By: Shikha Kumar
In 1946, Paul Zils, a German filmmaker, released a documentary, ‘India’s Struggle for National Shipping’. The film chronicled the suppression of the Indian shipping industry by Britain and other colonial powers, and how the industry was not allowed to reach its full potential despite being capable. The timing of the film was important. Given that India was waking up to a new national identity, Jawaharlal Nehru recognised the film’s potential and instructed that it should be screened across the nation.
But like many pre-Independence films, it sank into oblivion. Over half a century later, in 2002, author, curator and film scholar, Amrit Gangar, was commissioned by the Max Mueller Bhavan to write a book on the contribution of Paul Zils. While Gangar had heard of the film, he hadn’t watched it since there were no prints available. “I approached the National Film Archive of India, Pune, but nobody knew of the film, leave alone the existence of its prints”, says Gangar.
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Even at the headquarters of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company in Ballard Pier, one of the oldest Indian shipping companies, which had produced the film, no one had heard about it. Finally, he got a call from an ex-employee of the firm saying that some cans had been traced to a godown. “There were no labels on the cans but when I opened them, there was a terrible smell. I realised they were old nitrate negatives but fortunately, they seemed fine,” says Gangar, who then took them to a German technical adviser with whose help he could save the prints.
In 2003, the film was finally shown at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai, along with the launch of Gangar’s book ‘Paul Zils and the Indian Documentary’. On Thursday, the documentary will be screened again at the KR Cama Oriental Institute and with it, Gangar aspires to pass on a message about the preservation of our film heritage. “Besides the narrative of a suppressed shipping industry, the film shows snapshots of the nationalist struggle vis-à-vis the Gandhian swadeshi movement. It has live footage of the Nehru family, and leaders such as Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Jinnah and Vithalbhai Patel,” says Gangar.
He hopes that in today’s technology-driven times, the film sets an example of self-sufficiency. “I believe that ‘India’s Struggle for National Shipping’ is the country’s earliest and best corporate film,” he says.