Celluloid history

Ashish Rajadhyaksha  

A baby bath is in progress. Two women are washing a child, who closes his eyes every time water falls on him. There is no drama, dance or dialogues. Updated as “baby bathing”, the black-and-white video offers a glimpse into the film making of the 1900s. Now, we can watch this video at >www.indiancine.ma, an annotated archive of Indian films.

The website is a digital video library that documents rare Indian films made since the late nineteenth century! Though it is designed for film studies scholars, movie makers, any movie lover can access it.

Initiated by a similar project called Pad.ma, by the group called by CAMP in Mumbai, it is a digital movement to save old films, erased from our cinematic history due to bad storage or poor maintenance. The group has a network of Indian film directors, scholars and critics. Says Ashok Sukumaran, a film maker and a member of the core team, “Instead of a government-run institution to preserve cinema, it is a project run by amateurs. This makes the structure more flexible. Anyone can be a member and if you have an interesting film, you can approach us. We will verify the material and publish it. We are still building the database.”

The core team’s guiding force is Ashish Rajadhyaksha, who is also the author of the first ever Encyclopaedia on Indian Cinema . “I am personally excited about the idea of digital restoration. Even in the national archives of Pune, many of the films are not available.  Now you have Internet, where an entire archive of video material is available to you.” The films have been annotated and categorised thematically. If you click on a particular note, for example on a particular song from the movie, it will forward you to that part of the film. Malayalam film buffs would be thrilled to find an annotated video of Neelakuyil, categorised under “Communist Films of Kerala.”

It is the first to profile a story on inter-caste love affair. The notes analyse how the film engages with casteism and calls your attention to nuanced details like music, cinematography, and scene composition. The footnote explains how the harvest song sung by a group of farmers in Neelakuyil was one of the first Malayalam songs to introduce working class aesthetics to popular Malayalam cinema. You can also experience the silent films like Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra made in 1913. It is another world, inhabited by people dressed like kings, sages and queens. Their melodramatic gestures and the soundlessness add to the strangee feel.

As you surf the website, you spot familiar faces too. A young and dashing Ashok Kumar fills up the screen in Prem Kahani, a film made in 1937 . He is wooing his fiancé. The scene looks staged. But, one learns about the scene composition in black & white frames, and the music, set to lilting Hindusthani ragas.

Film studies research scholars from across the country have contributed to the website. For instance, the section called ‘Bombay Talkies’ is updated by Debashree Mukherjee, a film scholar, who annotates Franz Osten films like Prem Kahani and Nirmala. The notes give you insights on how the film came about. It also offers interesting anecdotes like how “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru came to Bombay to see the film at the Roxy cinema and gave it unstinted praise.”

“The idea is to treat video material as an academic content where you can make footnotes and references. Some of the forefront film studies department in the country like the University of Media Lab, Jadavpur University, JNU, Centre for the Study of Culture and Society and Alternative Law Forum are contributors,” says Ashok.

Ashish says in India, a big chunk of celluloid has been lost. “But, films in India have survived in bizarre ways. For instance, KT Kumaran’s Athithi which was believed to be lost was unearthed three or four years ago when a man in Dubai released it on the Internet. It’s time we treated every film footage as a research source. It can open the floodgates of India’s cinematic and political history.”

Anyone can access all films made before 1955 at the website www.indiancine.ma. One has to get a permission and a password from the core team to access the right to view films made after 1955, because of copyright regulations.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 12:58:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/celluloid-history/article7289274.ece

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