Alongside the shelves of reel at the National Film Archives of India in Pune, there is a phantom library, lined with phantom shelves, crowded with the lost films of India. Of the 1,300 movies known to have been produced in the silent era, 1913-1931, less than a dozen survive. Even the existing version of Raja Harischandra (1913), considered to be the “first, genuine indigenous feature film”, may be a 1917 remake of the original. And what of Alam Ara (1931), the first Indian talkie, or Kalidas, the Tamil film shot on the sets of Alam Ara? They turned to dust long before the NFAI was established in 1964.
Though much is lost, much waits to be saved. So it is reassuring that the I&B ministry has revived the idea of a National Film Heritage Mission to help preserve India’s cinematic legacy. Even after the NFAI was formed, film conservation left a lot to be desired. Hundreds of prints were lost to heat, dust and humidity; a fire at the archives in 2003 destroyed many more. While the storage spaces are set at temperatures suited to black and white prints, there are no vaults for colour. A laboratory for restoration is also a pipe dream for the cash-starved NFAI. The I&B ministry’s promise to devote funds to building new vaults, cleaning up prints and digitising them comes not a moment too soon.
It is important to preserve what is left but a film also needs a viewer — the restored and duplicated prints should be sold and circulated. They could even be made available online, like the reams of archival footage uploaded on YouTube by the I&B ministry last year. Films are the most direct record of how the people of yesterday moved and spoke, what expressions they thought signified love, grief or anger, what they valued and rejected. Watching films is vital to our sense of the past.