Leading Indian production and restoration house, Ultra, was founded in 1982 by its CEO, Sushilkumar Agrawal. The company currently has 300 staff, including 100 employees working on restoration and digitization projects.
Ultra’s activity began in video publishing and has evolved into production, distribution, studio facilities and digital media. The company has an extensive library of over 750 Indian titles and has been providing an increasing range of restoration services over the last decade, with over 100% growth recorded per year.
Its restoration work spans titles from its own library, as well as from major clients such as Rajshri, Mukta Arts and other leading Indian production houses. It has now begun to diversify into foreign markets, including two recent projects for Russia. Ultra’s CEO and founder Sushilkumar Agrawal was interviewed by Variety prior to his attendance at the Lumiere Festival’s Classic Films Market.
What have been your most successful film restoration projects to date?
We have restored over 300 films. Our prestigious projects include the works of veteran actors and directors such as Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Russian titles and many more. We feel very close to some projects, such as “Chori Chori” and “Pyaasa” since the source material available was of very poor quality, incomplete and scattered, collected from various sources. Restoring these titles and maintaining uniformity was a very big challenge for us. Most of our restoration works have been shown via TV screenings and foreign sales since there is very little market for theatrical releases of classic titles in India. However we are now interested in presenting our recognized titles, such as “Pyaasa” and “Kaagaz ke Phool”, at various festivals.
What are the main markets for your restoration work – the domestic market in India (film, TV, video etc) or other world markets?
So far, we have worked primarily in India for films and TV programs as well as a few projects from Russia. However, we have been receiving many enquiries from other parts of the world due to the standards of our work and our quality including our experience in restoring Indian and foreign films and our understanding of the importance of keeping these films alive. We are very open to exploring new challenges.
You mention that you’re also restoring Russian titles, can you explain a bit more about your foreign expansion plans?
Until now we have restored two Russian titles – “Quiet Day at War’s End” (1970) by Nikita Mikhalkov and the extremely famous “Kashchey the Immortals” (1944) by Aleksandr Rou. Our company is a regular exhibitor at various markets and festivals to promote restoration and digitization. In one of the Russian markets we were introduced to the owners of these titles. We are expecting several more major titles from Russia and look forward to continuing our relation and supporting the country in restoring their content. We are already in discussion to supply our restoration services to companies from South Korea, Indonesia and Canada. Of course, there is competition everywhere but restoring such works has given us a completely different level of satisfaction.
In terms of Indian titles does your work embrace both auteur films and “Bollywood” entertainment films?
Yes. Our work embraces all types of content, whether auteur films such as “Pyaasa”, “Kaagaz Ke Phool”, “Chori Chori” or Bollywood films of the late 1980s, and 1990s. In the case of the latter, the owners of these films did not really understand the importance of their films. Although recent works, it was very surprising for us to find similar issues in terms of the source materials as found in older films and this made our job even more complicated since these films were shot in color.
How do you choose which films to restore?
We like the art of restoration and preservation of cinema and believe that every film must be restored and preserved for generations. Hence we are open to all kinds of films. However there are some titles that we would like to restore first and present them to audiences.
Does Ultra also have production activities and can you briefly describe them?
Yes. We have produced 16 movies so far. Our most recent film was “Jalpari – The Desert Mermaid” which has been very well received in the overseas market and won various awards at film festivals.
You have mentioned the projects with the Guru Dutt Classics and the titles “Pyaasa” and “Kaagaz Ke Phool”. How did these projects come about?
Our restoration work for these titles is still underway and the projects are proceeding extremely well. We have acquired the negative rights along with the copyright of all the Guru Dutt titles in perpetuity. Hence, we are now the proud owners of these titles.
Does this acquisition of the rights to the Guru Dutt titles form part of a wider acquisition and library strategy, and if so what are its main strategy lines?
Ultra forayed into the business of content acquisition and aggregation 25 years ago and since then has been expanding its library every year, which is exploited worldwide across all medias and platforms. However the Guru Dutt titles came as a personal interest to me, as I am very interested in promoting the restored versions in the overseas market to make audiences aware of the quality of our cinema.
Who are the main clients for your restoration work – state organisations, private companies with film libraries etc.?
At present, our main clients are private companies with film libraries but there are some great works in the world and state organizations play an important role in passing these to the right hands. Hence we have approached a few organizations to support them in restoring their films.
What are the main developments and key issues facing your business at present?
We are always involved in research and development to make the restoration process easier. Our development team works very hard and with the technical advances in today’s world, we are always modifying processes and coming up with new plug-ins to ensure that our restoration work is more and more advanced.
When competing for foreign restoration work, what’s your main competitive edge – do you offer specific restoration techniques that can’t be found elsewhere? Or do you compete in terms of price?
We aren’t sure whether the techniques used in our restoration process are also used abroad. However, we are definitely competitive in terms of our quality and the prices we offer.