Archives of a lost era


It’s not just wildlife; even old movies are endangered species now. What is left needs to be salvaged, and fast! Movies are as perishable as any other product and not preserving them would amount to cultural suicide.

And, who knows it better than film archivist Shivendra Dungarpur who has taken upon himself the arduous task of preserving and restoring the rich cinematic heritage of India.

Dungarpur, who was in the city recently, gave an inspiring talk on ‘Film heritage: rich, diverse and endangered’ at Maulana Azad National Urdu University, and explained that it’s not just commercial films at risk, but also silent era movies, documentaries and newsreels. Their preservation amounts to protection of audio-visual heritage.

Few know the exact lifespan of a film. CDS and DVDs last for 3 to 5 years, hard disk for 6 years and LTO (Linear Tape Open) data technology has a life of 30 years subject to periodic upgradation. The magnetic storage medium has a life of 30 to 50 years, whereas celluloid films can stretch up to 126 years and more. While the switch to digital technology happened in 2014, certain filmmakers like George Lucas of Star Wars fame are now returning to the celluloid media. “I myself have an emotional attachment to celluloid – the sound of projector, the flicker threshold,” says Shivendra whose documentary Celluloid Man earned him two National Awards. The 2012 feature documentary is a tribute to India’s legendary film archivist, PK Nair, and was screened in more than 50 film festivals around the world.

Beyond salvaging

Between 1931 and 1941, of the 250 sound films made, only 15 exist now. By 1950, the country lost 70 to 80 per cent of films, including the first talkie movie Alam Aara. Of the 1,700 silent films, only 5 to 6 survive today, while in South India, only one Malayalam silent movie out of 124 exists. The Bombay Natural History Society also lost valuable bird-watching films made by famous ornithologist, Salim Ali. Recent movies like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maachis are also not available in celluloid form anymore.

The driving force behind destruction of celluloid is lure of silver. One can extract 3 kg of silver by washing and stripping bare 50 films, where 35 mm films command a price of Rs 100 per kg. The colour movies come in handy to make colour bangles.  Many others were destroyed in vault fires. In a country, where abject poverty is a debilitating issue, saving films isn’t a pressing concern. Shivendra is of the opinion that many confuse films with only Bollywood, and don’t think of documentaries and newsreels. “After so many years, film is still fighting for its acceptance as an art form,” deplores Shivendra, whose Film Heritage Foundation has won the appreciation of World Cinema Foundation of Martin Scorsese with whom he has collaborated on two world class restoration projects. They are Uday Shankar’s 1948 classic film Kalpana and Sri Lankan filmmaker, Dr Lester James Peries’ 1970 film Nidhanaya.

The restored films were premiered at Cannes and Venice Film festivals. Thanks to his efforts, India’s first Konkani film, Mogacho Aunddo, could be saved. “The last surviving reel was brought to me in a very bad shape. And, I have to repair it frame by frame,” remarks Shivendra who treats celluloid films like a child in ICU.

The award-winning archivist believes cinematic history is an integral part of the country’s social and cultural heritage, which is being neglected. So far, his foundation has trained 200 persons in the art of film preservation. Besides, it is also helping out Sri Lanka and Nepal in preserving their films.

Film restoration, according to Shivendra requires study of film production, knowledge of cinematographer’s work, familiarity with work of art director and costume designer. A restored film should be absolutely correct to the vision of filmmaker. Shivendra is a man in hurry. He is in a race against time to save what he can at some point.