Karnan, the 1964 classic from ace filmmaker B.R. Panthulu, returns reformatted in all its technical finesse

Perseverance ought to be Shanthi Chokkalingam's second name. Otherwise what could have spurred Shanthi's Divya Films into pulling out a film made 48 years ago and lending it the latest technical sheen? “I was 10 when I first watched Karnan. Excellent performances, scintillating music, lavish sets, exotic locations … it has everything. And I'm an ardent fan of that great actor Sivaji Ganesan. I felt that Karnan's shelf life shouldn't be curtailed by the dictates of time,” is the reply.

A magnum opus, Karnan goes much beyond being just an engaging entertainer — it is a profound take on the psyche of men and women, albeit legendary. And heading a mammoth cast of illustrious actors is Sivaji Ganesan in the title role.

The restoration process was far from easy. If making a new film takes six months on an average, Shanthi has slogged for more than three years for this project! “Raj TV possessed the rights and went out of the way to help me in this Herculean task. The trust Ravindran of the channel reposed in me laid the foundation for my attempt,” acknowledges Shanthi.

Divya Films was in for a rude shock when they got the print. The picture negatives were to a certain extent salvageable, but the sound negatives had been completely damaged. The entire film had to be re-formatted. Till 10 years ago, cinemas had 35 mm screens with Mono Sound. But today's tech boom offers much viewing variety — RDX, QSC300 and Barco, for instance. Karnan had to be adapted to one of these systems to make screening possible. The first step was to take care of the near-irreparable state of the sound. Digi Beta, DVC Pro, Wav File and Noise Restoration are mere jargon to lay people. But each of these was essential to slowly resurrect the sound of Karnan to the level of DTS 5.1 Surround! “Eureka!” the team wanted to scream in joy when it scaled one hurdle after another, mainly because none in the know gave them any hope of it being possible. “That was when I heard that Mughal-e-Azam had been restored to perfection and re-released,” recalls Shanthi.

So Mumbai was Destination Next. “H.M. Subramanya, an audio engineer with Sangeetha, took it up as a challenge and went all out to accomplish the task.” The picture negatives were scanned and the new sound incorporated. Help came from many a quarter. Pawan of Sindhu Graphics, the DTS Mixing engineers at Prasad Lab, and Easwar, worked with Divya Films for more than six months and saw to it that the project emerged successful. “Screening via the Qube is cost-efficient and has enabled me to go in for release in 50 centres in the State.” As far as Chennai goes, Karnan is to come out in four theatres. “Even securing colour pictures for the promos wasn't easy because though the original film was in colour, the stills weren't, as the 1960s was predominantly an era of Black and White.”

So when Sivaji Ganesan's son Ramkumar said he had assumed it to be a simple process, Shanthi couldn't but smile at the understatement. “The Producers Council and diehard fans of Ganesan such as YGee Mahendra have also supported the venture in many ways.”

Shanthi pauses for a moment and adds, “I want youngsters, who don't give much thought to remarkable yesteryear films, to watch the splendour of Karnan. They should understand those extraordinary endeavours of yore.”

It was filmmaker Rama Narayanan who suggested a trailer release for Karnan. “The process of cutting a teaser baffled me, I tell you. Sync was a tough proposition. And everything about the film is so good that I didn't know what to highlight,” smiles Shanthi.

If the restoration itself has been so arduous, the difficulties the film's producer and director, B.R. Panthulu, must have undergone while making the film are unimaginable. “At a time when carting people to distant locations was far from easy, how could he have transported a whole contingent to Kurukshetra where he actually shot the war sequences, and to the grand palaces of Jaipur? I'm glad we are bringing out Karnan to commemorate Panthulu's birth centenary.”

Has the three-year toil translated into a perfect viewing experience? “Undoubtedly, Karnan is like any new product. We haven't compromised on any score. It is as if a young, exuberant Sivaji has shot for the film very recently,” laughs Shanthi.