When was the last time you pulled out video tapes of Tamil films from the attic to check whether they are in working condition? A few fortunate tapes would have endured the test of time. But many others, covered with layers of dust, would be no better than junk.

Many films of early 20th century are facing a similar fate. The reels of scores of films are beyond redemption. With absence of any initiative to restore the films, the tapes and reels of non-digital age are fast disappearing.

“Many of the celebrated Tamil films of 1930s and 40s were first released in other parts of the country and not the present day Tamil Nadu. Some of them were launched abroad. Many reels disappeared along with the production companies. Some have been converted into DVD formats but yet remain unavailable in India. Films such as ‘Paadhai Theriyudhu' and ‘Moodu Pani' are popular names but their DVDs are hard to get,” explains G.Dhananjayan, producer and author of the to-be-released book ‘The Best of Tamil Cinema.'

With procuring copyrights for the movies a time consuming procedure, not many video companies are coming forward to digitise and market the films. Sourcing the long-lost films is also an uphill task for those interested in their restoration. The only way out, Mr.Dhananjayan suggests, is the government intervention.

The first step would be to set up a dedicated government-run archive for Tamil films. The archive centre should collect, restore and preserve the film reels, video tapes and DVDs.

But preserving vintage films is a long-drawn and expensive process, says S.Theodore Baskaran, writer and film historian. Technology should be upgraded to maintain the reels and tapes in good condition. “We need humidity-free storerooms for the films. Digitisation can be a backup. But the older versions must be preserved. The onus is on the government to take an initiative.” Such an archive would give regional cinema a global visibility, he adds.

The National Film Archive of India, a government body with an impressive collection of vintage films in every language, has catalogued only 100-odd Tamil films of the 2,000-odd yesteryear movies. Apart from this, there hardly had been any initiative to methodically archive Tamil films.

‘Film News' Anandan, veteran film historian, says the National Film Archive of India primarily documents Hindi films and there needs to be a regional archive for extensive documentation. “Karnataka and Kerala have a film archive each for their respective film industry. Actors and technicians from Tamil film industry should lobby with the government to initiate the process of archiving films.” He has a vast collection of stills from old movies, song books and nearly 6,000 books, including novels based on cinema, books written by artists and technicians, which was taken over by the State government in 2003 for setting up a permanent exhibition at M.G.R. Film and Television Institute in the city. “It did not materialise. My resources are still at the Institute but without much use,” he says. He has conducted nearly 10 exhibitions of his collections and hopes that the State government would revive the plans to set up the permanent exhibition.

Mr.Baskaran underscores the need for a change in the way people perceive cinema. “Cinema should not be seen as a mere entertainment medium. Cinema, as an art form, has never received the due importance it deserves.”

The Roja Muthiah Research Library catalogues print materials of films such as song books, posters of old films, and film magazines. “The library has over 2,500 song books and film magazines dating back to 1930s. It has drawn researchers from across the world. An archive for films would be the best one could do to cherish old Tamil cinema,” he adds.