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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

How to protect India’s film heritage

🔴 Amrit Gangar writes: It needs better preservation and archiving, not over-centralisation

Written by Amrit Gangar |
Updated: December 30, 2021 9:14:24 am
Kerala efficiently manages all film-related activities under the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Institutions, especially public-funded cultural institutions anywhere in the world, have certain historical priorities while remaining flexible to the upheavals caused by technological and political exigencies. Historically, they have been known to perform better without the shackles of centralised power or unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles. Their ROCE (Return on the Capital Employed) is not as tangible as that of iron and steel – their intangibility lives in the collective pulse of the nation, which throbs in its artistic creations, including cinema. In this context, it would be interesting to try and understand the history of the four so-called media units of the central government — Films Division, Children’s Film Society of India, National Film Archive of India and Directorate of Film Festivals — viewing the recent move to merge them with yet another almost non-performing unit, the National Film Development Corporation.

For many years, scholars have been questioning the treatment of cinema as an object of either “information” or “broadcasting” given that it is essentially neither. There is an obvious defect at the roots.

When, in 1964, the NFAI was established, 17 long years had elapsed since India’s independence, during which time many of the extant negatives of feature films had perished, before they could make their way to the archival vaults in Pune. Imagine, we have no trace of our first talkie film Alam Ara, which released in 1931. Ninety years is not long on the archival timescale. But if we count the real time from 1964, we are left with only 33 years to enrich India’s archival vaults, a country of so many cinemas. In this time, India had already produced over 7,500 feature films in all major languages.

Leave alone silent feature films (produced between 1913 and 1934; numbering over 1,300, of which barely 2 per cent survives), large chunks of early post-1931 talkie films have also disappeared. Once, the late P K Nair, the NFAI’s founder-curator-director told me about meeting Ardeshir Irani at Jyoti Studio (where Irani’s Imperial Films Company once stood) when he was looking for all the extant film prints in labs and studios in Mumbai. Irani told him that a few prints of Alam Ara were lying in some corner around there, but then his son interjected, disputing him and added that “the old man had gone senile”. The point, however, is an unhappy conjecture. Had the NFAI been established a decade earlier, perhaps its vaults would have possessed the prints of India’s first talkie film, and much more. This only indicates how important it is to empower the archiving exercises at the national level. Federally, they need to be prioritised, empowering the film archiving body as an independent, less bureaucratically burdened body without recourse to over-centralisation and merging marriages.

The USA has over 30 major film archives, museums and libraries, most of which are public-funded bodies. The National Film Registry is the US’s National Film Preservation Board’s collection of films selected for preservation for their historical, cultural and aesthetic contributions while the massive Library of Congress has many search options available online for easy public access. It exists to serve the American citizens and the people of the world at large. A true Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

In fact, India should have as many archival facilities as the number of states and Union Territories so that poor students from far-off villages who wish to pursue research can have easier access to not only NFAI’s collection of films, but also its books and other reading and viewing materials.

This could also be individually done by the Films Division (established in 1948), which is not only a production unit but also a repository of India’s history on analogue and digital media since independence. Most of India’s leading filmmakers, besides many younger filmmakers and artists, have made films for the FD, making the nation’s cultural and audio-visual heritage rich and palpable. These need to be freely disseminated among people by preserving them carefully and compassionately. No private entrepreneur would have ventured into this realm as it would not be a good “commercial” proposition for him.

In its library, the CFSI has many films that need to be shown widely across the country. There are a number of national and international award-winners, providing engagement to young minds. Over half a century ago, FD and CFSI made a wonderful bouquet of fiction and non-fiction animation and puppet films for inculcating good civic sense, too. I was part of the monthly Sunday morning screenings of CFSI’s films at a cinema house in the suburb of Kandivali in Mumbai. They were organised by practising medical doctors attached to the Kandivali Medical Association. The screenings saw hundreds of children and young students enthusiastically gathering to see films; filmmakers would attend some of the programmes and interact with the children. All these activities were done with no profit motive in mind. The word “monetisation” hadn’t entered our conscience.

NFAI organises regular screenings of rare films from its collection in its campus auditorium in Pune (open to the public on nominal membership basis), while the FD and the CFSI have their biennial international film festivals. I have closely followed the launch of the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) for documentary, short and animation films by the Films Division, which has groomed many young filmmakers in this country.

Then there is the DFF, founded in 1973, which, besides organising the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and events abroad, also takes care of several other films-related events, including the Dadasaheb Phalke Awards.

All these bodies under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting function individually as well as in coordination, each carrying its own history, recording the many national ups and downs as public services with no domineering monetary or profit motive.

How about setting up an umbrella Chalachitra Academy? The only state that has one is Kerala which effectively and efficiently manages all film-related activities under the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy. Such an umbrella academy would help retain the cultural ethos of a nation under an over-centralised dispensation.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 30, 2021 under the title ‘The safekeeping of film’. The writer is a Mumbai-based film scholar, curator, historian and writer

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