Big Screen Movies

Mending the moving image: South India’s cinematic heritage has seen huge loss

Restoration work in progress at Prasad Film Lab in Chennai   | Photo Credit: Film Heritage Foundation

On March 30, 2015, Bardroy Barretto walked into the Film Heritage Foundation office with a reel of film wrapped in newspaper. He believed this was the last surviving reel of the first Konkani film Mogacho Aunndo directed by Al Jerry Braganza. The reel had been given to him by a journalist who had in turn got it from Braganza’s nephew.

“He was hoping something could be salvaged, but had almost given up, as the warped and brittle reel of celluloid — probably stored in a loft for over 50 years — was in very poor condition,” says Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, Founder of Film Heritage Foundation.

Dungarpur was delighted by the discovery of what was considered to be a lost film. Mogacho Aunndo was released in 1950 in Mapusa and in a few theatres in Mumbai.

Last reel

After a “rescue operation” at the film restoration lab L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, the last surviving reel of Mogacho Aunndo was scanned to 4K resolution two months ago. The team is now experimenting with a new software to retrieve the soundtrack, which is virtually destroyed.

That the very first Indian talkie Alam Ara (1931) and, in fact, more than 98% of our silent films have been lost speaks volumes of the approach to film restoration in India. In the silent era, the Madras film industry made 124 silent films and 38 documentaries, none of which survive except for Marthanda Varma (1933), the second silent film in Malayalam. Also, notably, nothing remains of the first Tamil silent film Keechaka Vadham (1918) or the first Tamil talkie Kalidas (1931). The same goes for the first Telugu talkieBhakta Prahlada (1932) and the first Kannada talkieSati Sulochana (1934). “Nothing remains of the silent films made in South India. Marthanda Varma survived quite by accident.

Similarly, most of the first talkies in South Indian languages do not exist any more. But we don’t have to look so far back. Most of Balu Mahendra’s films are gone. Even Mani Ratnam does not have any of his original camera negatives,” says Dungarpur.

In a country that produces over 2,000 films in 36 languages every year, preserving cinematic heritage should not have to be introduced. But that is the case. To create awareness about film preservation, Dungarpur has embarked on a nationwide exercise that will use workshops and sessions with world-acclaimed archivists and experts in film restoration.

“Given the monumental loss of our cinematic heritage, it was an issue that needed to be tackled on a war footing, but I realised that there were no soldiers to fight this war,” he says. India has no diploma or degree courses in film preservation. Dungarpur reached out to experts in the field from around the world to collaborate in creating travelling classrooms across the country to spread the word. This year, the Film Preservation and Restoration Workshop, now in its third edition, will be held in Chennai’s Prasad Film Lab from October 7 to 14.

Restoration work in progress at Prasad Film Lab in Chennai.

Restoration work in progress at Prasad Film Lab in Chennai.   | Photo Credit: Film Heritage Foundation

 

The workshop is an initiative of the Film Heritage Foundation and the International Federation of Film Archivesin association with the Martin Scorsese-backed The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, L’Immagine Ritrovata, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and other international institutes besides Viacom 18 and the Tata Trusts as cause partners.

Disaster recovery

This year, the workshop includes sessions with “disaster recovery expert” Mick Newnham from Australia, who offers practical classes on restoring film, while Dawn Jaros of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Tina Kelly from the Imperial War Museum will provide hands-on training in photographic and paper conservation and repair. In addition, several scholarships will be sponsored by actor Kamal Haasan and AVM Studios among others.

“Last year, Kamal Haasan was the chief guest at our Pune workshop. He was very impressed and urged us to conduct the workshop in Chennai to spread awareness down south, which collectively represents 60% of Indian cinema,” Dungarpur says.

The workshop will touch upon another critical aspect — the preservation of photographic material. “Photographs and documents are woven into the fabric of a cinematic heritage and researchers have to often rely on memorabilia and other preserved collaterals such as scripts, music scores, and posters to reconstruct historical events,” he says.

Treasure troves

“There are millions of photographs and documents out there in the hands of private collectors and kabadiwalas who are ignorant about proper methods of storage. For instance, many of the stunning images we have used in our promotional material for the workshop were sourced from a private collector called Gnanam who is sitting on a treasure trove of photographs and negatives, but which are stored in abysmal conditions. People like him should be trained so that they can understand at least the basics of how their collections can be preserved.” The lack of understanding is compounded by the expense and effort associated with full-fledged restoration.

So it’s barely a surprise that India just doesn’t have the capacity to launch full-fledged projects that begin with photochemical restoration.

“Digitisation and basic digital image and sound clean-up passes off for preservation and restoration, and many members of the industry are happy with this, as the cost is low and they consider the quality good enough for telecast on television or the Internet,” rues Dungarpur. “If we don’t preserve, there will be a day when there won’t be anything left to restore.”

The Mumbai-based freelance journalist writes on films, food and everything in between, and her hobbies include breakfast, lunch and dinner.


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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 3:34:03 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/mending-the-moving-image/article19554493.ece

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