Abandoned to the elements, the Hindustan Photo Films Manufacturing Company Limited (HPF) in the picturesque Nilgiris, which in its heyday was staffed by over 6,000 workers, has fallen into ruin. Rust covers its parked staff buses and moss and lichen occupy the exterior of the main factory building.
The factory was opened in 1960 by the Indian government, thanks to the steadfast efforts of former Chief Minister K. Kamaraj, to generate jobs in the hill district. Indeed, it was once the main source of employment in Udhagamandalam.
Two places shortlisted
“The Nilgiris and Nainital were shortlisted as the two ideal locations for the factory, which was only the seventh company in the world that was to make photographic film,” said N. Mohanraj, a Nilgiris-based conservationist. He had worked at the factory for over two decades, between 1976 and 2002, before retiring as a section officer of the Research and Development Department.
In the Encyclopedia of the Nilgiri Hills, edited by Paul Hockings, it is said the HPF was set up with the aim of making India “self-sufficient in the raw film that was being consumed in hundreds of kilometres daily by the huge Indian film industry as well as by photographers and X-ray laboratories in hospitals.” It adds, “There was also an intention to give employment to the hundreds of Badaga and other university graduates residing in the Nilgiris. At the time, the photographic market in India was dominated by foreign companies such as Agfa, Kodak, Ilford, Orwo and Fuji.”
Mr. Mohanraj said the Nilgiris was eventually chosen because of the excellent quality of air and water, with the factory being the only fully integrated plant making photographic films in the world. “For instance, raw silver would be brought in and made 99% pure silver and then made into silver nitrate emulsion to coat the film,” he said.
The company’s products were in high demand, including X-ray film and bromide paper, which was imported, cut and sold to the local market. While black-and-white roll films were also made to meet the demand from India’s burgeoning film industry, the plant was unable to produce colour films, for it lacked the technology. However, this did not stop it from importing the film, cutting and selling it to the local market.
The factory also boasted a full-fledged library housing one of the most extensive collections of books on photography and films.
However, with changing technology and the switch to digital photography across the world, it was only a matter of time before HPF could no longer meet the demands of the free market, said former employees. They said that with the economic liberalisation launched in the early 1990s and even X-ray films going digital, the company’s failure to diversify and keep pace with the advances in photographic technology led to its demise. It was declared bankrupt in 1996.
R. Moses Manoharan, former general secretary of the HPF Workers’ Welfare Center (affiliated to the Center of Indian Trade Unions), said that while globalisation and liberalisation policies certainly played a role in the demise of the factory, the government policies and the sanctioning of a new project to make polyester-based X-ray film was the last straw.
“There were huge budget overruns, which led to borrowing and diversion of funds from the mother plant,” said Mr. Manoharan. “We can call it a planned murder of the enterprise by the government because HPF was no longer able to compete with X-ray films being imported into the country from tax-free zones,” he said. Workers had to run from pillar to post as the company failed, trying to get what was due to them. “In the end, we all tried our best to keep the company functioning, approaching Ministers, MPs and MLAs, insisting that the company’s core product of conventional X-rays would always be in demand,” said Mr. Manoharan.
He hoped that at the very least, the company’s buildings could be refurbished and used for public good. “The factory still has excellent infrastructure, including a state-of-the-art water treatment plant. The government should consider using the facilities rather than tear them all down,” he said, arguing that the factory still has a special place in the hearts of millions of Nilgiris residents.