India is in a critical situation in terms of film archiving, says US expert

Senior curator Paolo Cherchi Usai speaks about the need, challenges and technicalities of film preservation and restoration, where India stands, the damage done so far and how film preservation can emerge as a career option in future.

Written by Garima Rakesh Mishra | Pune | Published:March 2, 2016 12:05 am
film archiving, NFAI, National Film Archive of India, FHF, Film Heritage Foundation, International Federation of Film Archives Paolo Cherchi Usai

The National Film Archive of India (NFAI) campus in Kothrud witnessed its first international workshop on film preservation and restoration, organised in association with the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) and International Federation of Film Archives. The 10-day workshop, which kicked off on February 25 and will continue till March 6, is witnessing the participation of several experts from the field of film preservation, restoration and digitisation.
Senior curator Paolo Cherchi Usai speaks about the need, challenges and technicalities of film preservation and restoration, where India stands, the damage done so far and how film preservation can emerge as a career option in future.
Usai is a senior curator of the Moving Image Department of George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, and founder and co-founder of the Nitrate Picture Show and Pordenone Silent Film Festival respectively. He was knighted in 2002 by the French government as Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his contribution to film culture, museum development and moving image conservation and preservation.

Why is there a need of preserving films?
If we think that film is part of a nation’s culture, and is as important as books, paintings or architectures, then film too is a form of cultural expression and deserve to be preserved as well. In the case of India particularly, cinema is a quintessential expression of Indian culture and the Indian film industry is perhaps the greatest film industry in the world.

What are popular techniques used across the world for preservation of cinema?
There is a general belief that in order to preserve a film, it has to be digitised. This is a misconception that needs to be corrected. A film is preserved only when it is preserved in its original form in which it was made. For example, if a film was made on 35 mm, it should be saved on 35 mm and made available on 35 mm. Only after this is done, can it be digitised. But digitising it without preserving it in its original format does not constitute real preservation. The best method of preserving a film is still the photo-chemical method. There is at least one laboratory in India that preserves films in its original format. It is more faithful than the digital format as it is more authentic and reproduced the texture exactly in its original form.

To what is extent digital technology helpful in film preservation?
Digital technology can be of great help in preserving the cinematic heritage but digital technology is a bit like nuclear power; it can be used for beneficial effects but can also be used to destroy lives. The problem we are facing today is that we live in a society that is becoming entirely digital and there is a belief that if we don’t do things digitally, things will not be saved. It is untrue. Let’s say, if you have found a precious manuscript of Mahabharata, you would want to preserve it. Of course, you will digitise it so that it’s made available to all but by all means, you would want to conserve the original. Same apply to the art of films. This is the message of the FHF and this workshop.

Can any old film be restored or are there parameters involved?
As long as there is still an image on the film, it can still be restored. Depending on the condition of the image, the restoration process will reduce or escalate, but yes it can be done. Today we have better tools than what we had 20 years ago to restore a film in its original format.

You were earlier quoted saying that “the destruction of a film is a necessary condition for the existence of cinema”. Please elaborate.
I feel that in order to bring attention to the fact that the reason why we care about films is that we know they are endangered. History is made possible by absence. History is like telling a story of the things we know and we try to fill the gaps about the things we do not know. Why something happened? We have some information but we don’t have everything. If we knew everything and nothing was lost, there would be no need to tell a story. It is because there is destruction of the cultural heritage that we try to save what is left.

Where do you think India stands in archiving cinema as compared to other countries.
India is in a critical situation for two reasons. Firstly, so much has been lost and I think that the percentage of lost films in India is higher than other countries because the amount of films made in India is comparatively much higher. Secondly, film production companies do not appear to be interested in preserving the film in its original form. Once its reaches its end of commercial life, there is no longer an interest to preserve the film. The message that I want to give the film producers and distributors of India is that what they are doing is not only the manifestation of a very important industry but is also part of the national identity of the country. Instead of letting the negatives rot in a warehouse, where it will decompose in a few years, it can be given to a museum or an archival institution for preservation. When I found 800 Indian films in the US, I immediately took them. I know that if I put them in a cold storage, they will last for the next 500 years, longer than any digital reproduction. If the government could persuade film producers to create a system of legal deposit where the original elements are given to the care of a national institution, this would turn out to be a game-changer.

You mentioned you picked up 800 Indian films. Why and which ones?
These are films that are made between 1999 to 2013. It’s a real treasure; I consider ourselves lucky in a sense that we got the whole snapshots, the whole history of the Indian film industry. Now, students from all over the world, especially the US, can study them in their original form. I have been watching them for a long time because I’m a big admirer of Indian cinema. I particularly like films by Anurag Kashyap, especially Gangs of Wasseypur. I am also fond of films by Mani Ratnam, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ashutosh Gowarikar and many others.

With several countries, including India, warming up to the concept of film preservation and restoration, do you see it emerging as a possible career option in future?
Yes, it is. Because young people who will pick up the art of preserving and restoring films today, are going to possess skills that are extremely rare and important. The person who will be able to understand both the analog and the digital part of film preservation, is going to be very much in demand because there will be a need of such people.