Eight feature films from India’s Golden 50s and rare newsreels will be screened for the first time at an international film festival of restoration, at Italy

Starting this Saturday, film connoisseurs will get to see some of the best cinema that came out of India in the 1950s— like Do Bigha Zameen, Awaara, Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Madhumati, Mother India — at Bologna, Italy.

These timeless classics will be screened as “The Golden 50s: India’s Endangered Classiscs”, from June 28 to July 5, at the Il Cinema Ritrovato (Cinema Rediscovered), one of the world’s prestigious festivals of film restoration, calling attention to the need to preserve such films.

This is for the first time in the 28-year history of the festival that an Indian film retrospective is being showcased. The other two feature films in the repertoire include Chandralekha, (the only film from the 1940s in this lineup), and the Bengali film Ajantrik.

The retrospective of feature films, totalling eight classics, as well as eight newsreels of the time, has been curated by the Mumbai-based Film Heritage Foundation, as its first project. The Foundation was formed with an aim of preservation and restoration of India’s cinematic heritage.

Set up by filmmaker and archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, the Foundation has as its advisors noted Indian filmmakers Shyam Benegal, Gulzar, Kumar Shahani, Girish Kasaravalli, and head of the Bologna Film Archive, Gianluca Farinelli, and others. A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Dungarpur runs an ad-film company. Last year he made his first feature-length documentary Celluloid Man, which retraces the journey of P.K. Nair, founder of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI).

In 2009, Shivendra read an interview given by Martin Scorsese where he spoke about film restoration and mentioned Il Cinema Ritrovato. Shivendra went to Bologna that year, which marked a turning point in his life. “It all began in Bologna when I first went as someone who wanted to see great films restored,” says Dungarpur, in a telephonic chat from Mumbai.

Since then, Shivendra has been back to Bologna every year for the festival and has facilitated the restoration of two classics — Uday Shankar’s Kalpana, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, and Dr. Lester James Peries’ Nidhanaya, in collaboration with the World Cinema Foundation and L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna. “We’ve had a great understanding as far as restoration is concerned. And our Foundation’s objective is very clear — to bring forward our cinematic heritage. When they understood our approach, we were invited to showcase these films,” Shivendra explains the association.

Like most films of the time, the films that are going to the festival are not in great condition. Shivendra always quotes the example of India’s first “talkie” film with the first-ever playback recorded song, Alam Ara, made in 1931 by Ardeshir Irani. It is lost because his son sold off the film’s negatives to extract silver.

He also points out that Kagaz Ke Phool is India’s first cinemascope film and needs to be revived to preserve it for posterity. “You may have seen many of these films on YouTube and wondered what I’m talking about…but have you seen the quality of the films available online?”

The films going to the festival are either dupe negatives or prints. “This festival would not have happened without the NFAI and the Films Division of India. Out of the eight films going to the festival, six have been found at the NFAI. Mother India had to be sourced from the British Film Institute and Awaara from Canada. It goes to show how well our films have been preserved outside India. In the case of Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik, we don’t have the opening sequence of the film and the idea of showing it at this festival is to try and find it.”

Usually a message is sent out through the FIAF — the International Federation of Film Archives, of which all countries that have film archives are members, to check for any surviving material related to a particular film. With the original material, all layers are collated and put together, Shivendra explains the process that starts off restoration. The original material is scanned, and digitally restored frame by frame.

“Here you need a film historian and technician on board… someone who’s seen the original, so that you don’t distort any original material. Because it’s the creation of an artist.” Then comes sound restoration, and finally, determining the quality of storage required to preserve it over years. And you must also take another negative or print as a backup, an understanding of which is yet to permeate in India, he points out. “Restoring is not only about digitally storing things. You also need to take preventive measures on the original materials.”

They have also included newsreels in the retrospective because “India’s cinematic heritage goes beyond its feature films” says Shivendra.

Some of these vintage newsreels show the meeting between legendary actor Charles Chaplin and Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Mountbatten’s last day as Viceroy of India, President Radhakrishnan being shown around Disney by Walt Disney himself on his visit to America, American filmmaker Frank Capra’s trip to Bombay etc. Newsreels were traditionally shown in theatres just before the screening of a feature film. “Of course the newsreels were propaganda films of the government of the time, but the footage also gives us a great sense of who we are and where we come from.”