2113 AD. At the bicentennial celebrations of Indian cinema, a proud poster publicises – “Special retrospective: screening of a two-hour montage of all the surviving clips from films of Yash Chopra – a 20th century film director”.
Far fetched as the plot of a twilight zone episode but given our abysmal national history of film heritage preservation, it could well be a potential reality.
In early 20th century, India’s ravenous appetite to devour movies allowed us to produce about 1300 silent feature films. However unlike other national populations that graduated to becoming connoisseurs and protectors from mere consumers of cinema, we ceased in our growth.
Never treated as a respectable profession let alone a creative pursuit generating produce of enduring entertaining, cultural and social appeal, we lost most of this artistic legacy through the transit of time with bare remnants of about 15 films having survived and none in its entirety. Shamefully, the highest film producing nation does not have a single complete print of its first silent or talkie feature.
Unbeknownst to the pioneers, film-making started with a technical disadvantage of the recording medium itself. First the nitrate film (which was highly combustible) and then it’s advanced replacement the acetate “safety” base celluloid were both prone to chemical decomposition and hence death. Now, even prints from the 1980’s are under threat. Oh how the negative crumbles.
The decay was not inequitable as all film producing nations faced loss of precious and significant recorded material but none so more than us. The west, having lost a sizable booty, surrendered to restoration and archiving much earlier.
Birth of British Film Institute and Cinematheque Francaise (founded by Henri Langlois) in 1930’s led to safe preservation of the visual, cultural and historical treasure trove of European cinema even during the Second World War.
Closer home, our nation owes a significant debt (and in my opinion a Bharat Ratna) to Mr. P K Nair, who single-handedly searched, acquired and restored hundreds of ‘lost’ films and was instrumental in setting up the National Film Archive of India in Pune. Without him, we would be in no state to so ceremonially celebrate the ongoing century of Indian cinema.
His life’s work has recently been charmingly chronicled by filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur in the documentary “The Celluloid Man,”, a straight from the heart labour of love.
Given its limited budget and resources, the NFAI set up in 1964 to “trace, acquire and preserve for the use of posterity the heritage of national cinema”, has been doing credible work. It is shocking to learn many producers fail to even submit a print for free storage in climate controlled vaults, considering it akin to a financial loss.
However the fundamental difference lies in the role of the film professionals themselves.
In 1990, the world’s biggest film fan and encyclopedia Martin Scorsese created The Film Foundation, a non-profit organisation with successful working laureates of Hollywood including Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas to ensure that “these films – these works of art, historical records, and essential representations of our culture – will survive for future generations”.
Together they have restored 600 films so far. Its their way of giving back to what made them who they are by saying “thank you.”
And further advocating the desperate need to save this legacy, Scorsese in 2011 directed Hugo his love ode to the early masters of silent cinema (specifically to the genius of the first magician of cinema, George Melies).
As screen writing legend Mr. Salim Khan laments the passing of the old guard that existed and loved cinema for its unique self. He cites the variation in generational perception, “Without sounding idealistic or nostalgic, earlier when people came to the industry they measured their own worth by what they could give to it. Now they come with the sole intention of taking. No balance or deposits in their account but they want to withdraw.”
However if parallels are drawn, it still does not justify the apathy of our own veterans. Having extricated fame, wealth and immortality from the medium they have failed to return the favor. If you strip away the pretentious proclamations, only a handful are in it for the love of the movies.
And the rest, they really don’t give a damn.
Today, the names of Manilal Joshi, Naval Gandhi, Mohan Bhavnani and countless others are seldom heard outside of film academia. Their identity has perished with their life’s work.
Mortal men conceive enduring art. The artist is an extension of his creation and cannot exist without or outside of it. If all evidence of Tagore or Picasso’s work disappeared, time would erase their names too.
So, in this centurion year, is it too much to expect a ‘desi’ Scorsese to instill a sense of true pride of the art form in our professionals? Will a true hero in Bollywood finally stand up? Probably, not in another hundred years…
Note: An edited version of this article was also published in the Tribune.