Tapan Sinha’s Arohi (1964) was in the first lot of celluloid films that reached National Film Archive of India (NFAI) for preservation, soon after it was set up in Pune in February 1964. Arohi, which released the same year as Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, won the Silver Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival and Diploma of Merit at the London Film Festival, besides the President’s silver medal for best feature film and best story award at the National Film Awards. It was the National Film Award Committee that had sent the “release print” to NFAI.
For the last 10 years, the print has been in a now sealed building in Mumbai, out of NFAI’s reach. Arohi is one of nine “important, unique celluloid film prints” that had been sent to Kine Sixteen Lab in 2007, only to be locked up in 2010 following a dispute between the “conductor of the lab business” and the owner of the property, according to documents accessed by The Indian Express and replies received to questions under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The prints had been sent for duplication as they had become “smelly and shrunk”.
The documents show, additionally, that NFAI got to know of the dispute just a month after the premises had been sealed in 2010 as the owner had approached court. Yet NFAI officials have failed to get the custody of the prints even today — it is yet to file an intervention application in the civil court where the battle over the lab property is still on.
The celluloid prints locked in the property include another Tapan Sinha film, Atithi (1965), which was nominated for four awards including the Golden Lion and Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. The other prints include Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama (1966).
Arangetram (1973) by Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner K Balachander marked Kamal Haasan’s debut in an adult role. Uthama Puthiran (1940) was the first Tamil film featuring an actor in a double role; it is also remembered for German technicians in the crew. Another Tamil film locked up is Ponni (1953) by A S A Sami and C S Rao. Bagha Jatin (1958) by Hiranmoy Sen portrays the life of the revolutionary freedom fighter of that name, while Veer Rajputani (1955) was directed by Jamshed “J B H” Wadia, pioneer of the action genre in Indian cinema. One film is listed as Dholak but the documents accessed do not give specifics; IMDb lists a rarely seen (just 5 votes) 1951 film of that name directed by R K Shorey, written by I S Johar and featuring Ajit.
Files read by The Indian Express show that NFAI had been sending deteriorating prints to Kine Sixteen Lab, located on the Jyoti Studio campus on Grant Road, Mumbai, for several years. It also sent celluloid raw stock, worth lakhs of rupees, for duplication of those prints. In 2007, NFAI sent 16 films including the nine that are now locked up; the rest have been returned.
NFAI director Prakash Magdum told The Indian Express that of the nine films locked inside the lab, copies of five films were in NFAI’s possession in one format or the other as per records available. On the other hand, in all its communications with the law and justice ministry, police and its lawyer, as well as in internal notes accessed by The Indian Express, NFAI has maintained that eight of the nine prints were “unique single copies”.
With work pending after the prints were sent, three years passed before NFAI officials sent an official to collect the originals and the raw stock. “It’s noticed that your landline is disconnected and you are ignoring calls on mobile which [we] find very disgusting as a business person,” NFAI film preservation officer Kiran Dhiwar wrote to Kine Sixteen “proprietor” Shyamala Ramani on April 21, 2010. “Now, we are deputing our representative to collect our film material sent for laboratory work time to time and the completed work of the subjects as per our pending orders.”
It was after this visit that NFAI officials realised that the lab had shut and been locked months earlier; that “Mrs Shyamala Ramani”, whom NFAI had addressed as “proprietor”, was “conductor of the business”; that litigation was pending between Ramani and Homsi Homi Mistry, the owner of the business as well as the premises. The laboratory was sealed after Mistry allegedly took “forcible possession” without allowing Ramani to take out her valuable articles, which included the film prints and raw celluloid stock worth Rs 35 lakh.
NFAI contacted Mistry’s lawyer requesting her to allow them to inspect the premises and take custody of the prints. According to documents, the lawyer turned down the request and asked NFAI officials to approach Gomdevi police station. The senior police inspector at Gomdevi allegedly refused to let NFAI officials in, citing the fact that the matter was pending, and asked them to approach the civil court for permission, the documents show.
Over a year more passed before NFAI officials wrote to the Union law ministry requesting it to appoint a lawyer for arguing NFAI’s case through an intervention application. Five years after that, NFAI hasn’t yet approached the court with its plea. NFAI officials said they are doing their best to get the possession of the reels.
“Kindly understand that this matter is almost 8-9 years old,” said Magdum, the NFAI director. “Initially help from police department was sought. As soon as I came to know about this matter, NFAI has initiated legal proceedings as per government process. The government counsel has been appointed in order to take up this case in the court of law for recovery of said material and we are actively pursuing the matter so that the films can be brought back.”
Advocate Vinod Joshi was engaged by the law ministry’s Department of Legal Affairs in September 2012 to represent NFAI. Till today, however, no case has been filed, documents show. “I would not comment about the matter until there are written orders to do so from the [legal affairs] department,” Joshi said, when contacted.