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Classics in limbo

May 29, 2010 06:10:12 PM IST
Shoma A. Chatterji, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
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At the Cannes International Film Festival recently, Mrinal Sen's KHANDHAR was screened to great audience applause. Without the restoration of the print, Sen's work could have sunk into oblivion. But there are great many more landmark films by masters that might be lost forever.

India is the biggest film producing country in the world. In terms of quality too, we have gifted the world many unforgettable films by talented filmmakers in every genre of cinema one can think of - period films, literary classics, love stories, road movies, adventure tales, and so on. However, many of these film prints have been completely damaged for want of proper infrastructure and maintenance. Few people cared to think about the long-term significance of films and their contribution to the cultural matrix of a country's history and development. It is the collective social responsibility of every country to see that all films remain in the public domain for all time.

In India, many landmark films are lost to time for lack of proper preservation. Sen's MRIGAYA, CHALCHITRA, PUNASCHA and ABASHESHE and Tapan Sinha's ANKUSH are among those that have been damaged. Sen's EK DIN PRATIDIN and Ritwik Ghatak's AJANTRIK are among the films that have been damaged because of poor preservation.

Many of Ray's short films and documentaries produced by the Films Division and Doordarshan, such as THE INNER EYE, a documentary on blind painter Binode Bihari Mukherjee, and SADGATI, his telefilm based on Munshi Premchand's story are lying with the government. Ray's other films have now been restored by Josef Lindner, the preservation officer of the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles.

Some years ago, internationally renowned filmmaker Martin Scorcese took time off to devote himself to restoration of old films. "The credit for this international movement towards restoration of damaged, 'lost' and old films was set in motion by him. He set up the World Cinema Foundation (WCF). Different organizations across the world are contributing to this effort. He had expressed a wish to restore my films. But this is just the beginning," said Mrinal Sen before flying off to Cannes. Last year, Sen had to decline an offer to hold a mini retrospective of his films because he had no good quality prints of his films like BHUVAN SHOME and KHANDHAR.

In Cannes 2009, Scorcese announced that the WCF had partnered with B-Side Entertainment, the Criterion Collection and 'The Auteurs' to distribute WCF-restored titles online.

Cannes Classics, created in 2004, is a platform for showing restored films, as also lost- and-found- again films as part of their re-release in cinemas or on DVD. Other films screened in this section this year were greats like THE BATTLE OF THE RAILS (France, 1946) by Rene Clement, BOUDO SAVED FROM DROWNING (1932), TRISTANA (1970) by Luis Bunuel, THE LEOPARD (1963) by Luchino Visconti, LA CAMPAGNE DE CICERON (1989) by Jacques Davila, THE TIN DRUM, (1979) by Volker Schlöndorff, AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) by John Huston, KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN (1985) by Hector Babenco, THE GREAT LOVE (1969) by Pierre Etaix, La 317e SECTION (1965) by Pierre Schoendoerffer, and Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960), HAPPY GO LUCKY (1946) by Marcel L'Herbier. Cinematheque of Bologna have restored two short films: Il RUSCELLO DI RIPASOTTILE (1941) by Roberto Rossellini, and THE ELOQUENT PEASANT (1970) by Chadi Abdel Salam.

KHANDHAR has been restored by Reliance MediaWorks with the support of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) as a part of its initiative for digital restoration and content processing of over 1000 classic films. Reliance MediaWorks's facility in India is one of the world's largest comprehensive digital restoration and content processing services. Spread over 90,000 sq ft, it employs trained digital image processing artists and is built as per standards of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

"Reliance MediaWorks has a unique blend of best in class restoration tools and proprietary technologies, coupled with organically created talent pool that offers the optimum combination of scale, skills and solutions for all restoration needs including challenging restoration projects like KHANDHAR," claims Hemen Doshi, COO Digital Media Imaging (media outsourcing arm of Reliance MediaWorks).

"Within a brief span of time, Reliance MediaWorks has established an integrated international presence in the film restoration service space. It can offer high end restoration and image enhancement services across India, US, UK and Japan. Our processes are internationally ground-breaking as we continue to develop our technology. We are honoured to have worked on restoring KHANDHAR which was selected for the Cannes Classics 2010 section," says Anil Arjun, CEO, Reliance MediaWorks.

Belated though, NFAI has at last begun work on digitalizing and preserving film titles that belong to it. With about 5,000 titles to work on, this is no easy task. NFAI director Vijay Jadhav, a chemical engineer himself, rues the fact that some films have been lost forever. "We're working on a priority basis. Films with only one remaining print are being restored first," he says. Since December 2008, NFAI has digitized about 60 titles. These include Mehboob Khan's WATAN (1938), P C Barua's SHAPMUKTI and AMIRI, Ezra Mir's BEETE DIN and Mrinal Sen's MATIRA MANISHA. Restoration of a single film can run up a bill of about Rs. 10 lakh.

"In the West, restoration is done with the help of a chemical process, for which we don't have the tools. If we have to follow the same procedure, we'll have to outsource the materials and the experts and that could cost a bomb. In India, a digital form of restoration is more doable, but this is less effective than the chemical process," says Sandip Ray, filmmaker son of Satyajit Ray.

Indian filmmakers on their own are also trying to restore their lost and damaged films of the 1960s and'70s in a crisper, digital format. "Over the past two years, filmmaker Manoj Kumar has spent Rs.30 lakh on the restoration of four of his films - UPKAAR (1967), SHOR (1972), ROTI KAPDA AUR MAKAAN (1972) and KRANTI (1981) at the Ramnord Laboratories in Mumbai," informs Debesh Banerjee, journalist. Manoj Kumar has also digitalised 40,000 working stills from his films.

Chetan Anand's NEECHA NAGAR (1946), commercially unreleased, was India's first film to be internationally recognized, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes that year. Written by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and based on Maxim Gorky's Lower Depths, the film examined the great divide between the classes. The film's last print was all but lost when cinematographer Subroto Mitra discovered it at a grocery store in Kolkata, two decades after its making. Mitra dutifully deposited the print at NFAI, where it now lies. Chetan Anand's son Ketan Anand is working on the colourisation and restoration of his father's black-and-white war epic HAQEEQAT (1964) based on the Indo-China war of 1962. He has given the negative of the film to QLab in Mumbai more than a year ago for restoration.

However, filmmaker Shyam Benegal does not agree that colourisation is equal to restoration. He believes that restoration implies bringing a film back to the state in which it was when it was first released.

(Shoma A. Chatterji is an award-winning film critic)

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