The Extraordinary Network Across India That’s Helping Restore Our Film Heritage, One Trashed Reel At A Time

From Alam Ara to Black Friday, from Paanch to Thalapathi, the list of Indian films whose prints have been lost is long. Not only have we lost almost 80 percent of our films made before 1964, we continue to lose recent ones too. But there are some extraordinary efforts now underway to hunt and restore these films, some of which involve the very people who used to destroy these prints for profit.

Film restoration pix

Disaster movie. By AndreasS via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


One October afternoon in 2013,  a scrap dealer based out of Goregaon, a Mumbai suburb, left his phone number at Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Tardeo office in South Mumbai. Dungarpur, a documentary filmmaker and film archivist who, over the last five years, has been collecting prints of movies that are considered long-lost, was intrigued. He called back.

Aap kuch filmon-wilmon ka kaam karte ho na? [You do something related to films, right?]” the dealer asked. “My friend has a film lying around with him that’s been thrown away by someone. I don’t know where it’s come from. Do you want it?”

“Sure, why not,” said Dungarpur. “But what is it?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you come and take a look?”

Dungarpur is no stranger to these strange calls. The word is out on the street – among scrap dealers – that this man is looking for something “film-related”. A few months ago, someone turned up at his office unannounced with a truck full of film reel cans. Dungarpur didn’t know the guy, and his wife wasn’t sure what was going on; she got so worried after a point that she wanted to call the cops.

So Dungarpur, to begin with, didn’t take the scrap dealer’s phone call seriously; he didn’t even have the time.

“You must come and take a look. I have around 10 cans lying with me.”  

“Ten cans,” Dungarpur paused. “What is the material?”

Kuch film ka material hai – something related to films,” came the reply. “You remember those old film reels? Something like that. We are planning to burn them.”

“No, hold on to them. Let’s meet.”

Dungarpur met the guy, got the reels from him, and took them to his office. With the help of a few veteran print checkers, he thoroughly examined the reels and the end result stunned him: the scrap heap had just handed him the original camera negative of K Shankar’s 1963 film, Bharosa, starring Guru Dutt and Asha ParekhDungarpur, however, wanted to check further: whether he had the film’s original camera negative or a dupe negative (the former is the most preferred source material for film restoration). He read the serial number on the canister, and cross-checked with Kodak’s online inventory that catalogues the serial numbers of original camera negative of films processed at the lab. The numbers matched. In the next few days, the original camera negative moved to where it ideally belonged: in Dungarpur’s temperature-controlled vault, at Byculla, that would prevent it from any further decaying. 

Dungarpur doesn’t remember the exact amount he ended up paying the guy, but it wasn’t much. “Two hundred bucks or something,” he says.

The scrap dealer was clueless about the real worth of those film cans, since he didn’t see them as Dungarpur did. What’s more mysterious is when film producers, distributors, or filmmakers also don’t understand their worth. The story of Dungarpur stumbling onto the camera negative of Bharosa is not an outlier; it is emblematic of how much of our cinematic heritage is literally lying on the streets. 

Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer Subrata Mitra, for instance, bought the reel of Chetan Anand’s 1946 film, Neecha Nagar (the only Indian film to have won the Palme d’Or at the Festival de Cannes), from a Calcutta grocery shop for Rs 100 in the mid 1960s and deposited it at the National Film Archives of India (NFAI). Similarly, Dungarpur once found a rare print of Devaki Bose’s Ratnadeep (1951) outside the office of a film distributor in Kolkata, but the print had decomposed beyond repair. On one of Dungarpur’s visits to the NFAI, in Pune, he noticed a huge pile of film cans lying in the basement near the storage vaults. Dungarpur wanted to know the reason. He asked the Film Preservation Officer, who told him a story that sums up the mindset of many Indian producers over the years and the pitiable condition of film preservation in our country – when a film ran its course in theaters, producers were typically left with a lot of film prints; clueless about what to do with them, they dumped those prints on trains without any destinations marked to them, so the unclaimed prints would be Indian Railways’ legal responsibility. The Railway officers, who found these prints, duly sent them back to the NFAI, where they were strewn around in a dusty, cobweb-riddled basement: like little waifs sitting on pavements, longing for a home.    

Since the release of Dungarpur’s first feature-length documentary, Celluloid Man (2013, based on the life of the NFAI’s director, and India’s foremost film archivist, PK Nair), the disturbing statistics about India’s older cinematic heritage are well-known: around 1,700 silent films were made in India, out of which the NFAI has only five or six complete films, and less than a dozen in fragments; we lost around 70-80 percent of the films made in the country before 1964 (the year NFAI was established); Madras’ film industry produced 124 narrative features and 38 documentaries in the silent era, out of which only one, Marthanda Verma (1931), survives today.

These numbers are deeply unsettling. However, you would assume that our cultural apathy is gradually dying with time, but it is not. We have failed to preserve many of our recently released films too – the original camera negatives of films such as Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), Thalapathi(1991), Khamoshi (1996), Maachis (1996), Paanch (2003), or Black Friday (2007) are also not known to exist anymore. 

* * *

All films are commercial; some films are more commercial than others. And it’s these “more commercial” films – ones that had a successful run at the box office – that have a greater chance of being preserved and restored. Because if a film doesn’t do well, it ceases to hold any meaning for most producers or distributors; it’s systematically destroyed, dumped or sold. But a profitable film is treated like a venerable cash cow; it’s cared for and well-looked after and, hence, is more likely to survive.  

Many commercially successful films, even though not exactly recent releases, have a good chance of either running at a small town or a village’s run-down theater or lying at a distributor’s office (in the hope of a re-release). Dungarpur has understood this mindset of the distributors – that they only care about films if they are earning, or can earn, money –  and he uses that knowledge for his benefit. By ‘following the money’ (tracing locations where old movies are still playing in theaters) to secure film prints, Dungarpur thinks less as an archivist and more as a distributor. He doesn’t do the grunt work himself; he relies on a few foot soldiers who do the sleuthing for him. 

So, in October 2014, when Dungarpur received a call from Gulzar, who wanted a 35mm print of Maachis to screen at the 45th International Film Festival of India, in Goa, the next month, he knew exactly whom to contact.

“I have my people,” he says. “You can call them ‘refined kabadiwalahs’.”

These ‘refined kabadiwalahs’, however, are not scrapsellers; they are antique dealers who have a knack for finding old and discarded collectibles. “They don’t make money out of films because they don’t consider films important. But with me they have made money,” laughs Dungarpur. “They are not interested in the value of these films; they are interested in the buying and selling. So I tell them, ‘Go and find this particular film.’ They have connections all over India; they make their calls, and we keep in touch.”

One of these dealers found the print of Maachis in a village in Madhya Pradesh. The print, then, came to Dungarpur via Indore. “I think he found the print by chance. He might have gone to an old theater (which often screens, among B-grade films, reruns of popular Bollywood films), where it’s not uncommon to find a lot of prints lying around,” says Dungarpur. “So, maybe, that’s how he found the print of Maachis.”

But, Dungarpur says, that guy won’t talk to journalists. “He is a pretty difficult man. And, I think, I can probably understand why: he doesn’t want to disclose his source – as much as I would like him to – because then I would have pulled that source directly.”

Around April 2013, filmmaker Kiran Rao wanted to screen Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak for its director Mansoor Khan as the film had recently turned 25. She couldn’t find the film’s print and had to play it on DVD instead. A few weeks later, she got in touch with Dungarpur, who tugged at his string of contacts, and in a few weeks, he received a 35mm print of the film. “This one, too, came [from] out of station,” he says. “We let the word out; we kept track of it.”

Dungarpur has received around a dozen films or so from these contacts. The 35mm print of the Madhubala-starrer Baadal (1951) came to him via this route too. After Dungarpur receives these outstation prints, he inspects them thoroughly. “I make it very clear that unless I check each print – [to see] whether it contains the entire film – I won’t take the delivery. Because in small towns, they edit their own versions as well (splicing a few reels of B-grade flicks into original reels). We have also got a couple of prints in the past that didn’t have the films we were looking for.”         

Once the prints are checked, cleaned, played, and their defects noted on a sheet of paper, Dungarpur catalogues them in his inventory, and stores them in his climate-controlled vault that now stores around 150 film titles.

* * *

The ‘refined kabadiwalahs’are not the only ones that Dungarpur turns to in times of crisis; he, quite ironically, also has to end up relying on the very people who have played an important role, over the years, in killing our cinematic heritage. 

Vipin Shah, 52, has been in the business of buying and selling film scrap for around 25 years. He talks fondly about the past – a time when business was booming, when demand didn’t shame supply. But over the last few years, his work has nearly stopped since Shah hasn’t been able to keep up with the times. Besides assorted scrap, he also used to sell silver by extracting it from the reels of black and white films. Silver is, of course, still in demand, but films’ digitization – hard drives and optical disks have almost completely replaced film reels now – has decimated his business. Today, he can’t find enough prints to extract either silver (black and white prints) or dyes (color prints). 

On a rare lucky day, however, Shah receives a call from a producer who finds storing his film prints burdensome. “Everything is on computer these days, so if I have a copy of the film on the computer, then why should I store it? Producers don’t like preserving films because storage has become very expensive,” says Shah. “So they get rid of it. They tell me that I don’t need it; you take it away.” Shah does take them away and, in his Malad workshop, peels silver off them. In his heyday, Shah could strip 1,000kg of film at once – around 50 feature films amounting to 3kg of silver. When business was really good, Shah sold one feature film for about Rs 2,500. 

One of the most 
vital scenes in Celluloid Man features an artisan reducing film rolls to sheets of blank reels by extracting every shred of silver from them – that artisan used to work for Shah, and the workshop in the documentary is Shah’s workplace. Shah hasn’t seen Celluloid Man, but he’s seen that scene, he says, on Dungarpur’s computer.  

“When I interviewed him [for Celluloid Man], he very proudly said that ‘I have washed out many important films,’” says Dungarpur. Shah, however, refused to come on camera, but he allowed Dungarpur to film his employee on one clear condition: “Kuch bhi ho mera kaam nahin rukna chahiye – whatever happens, my work shouldn’t stop.” Dungarpur assured him that it won’t. “I have told him that instead of extracting silver from films, he should just give me the prints, and I will give him the appropriate value for it,” says Dungarpur.

Dungarpur and Shah now work in tandem towards a goal that can benefit both of them. Dungarpur is always in search of rare films; it’s quite likely that some of them are lying around in discarded cans that wound up with a scrap seller. Shah, with unprecedented access to most Mumbai scrap sellers, is in a good position to let Dungarpur know if he’s found something that would interest him. “If I find something old, I make it a point to ask him,” says Shah, who has given Dungarpur prints of some important movies from the ’70s (he refused to divulge their names). Dungarpur has also given him a list of films to find. It’s not surprising which film occupies the top slot: India’s first talkie, Alam Ara(1931). “Ab woh toh chance hi kam hai na, sir. Kyunki us time pe picture banti thi safety base pe, matlabbreakable. Aur jalne waali film banti thi – nitrate base pe. Woh sab film ki toh life bahut short rahti thi [But that is a slim chance, sir. Because, in those days, films were made on safety base – a brittle material. Later, they were made of a flammable material – nitrate. The life span of those reels was very short],” says Shah. Alam Ara’s original camera negative was sold by the filmmaker’s son to a silver extractor, someone like him, for money.

Dungarpur has asked Shah to source two more prints for him. But Shah refuses to divulge their names too. “It’s someone else’s property, and then the producer will ask me, and you, about the print’s whereabouts [especially if the producer didn’t sell the print to me directly but first to another scrap dealer].”

Despite his success at sourcing prints, Dungarpur knows that restoring films from theatrical prints is still not ideal. “These particular prints are not what you would want to use for restoration; these are just reference prints. They help us restoring films from a higher quality source,” says Dungarpur.

A “higher quality source”, according to Dungarpur, is one of the following: an original camera negative, a master positive, or a dupe negative. An original camera negative is considered invaluable because this film roll captures the actual image; it’s usually used to make a master positive (first positive print made from the original camera negative), and the original negative is carefully preserved, not to be tampered with again; a dupe negative is then struck from a master positive. The dupe negative is further used to make release prints, which enable us to watch films in theaters – these are same prints that Dungarpur has received for Maachis or Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak.

The differences between these sources are extremely important to Dungarpur or, for that matter, any conscientious restorer, because the quality of a final film restored from an original negative is markedly improved from one restored from, say, a master positive, dupe negative or a theatrical print – in that order. 

* * *

A reliable film archive is another important element in the film restoration process, one that can step in to rescue a filmmaker if she’s exhausted all options.The strange tale of English, August’s lost print is a case in point.

Filmmaker Dev Benegal had entrusted Prasad Film Labs, a renowned film processing and printing lab in Chennai, to process (and store) the original camera negative of his first feature film, English, August (1994). Benegal’s first three short films, too, were stored at the same lab. Close to a decade and a half later, Benegal wanted to make DVDs of his short films stored at the lab; around the same time, Upamanyu Chatterjee (the novelist who wrote the book English, August, which formed the film’s source material) had asked Benegal for English, August’s DVD, so he tried getting in touch with someone at the Prasad Film Labs, but for the first few weeks, no one took his calls. A few weeks later, the laboratory supervisor, “very, very reluctantly”, came on line: “Your short films are completely lost. I opened the can, and my finger went straight through. It was just dust.” Benegal, now worried, wanted to know the state of English, August’s negative“That is also not in any great shape either,” was the reply. Benegal asked the lab supervisor to send the negative. He sounded reluctant at first but eventually sent it across. When Benegal finally received the negative, it was in “a terrible state, and had watermarks all over,” he says. “My cameraman, Anup Jotwani, saw it as well and, for us, it was one of the most disheartening things to see.”

To make matters worse, Benegal had also not made a dupe negative of the film. “In those days, if the budget of my film were Rs 40 lakh, the cost of making a dupe negative was around Rs 10 lakh, so it was prohibitively expensive for me,” says Benegal. “And it remains pretty expensive for a lot of filmmakers even today.” In 2011, Benegal and his collaborator, Sopan Muller (who co-produced Benegal’s last film in 2009 – Road, Movie), visited several film processing laboratories around the world – Kodak (Mumbai), DeLuxe (Toronto), Filmlab(Mumbai), and others in New York and Los Angeles – to find a way to salvage the original camera negative. The same year, he attended a seminar on film restoration at the Mumbai Film Festival and spoke to people there. He even approached people at 20th Century Fox. 

Of the labs he spoke to, none had an adequate solution for Benegal’s problem. In fact, their proposed plan of action puzzled him further. Their answers usually began with “we outsource most of our restoration work” and ended with “to Prasad Labs”.

“They told me that if you come to us with your negative, we are just going to send it to Prasad. So why don’t you just directly go to Prasad and get them to work on it,” says Benegal. “The beautiful irony of all this is that the lab where my original negative was damaged is the lab where people get their films restored worldwide. The whole of Hollywood goes there.”

In fact, in 2006, when the makers of The Godfather wanted to restore the first two films of the trilogy, they chose Prasad Film Labs. The restored version of The Godfather, called The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration, was released on DVD and Blu-ray on 23 September, 2008. The restoration was widely applauded by critics the world over. One can’t help but wonder about the cruel dichotomy between the treatment meted to English, August and The Godfather. If a film processing lab is storing a movie’s negative, shouldn’t it be taken for granted that it will ‘preserve’ it as well? If a renowned film lab, which employs staff well-versed with intricacies of celluloid decay, cannot assure the safety of a film’s negative, who else can?

“From the understanding I and most other filmmakers had,” Benegal told me, “when one hands over the negative to a [film processing] lab they take care of it and store it. We now realize that this is not the case. Had the lab asked for storage charges, I would have happily paid. But it is one of the things that’s never made clear. Because of archaic censorship and other laws at that time, producers were never allowed to take their negative out of the lab unless they had a censor certificate. So filmmakers assumed that since our negative is in the lab, it would store them properly as well. Time has proven us incorrect.”

Benegal, along with Mulleris now planning a 4K digital restoration of the film. The digital restoration process, too, requires a print that needs to be scanned first. Thankfully, one such print exists. English, August won the Best Feature Film in English at the 1995 National Film Award. The Directorate of Film Festival, which organizes international and national film festivals in the country and holds the National Film Awards, acquires a print of every national award winning film to store at the National Film Archives of India.

“We first asked them to give us the print for three months, which they refused,” says Muller. “Then we asked for 30 days, and they said, over the phone, that 30 days would be difficult too, but they haven’t given us the exact timeframe. I think they will provide us the print for a fortnight or three weeks.”

The restoration of English, August will begin as soon as he secures the print, says Muller, and he’s hoping that it will be done by May 2015.

Film archives have also helped Dungarpur make an inventory of films that need urgent attention for restoration. Around July 2010, when Dungarpur began filming Celluloid Man and realised the sad state of our cinematic heritagehe began writing to film archives around the world and made some important discoveries: he found out that the copy of one of India’s rare silent films, Bilwamangal (1919), is safely preserved at the Cinémathèque Française (a reputed film archive in Paris); the Russian Film Archive had some “great prints” of Awara (1951); the original camera negative of Jhansi Ki Rani (1953, reportedly the country’s first Technicolor film) was at the British Film Institute; and a “superb print” of Chandralekha (1948, Tamil) was stored at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Dungarpur, with PK Nair’s help, catalogued those findings in a book – called From Darkness Into Light: Perspectives on Film Preservation and Restoration, listing the 60 Indian films, till 1965, that need urgent restoration – which was released in February this year. The book carries essays by Martin Scorsese, sundry eminent film archivists and historians from around the world.

Despite these efforts, film preservation and restoration in India have a long way to go.“We keep talking about this incredible tradition that we have – of art and culture – but we never seriously talk about preserving it. All the efforts [of preservation] are either half-hearted or lack real belief,” says Benegal. “There is no real belief in what we are doing; we don’t really believe that our art represents a creative expression of something valuable. And we don’t believe that art is a reflection of our culture, or our civilization.”

Dungarpur, in his October 2014 essay for Journal of Film Preservation, raised a pertinent point about the importance accorded to cinema in our country: “Ironically, even today, in India’s Constitution, cinema is mentioned under Item 62 in the Seventh Schedule, List II – State List, which deals with ‘Taxes on luxuries, including taxes on entertainments, amusements, betting and gambling’. Current Indian laws dealing with cinema focus on censorship and taxation, and these dictate the interest and dialogue of the film industry with the government.”


Dungarpur’s search is far from over, “I refuse to believe that these are the only surviving 35mm prints of Maachis and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. I am sure about that,” he says. “Unless there’s nothing surviving of these films, we will have to end up restoring them using these prints, but I think that’s highly unlikely. I have also been told that their original camera negatives no longer survive, but I refuse to give up on that.”

Maybe one of these days, Dungarpur will send another “word out”. And one of the magical words on the phone will be “original camera negative”, followed by a film’s name, followed by a polite “at any cost”.

Originally published in Yahoo! Originals.


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