Government plans to digitize 8,000 films

India’s film history stretches back to the early part of the 20th century, and it’s perhaps a reflection of the country’s chaotic past that copies of its historically significant movies have been scattered far and wide — among filmmakers and their heirs, private collectors and government facilities.

The government-funded National Film Archives of India has, since 1964, been acquiring and restoring films that were box office hits or of “good moral value,” says NFAI head Vijay Jadhav. But many of the films, dating back to the early 1900s, have been lost or are in poor condition.

“No one has kept good copies. All these big producers think they (the prints) are being maintained scientifically, but they’re not,” Jadhav says. “Just like we go to the doctor every year to check our blood pressure, films need constant survey once every two years.”

Some films were kept on the campus of the Film and TV Institute of India in Pune. A 2003 fire in its vaults destroyed nearly all the originals, including such classics as 1936’s “Achhut kanya” and 1950’s “Anmol ratan.” But, Jadhav says, about 6,500 pics were saved because they had already been transferred from volatile nitrate bases to more stable acetate stock and stored elsewhere on the campus.

Many films outside this collection have vanished because few rights holders expected to monetize the films further and were unaware of the proper way to do maintain them.

“There was no scientific storage until 1991,” says MIT alum Jadhav, a chemistry major who took over at NFAI in 2008. “I noticed a large number had deteriorated to a very noticeable level.”

This year, the government approved a budget of 66 million rupees ($13.9 million) to cover efforts over the next five years. The agency is charged with digitizing 8,000 films and restoring 2,000 in that time. The films will be preserved as 35mm prints, which endure better than other formats, per Jadhav.

The NFAI commissioned Reliance MediaWorks to digitize and restore films. Its upgraded version of Mrinal Sen’s 1983 film “Khandahar” (“The Ruins”) unspooled in the Cannes Classics sidebar in May.

“There was a huge element of pride, it was a very creative challenge,” Reliance MediaWorks topper Anil Arjun says of his company’s work in fixing up the 27-year-old pic. “You had to ensure consistency across frame by frame.”

Arjun envisions eventually creating not only digital but also high-def Blu-ray versions that would help the public rediscover its filmic past. The company has restored pics dating back to the 1899 silent movie “Panorama of Calcutta,” 1936’s “Miya bibi” and 1937’s “Ambikapathy.” The films are not just in Hindi but also in the Bengali, Tamil, Marathi and even Oriya languages.

“Material that’s 70 to 80 years old requires a tremendous amount of work and very careful handling,” Arjun says, citing scratches on some images and missing borders. To date, Reliance has finished 70 of the 1,000 films it is working on.

The poor state of even relatively new pics like “Khandahar” illustrates the problems facing restoration efforts. Jadhav says he’s frequently told by rights owners that they’ve kept their pics safe, but more often than not, that just means they’ve screened the films.

“(The producers) take the best copies, convert to digital and then sell the rights,” Jadhav says, noting that’s actually something the NFAI — which currently gets just a nominal fee for its work — would like to do as well.

“Why not go forward with the monetization?” says Jadhav.

He’s trying persuade rights owners to give more films to his agency to restore. He continues to approach film societies around the country, detailing his ambition to help preserve India’s film history.

The Indian government is not the only body restoring the sub-continent’s films. Italy’s Bologna Cinematheque restored Ritwik Ghatak’s “A River Named Titas,” which screened in Cannes Classics this year, and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences is working on Satyajit Ray’s “Shatranj ke khilari.”

For film students, academics, critics and classic cinema buffs, however, current efforts amount to a mere drop in the bucket.

The Indian Film Censor Board sees nearly 1,000 films a year, and while some may never get theatrical release, that adds up to a lot of movies over more than a century.

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