know-how.

In recent decades, there have been a couple of significant initiatives in the non-state sector. One sterling instance is the independent digital repository Indiancine.ma that blends archival passion, historical perspective, and academic vision to create a very rich digital collection of Indian films. The other is Dungarpur’s Foundation. After Kummatty, the plan is to restore another Aravindan classic, Thampu, as well as Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri and Shyam Benegal’s Mandi.

But much more needs to be done. And it is a colossal task in a vast, vibrant and active film culture, where around 2,000 films are produced every year in as many as 45 languages. The diversity in centres of production, trade practices, platforms of exhibition, and modes of reception make the picture even more complex.

It is already too late, and if we don’t act right away, the most vibrant celluloid heritage in the world, and more importantly, one of the richest visual archives of our life, land and culture, will disappear forever.

The Kerala-based writer is an award-winning critic, curator, director and translator.

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