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Lives in Sepia

Home movies, an obscure film genre in India, will be in the spotlight at the next edition of FD Zone.

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh | Updated: February 5, 2015 12:00:27 am
Suri, abraham, vintage films, documentaries Stills from Abraham’s Straight 8; Suri’s I for India; Lal’s These Old Frames.

Old, grainy recordings of birthday parties, visuals of a cloudy sky from a plane and a little girl’s hair being washed in a sink, play on the screen. As the camera zooms in on the girl’s incessant giggles, the next frame reveals a tall, dark and handsome man standing behind. Over the next sixteen minutes, Tahireh Lal’s film, These Old Frames, takes the viewer through candid moments of the girl growing up — family meetings, visits to trade exhibitions and trivial things such as her parents chatting over a glass of scotch.

The happy montages play out like flipping through an old family album until there is a sudden change in the narrative. “I began to distance myself from him, he couldn’t take the financial constraint as a result of the economic meltdown towards the end of ’60s. When he was angry, he would hit my brother and me,” narrates a woman as it cuts back to the video of the girl and her loving parents.

To make These Old Frames, Lal dug into her family archive to create a portrait of her grandfather through home videos he filmed over 50 years ago. The 2008 movie and Sandhya Suri’s I for India (2007), which chronicles immigration in the ’60s through the viewpoint of an Asian family, will be screened at FD Zone on February 7. The free-to-attend event is themed around home movies, an obscure film genre in India.

Home movies typically mean amateur films shot using Super 8 cameras that were in vogue in the ’60s and ’70s. The quality of the 8mm film is a favourite with contemporary artistes all over the world, although it is a dying format. “It is a distinct genre that turns personal material public. Old footage is edited with new shoots and interspersed with commentary to give it a social and historical context. Through the screenings, we want to highlight the meaning and value of amateur archival films in India,”says filmmaker Pankaj Rishi Kumar, curator of the event.

What elevates home movies to art is how artists appropriate and interpret the videos. Miss Lovely director Ashim Ahluwalia’s first film, a short called The Dust was made using home videos shot by his grandfather. Another example is Santana Issar’s 2006 short film Bare, in which the filmmaker uses home movie footage and recorded telephone conversations to reach out to her alcoholic father. But works such as these are few and far between in India.

Super 8 cameras were a luxury and only the affluent could afford them in pre-liberalisation India. Bangalore-based visual artist Ayisha Abraham has worked extensively in the genre and has been collecting amateur films for the past 15 years. Unlike Lal who used footage of her own family, Abraham works with films shot by others. Her role, she says, is akin to that of an archaeologist, who “unearths fragments of the past, uncovering a precious piece of film history that has been overlooked”. One of Abraham’s defining works is Straight 8 (2000), a movie that draws a portrait of Tom D’aguiar, an amateur filmmaker in 1940s Bangalore, using footage shot by him. Through her research, she found that the middle class and people from lower income groups made films on second-hand cameras.

However, most of these videos have not survived. Abraham went to public archives including the National Archive of India, Pune, only to be disappointed. “The biggest archive of the country didn’t keep amateur films. The only ones they acquired were those with some historical value. It included film footage donated by a Maharaja of a cricket match in the 1930s, a religious festival and other miscellaneous public events,” she says.

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