The original prints of Aamir Khan’s 2001 release, Lagaan, now lie in safe vaults in Los Angeles. Not about to take any chance with the film he produced and which was nominated for the Oscars, Khan has done what is said to be the ultimate in film preservation. “He has split the colours of the picture into three (YCM, or yellow, cyan, magenta) and stored the film that way,” says Nina Lath Gupta, the managing director of National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). By splitting the colours, Khan has ensured that they last longer and he can remix them better in the future. Usually one colour, blue, followed by green, fades faster leaving the film with a reddish tinge — like it happened in the Mahabharat sequence of Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. The process, however, is tedious, expensive and impossible to apply to the original prints of hundreds of Indian films which are today facing decay and damage.
The world’s largest film industry (in terms of the number of movies produced in a year) has sounded the alarm bells. For the last three years, agencies such as NFDC and National Film Archive of India (NFAI), directors as well as producers have gone into an overdrive to rescue and restore the cinematic treasure which spans a century. It’s a daunting task given that many of the films date back to the silent era of the 1920s and 30s. Several of them, including the first Indian sound film, Alam Ara (1931), starring Prithviraj Kapoor, are already lost. From its stills and posters, one can gauge that Alam Ara was a bold, ahead-of-its time movie. But there is no viewing it anymore.
Several other firsts are also untraceable. Like, the 1923 Patni Pratap which had the first double role and Kidar Nath Sharma’s first version of the 1941 Chitralekha, with the first ever bathing scene. While the total number of films lost is not known, Gupta says “of the 1,300 silent films made, we don’t even have 1 per cent left.” These movies were shot on the highly inflammable nitrate base. Any friction or change in temperature could lead to fires.
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Worried with the development, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting sanctioned Rs 10 crore for film restoration. With the funds, NFDC has restored 80 films since 2009. Among them is the 1961 Hemen Gupta-directed, Bimal Roy-produced and Balraj Sahni- starrer Kabuliwala, based on a heart-wrenching story by Rabindranath Tagore. “No material was available for this,” says NFDC’s Gupta. A beta tape lying with Shemaroo came to the rescue and the film was restored.
A bigger challenge was Kalpana Lajmi’s Rudaali (1993), a relatively new film. “There was a green line running through parts of the film. Some portion of the negative was curled up and damaged,” says Gupta. These had to be manually reconstructed. Restoring Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar wasn’t easy either. No negative existed, so the restoration was done from the positive print.
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Gupta explains why films as recent as those made in the ‘80s and early ‘90s also get damaged: “In India we’ve been making prints from the master negative, which is the mother material. Everywhere else in the world first an inter-negative is created and prints are made from that. The master negative is not tampered with.” Not only does this cause *generation loss, frequent handling leads to scratches, tears and dirt marks on the negatives. “And once the damage starts, it spreads like cancer,” rues Kolkata-based director Goutam Ghose who personally oversaw the restoration of his 1987 film, Antarjali Jatra, the negative of which was in very poor state. Some time from now, Ghose will also be travelling to Chennai to monitor the work on his other film Paar (1984, starring Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri). “I shoot my own films; I’m my own cameraman. So I have to be there to oversee their restoration,” he says.
For years, production houses have made their own arrangement for preserving originals of the films. In the past, films would be transported to the theatres and then sent back to the producers. Ghose says producers often forget about the films. As a result, mould, dirt, dust attack the negatives, and the colours fade. “Film makers and producers need to keep checking on their films every year,” he says adding that the storage facilities are nowhere close to those available in Hollywwod or Europe.
Of the 13,000 films stored in its vaults, NFAI has digitised and restored 900. “In all 600 have been digitised and 300 digitised and restored,” says NFAI Director Prashant Pathrabe. It’s a start, but it’s still a drop in the ocean given that more than 40,000 films have been made in India so far.
Like Khan and Ghose, film maker Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who completed 30 years in Bollywood this year, has taken upon himself the task of giving a new lease of life to his movies. “We have restored Sazaaye Maut, Khamosh, Parinda and 1942 A Love Story and are currently working on my diploma film, Murder At Monkey Hill,” says Chopra. “The visuals of each film have been cleaned and restored to the original quality. Sound has been enhanced to 5.1 digital.” The sound is now recorded on multiple tracks as opposed to the one-track sound of earlier films. The technology enhances every sound in the film. “The result,” says Chopra, “has been amazing, like watching a whole new film.”
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Rescuing a film is a painstaking, labour-intensive process involving frame-by-frame manual corrections. “Every second has 24 to 25 frames,” says Naresh Malik, COO of creative services at Reliance MediaWorks which has been commissioned by NFAI to digitise and restore about a 1,000 films. Among the ones it has restored are Mrinal Sen’s 1984 classic Khandhar and the first ever film made in India — Raja Harishchandra, the 1913 silent film directed and produced by Dadasaheb Phalke. “We restored only 19 minutes of the film. That’s the only thing that survived,” says Malik. NFAI has two of the original four reels of Raja Harishchandra but it is suspected that these could be prints of a 1917 remake.
For restoration, the film is first converted into a file and then corrected frame by frame. The restoration is done on highly-specialised softwares developed by DaVinci, Digital vision, BlackMagic Design etc. But while video restoration is one thing, audio is another. “For video, one can pick up information from the frame before or after the damaged one. But for audio, that cannot be done,” says Malik. So, one dips into various sources. The sound negative of Paar, for example, is in very bad shape. “I know there are prints of the movie in Japan, Paris, England and Italy. I will try to get those,” says Ghose. “So, it’s going to be mix and match; restore some portions from some source and others from other.”
Once restored, the film is saved in digital format and also delivered in the format that the person or agency which owns it desires. “For example, it could be in Blu-ray version which allows you to watch it at home or on high-definition tape which is a professional deck,” says Malik.
Chopra says each of his films took about two years to restore. “The cost ran into several crores.” Ghose adds that he spent Rs 15 lakh to salvage each film. This is the reason they all say that the importance of storage cannot be emphasised enough. “At NFAI, black & white films are stored at 12-14 degree centigrade. For colour, a much lower temperature, of 2-4 degrees has to be maintained,” says Pathrabe.
No film, says Chopra, should go the Alam Ara way. “It’s a shame that even a single film has been lost.”