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As India enters the 100th year of its film history,it must confront its lost reels

As India enters the 100th year of its film history,it must confront its lost reels

Only one reel of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra survives in the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) in Pune. Even that might be part of the 1917 remake of the film,and not of the 1913 original,which reportedly released on May 3. India’s first “genuine”,“indigenous” feature film,which tells the story of the mythical king who gave his all for the sake of truth,seems to have receded into myth itself — an originary myth of Indian cinema,a myth of heroic endeavour in which Phalke emerges,Gandhi-like,as the “Father of Indian Cinema”. There is footage of him shooting,directing actors,editing films by cutting out sections of the reel. And as India enters the hundredth year of its film history,it must confront just that — missing reel.

As we never tire of pointing out,India is one of the most prolific producers of films in the world,averaging 700-800 films every year. But for every film that is preserved,reams of reel are lost. Of the 1,300 films known to have been produced in the silent era (1913-1931),for instance,less than a dozen survive. Speaking at an archivers’ symposium a few years ago,Lalit Kumar Upadhyaya,then director of NFAI,mentioned that countless prints decayed in storage because of inadequate maintenance procedures,others couldn’t even be stored as there was no space. In a country like India,heat,dust and humidity were the three enemies of film preservation.

But the problem is more than just circumstantial. An ethic of preservation has been slow to seep in,both in state institutions and with those who produce films. Partly because film archiving came late to India. The NFAI was set up in 1964,more than 50 years after Phalke made Raja Harishchandra. By then,thousands of prints must have been lost. According to P.K. Nair,founding director of NFAI,prints of the first Indian talkie,Alam Ara (1931),had disappeared long before the archiving body was even established. Then a fire at NFAI in 2003 wiped out many more old prints. Upadhyaya also spoke of producers and film companies destroying reels of films that were no longer commercially viable. The notion of films as socio-historical documents seems to be of fairly recent vintage.


The physical absence of early film reels has translated into something more — a vital part of our cinematic history has been erased,and with it,a part of our national memory. For these films drew from and disseminated a shared pool of images,creating what film scholar Jyotika Virdi calls a “national fiction”,which would,in turn,construct a “fictional nation” — one that could be dreamt of and fought for. In the 1920s,the British had refused to sponsor Indian films; they felt it was not a “nation building” industry. But it was,starting right from Raja Harishchandra,just not the kind of nation they had in mind.

The making of Raja Harishchandra is chosen as the originary moment of Indian cinema because,though equipment for shooting the film was bought from England,Phalke used the technology in a completely indigenous enterprise. He reportedly funded the film by selling his wife’s jewellery,much like the way Tagore raised money for his swadeshi project in Santiniketan. For most of the next decade,Phalke would borrow from traditional Indian money markets,setting a pattern for the way the film industry operated in those early years. Raja Harishchandra is said to have brought together a number of Indian art forms — a style of acting reminiscent of folk theatre,a plot constructed along the lines of early Indian novels,a visual aesthetic borrowed from the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma.

Phalke’s choice of subject for his first film is poignant. The story of Harishchandra is idiomatic to the Indian imagination. Perhaps it is also no coincidence that the king,after years of suffering and humiliation,wins back his kingdom through sheer nobility. Colonised India might have found the dream of sovereignty in an idealised,mythic past. Phalke’s subsequent films — such as Satyavan Savitri (1914),Lanka Dahan (1917) — were also rooted in mythological and epic themes. So a tiny Krishna,played by Phalke’s daughter,bats a massive serpent into submission and Hanuman chugs across a chalky sky.

Films made in that first decade were mostly didactic,says Virdi,with the patriotic,democratic and indigenous ranged against the treasonous,feudal,foreign. Both filmmakers and audiences seem to adopt,quite publicly,a set of values that were in resistance to the existing power structures,values that would eventually be recognised as national.

Filmmaking would change with the studio era of the 1930s,when foreign capital and collaboration became part of Bombay cinema and the notion of entertainment started to dominate. But the film industry,from its very inception,became the marker of a burgeoning modernity,and cinema supplied modern India with the first images of itself. With the destruction of prints from pre-Independence India,these images are now irretrievably lost. The memory of ourselves as a nation must necessarily remain incomplete.