Reel to rail: Inside lost property offices, a little-known plot twist

With space at a premium, the major reason producers want to get rid of the reels is that they don’t have place to store them.

Written by Atikh Rashid | Pune | Updated: March 26, 2017 3:32 pm
The films whose reels have been recovered include several blockbusters

NOT all films have happy endings. A few have endings sadder than others. An RTI query by The Sunday Express shows that as many as 308 films contained in over 3,000 reels have made their way to the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) over the years, after spending long durations in the lost property offices of Indian Railways across the country.

NFAI officials say these are film reels that have been dumped by producers and distributors as these no longer hold any financial value for them. The films include national award winners such as Chandni Bar and even blockbusters such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Munnabhai MBBS.

Although most of the reels the NFAI has received are of Hindi films, there are Malayalam, Marathi, English, Telugu, Kannada and Russian films as well. These are feature films and documentary films, and newsreels broadcast by Doordarshan in the 1980s.

Says NFAI Director Prakash Magdum, “They (the producers and distributors) book a parcel with the film reels to addresses that don’t exist, or no one comes to collect it at the office. These lie with the parcel office and then finally end up in the Lost Property Department of Railways, where they lie for weeks or months.”

In the old days, when films used to be shot on nitrate, filmmakers would sell the reels that were returned to them after their theatrical run was over to dealers, who would extract silver from them. From the 1990s, most of the films started getting shot in acetate and polyester, which don’t yield the producers any significant financial remuneration. At most the film can be melted and used in bangle manufacturing. Since 2011-2012, filmmaking and distribution has gone almost entirely digital, making physical prints redundant.

With space at a premium, the major reason producers want to get rid of the reels is that they don’t have place to store them.

R Y Joshi, the Deputy Chief Commercial Officer with Western Railway, from where a majority of the reels have come to the NFAI, says, “I remember years ago there was a circular from the Railway Board concerning the unclaimed film reels. It said that if that we have any unclaimed film reels, we should get in touch with the NFAI as they have some use for them. So we follow that instruction.”

The RTI reply shows that the NFAI has received reels from Mumbai (Western Railway), Visakhapatnam, Thiruvananthapuram, Bengaluru and Gaya. The NFAI preserves these films for archival purposes.

Director Magdum says that each and every film shot on celluloid is important to them from archival point of view. “Now, since the digital medium has taken over and almost 100 per cent industry output is digital, every film shot on celluloid needs to be rescued and each holds historical and cultural importance.” Just a few days ago, he was informed about “four-odd boxes” of reels lying with the lost property office in Mumbai, he says.

Some of the film’s whose reels have made it to the NFAI from lost property offices include Shyam Bengal’s Mammo (1994), Amitabh Bachchan’s debut film Saat Hindustani (1969), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Aks (2001), Sudhir Mishra’s Chameli (2004), Mithun Chakraborty’s hit Disco Dancer (1982), Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002), and Anant Balani’s Joggers’ Park, apart from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar (2001), and Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai MBBS (2003).

Reels of 11 Russian films have come to the NFAI, including that of the 1990 comedies Deja Vu and Pasport.

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