indian cinema heritage foundation

Yesterday's Films for Tomorrow

06 Apr, 2020 | Archival Reproductions by P K Nair

According to a highly respected South Indian Film magnate, out of forty odd films produce under his famous studio banner, only two or three are worth preserving in the National Film Archive of India. This sums up the general attitude of most of our film-makers to archival preservation of their films. They continue to believe that the films they make are only for mass consumption and not for any historical record. Little do they realize by making these films and showing them to audience years after year that they are in fact making history. This contribution, whatever it worth, goes into oblivion with the passage of time unless there is something left for the future generation to see and evaluate.
Lost Films

By the time the Archive started collecting films in an organised way, we found that nearly 60 to 70 percent of the films produce in this country were no longer available, their negatives having crumbled and turned to powder or prints made into bangles or ladies’ hand-bags. Once such film is ‘Alam Ara’- the first Indian talkie, which has gone into our list of ‘Lost films’. India has been making scores of film since Dadasaheb Phalke produced ‘Raja Harishchandra’ in 1913. But the fact remains, till the National Film Archive of India came into existence, no one - neither the film-maker nor the Government ever thought that the films being made in the country needed to be preserved. To my mind, the main reason for the total neglect of the fact that cinema always had a low priority in the overall development-needs of the country. Unfortunately, this thinking continues to persist even today among certain circles which is partly responsible for the growth of the Archive.

The National Film Archive of India is an independent office of the Ministry of Information and broadcasting, Govt. of India. Situated at Pune, the cultural capital of Maharashtra, in Western India, the Archive is the repository of the country’s film heritage as well as the best of World Cinema. Conceived and designed as a scientific and research institution, the Archive has been making steady progress since its inception in 1964, in implementing the three-fold objectives of film preservation, film   documentation/research and spread of film culture.

The ultimate aim of any Archive is to preserve each and every film made in the country. To such question as “Why should public money be spent on preserving all the junk that is being made in this country by way of cinema entertainment?” the archivist’s answer is – ‘We are not the judges to decide whether a film made now is worth preserving. This should be left to future generations to decide. What is significant or trivial today may be material for ‘history’ tomorrow.” The very fact a film has been produced and seen by people would justify its archival preservation. Any film, good bad or indifferent, will have some sociological value as long as it is seen by even a small section of the people. And so from the archival point of view, a cheap stunt film is equally as significant as an international classic.

No Legal Deposit

There has been no legal deposit of films in this country as in the case of books. As such the Archive has to depend on the goodwill and co-operation of private film producers, most of whom are interested on the immediate box-office returns of their films, rather than achieving immortality in the Archive vaults. That’s why unlike foreign Archives, where most of the collection comes by way of donation of prints from producers, distributors, stars and other private collectors, the national Film Archive of India has to pay in terms of raw stock cost and processing charges for each and every film acquired for archival preservation. One fails to understand how a producer, who spends upto Rs. 60 to 80 lakhs on a film, finds it difficult to deposit a print costing Rs. 20,000 with the Archive. No doubt, they would want to know in what way depositing their films with the Archive would benefit them. What they perhaps expect is immediate financial benefits beyond which an average film-maker cannot think, being involved in his own financial worries. The statement that the Archive is the place where he can achieve immortality in the sense that his films will continue to be seen by generations to come, including his own near and dear ones, will not make any sense to him. It is rather ironic, that the majority of film-makers, film technicians and artistes realize the significance of the Archive at the fag end of their career when they are almost retired and forgotten and when they stock of their achievements in moments of introspection. The unfortunate part is by time they realize the importance of archival preservation of their films, it is too late locate the whereabouts of their negatives or prints.

The Archive has to depend on the goodwill and co-operation of private film producers, most of whom are interested in the immediate box-office returns of their films, rather than achieving immortality in the Archive vaults.
Unlike in foreign countries, the Indian film-maker, barring a few exceptions, is not in the habit of taking out a master positive or dupe negative of his film before scoring the required number of prints for release. The practice here has been to take out the required number of release prints from the original negative. Every time the original negative is put on the printing machine, it is subjected to a certain amount of wear and tear which invariably affects its normal life-span. I know of cases where nearly 200 to 300 prints have been scored from the original negative, making it totally unserviceable for further copying.

Sometimes the refusal to take out a dupe negative springs from a ‘penny-wise-pound-foolish’ attitude. The dupe would have cost him only a few thousands while any child knows it is impossible to replace the original negative once it is destroyed. Under ideal conditions of film-making, the original negative is never touched except for taking out dupes or inter-negatives or a couples of positive prints just for showing in festivals or for archival record. The prints required for general release are invariably taken from the dupe or inter-negative, so that the original negative is never tampered with. I wonder whether our film-makers realise that every time they are taking a print from the original negative, they are in a way partly contributing to its permanent destruction. I was told the original negatives of some of the highly successful films of recent years have become unserviceable due to the indiscriminate scoring of prints there from. If this could happen to a film within four or five years of its release, one can very well imagine the fate of successful films made in the early fifties and sixties, not to speak of the nitrate films of the earlier period. The number of producers who had the foresight to deposit their films/negatives with the Archives in the beginning, naturally ere benefited, as they could take out copies from the Archive preservation materials for their own commercial use, long after the original negatives had been destroyed, or become unusable.

Norms for Selection

Though the ideal thing is to preserve every film, it becomes an impossible task in a country whose annual output is over 700 features films and an equal numbers of short films. The principle of selection therefore becomes indispensable in the Indian context. The Archive’s Selection Committee consisting of knowledgeable film critics, film scholars and film historians have arrived at the following norms for selection and acquisition:- 
  1. In view of the fact that a large number of films made in this country before 1955 have already been destroyed, and are no longer available, the Archive should acquires all available Indian films of the pre-1955 period.
  2. All National –award winning films under various categories including technical awards and others citations.
  • Regional films recognised by the various State Govts. by way of awards and certificates.
  • All films which have been successful at the box-office according to accepted norms in the trade.
  • Films shown in international Film festivals and Indian Panorama Section of International Film Festivals held in India.
  • All films financed by FFC/NFDC.
  • Films based on famous literary works (novels, short stories, plays folklore, poems, etc)
  • Films representing different genres, like mythological, historical, family drama, stunt film, science fiction, horror film, political satire and special films depicting national freedom struggle.          
  • Children’s films produced by the Children’s Film Society as well as various State Govts. and private agencies.
  • Selected student-films made by the Film & TV Institute of India, Pune, and other centres.
  • Newsreels and short films produced by private and Govt. agencies.
  • Representative works of popular artistes, technicians and film-makers.
Preservation of national cinema is the primary concern of any Film Archive. If we are not going to preserve our films, nobody else is going to do it for us. As such, top priority has to be given to the acquisition and preservation of our own national cinema - at least whatever is left over before it too vanishes. This doesn’t mean we should forget international cinema. In fact, no study of Indian cinema would be complete without understanding the trends in world cinema and the work of the masters. As such, it is equally important we have a representative collection of the best of world cinema. The Archive membership of FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) has helped in building up our international collection to some extent. However, recent films can be had only against foreign exchange payment. The prices will vary according to the extent of use of films. Rights for duplication and circulation to film societies will involve additional payment. That is why the collection of reasonable service changes from film societies and other borrowers of the Archive Distribution Library becomes unavoidable.

For purposes of study projection within the Archive premises, as well as special screenings outside, it is necessary to have and additional positive print apart from the preservation material, which may be either the negative or fine grain master positive. The purpose of the Archive will be served only if we have, in respect of all important films, the preservation copy for duplication purposes and a projection print for study use. You may imagine the cost factor, if the Archive has to invest in two prints of each film. To ensure long preservation, it is essential that the films are stored in air-conditioned vaults under ideal conditions of temperature and humidity and also subjected to periodical checking, cleaning, repair and chemical treatment. This is constant recurring expenditure which will gradually go up according to the inflow of film material into the Archive. Besides, one has to cope with the perennial problem facing al film archives, namely to find adequate storage space for new acquisitions.
I wonder whether our film-makers realise that every time they are taking a print from the original negative, they are in a way partly contribution to its permanent destruction.

Projectionists or Butchers?

Preservation copies can never be projected, as after every projection, the usable life of the print is reduced. Normally, a print should last for 300 to 400 screenings, depending on how the projectionists handle it. Our projectionists in commercial theatres are known for their reckless handling of film prints and their obsession for giving oil baths to the prints, stamping their own peculiar change-over scratches, and clipping end and beginning frames of reels and splicing them for multiple reel projection, even if they have double projectors. The maximum damage to film prints is invariably caused by careless projection. Defective projection equipment also contribute their share to the damage. But the fact remains that the films are not being handled the way they should be, and there is considerable room for improvement. This is a matter of grave concern to be looked into by the respective film industry organizations. I am sure they must be concerned with this now, with the rising print cost due to raw stock and enhanced excise duty.

Regional Centres

In view of the fact film that production in the country is mainly at Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Trivandrum, it becomes necessary for the Archive to have regional centres as it is difficult to reach out to all sections of the film industry, operating from Pune. As a first step in this direction, the Archive has recently opened a regional office at Bangalore to be followed by similar set-ups in Calcutta, Madras, New Delhi, Trivandrum. The regional centres of the Archive maintain a library of cinema books with a reading room, preview facilities for research students, a small circulating library of film classics for the benefit of film societies and film clubs in that region.

The regional branches of the Archive will greatly benefit the local film industry as well as expedite the collection of film material scattered all over the country. The National Film Theatre screenings arranged under the auspices of the Archive at these centres will provide an opportunity to the interested public to view those films in the Archive collection which are not available for circulation to film clubs and study groups due to copyright contractual restrictions.
The regional centre will also be helpful for a wide circulation of films from the Archive distribution library and in expanding the Archive’s screen education activities, especially for conducting short term courses/classes in Film Appreciation/ Film Criticism, in collaboration with educational institutions, film study groups situated in different parts of the country.
Measuring the lenght of film

Promotion of film culture

The short-term courses in Film Appreciation conducted by the Archive at Pune and elsewhere, the weekly screenings of film classics for the interested public at Pune and Bombay, the monograph projects on film pioneers to document their contribution to the development of cinema, and the distribution library set up for the benefit of film societies and film clubs in educational institutions - these are some of the activities already undertaken by the Archive in the field of public education in cinema so as to create a new, and aware audience, without whose support and patronage, one cannot expect to have a better national cinema.

Lukewarm Attitude

Apart from films, the Archive has to preserve ancillary material like stills, song booklets, wall posters, programme brochures, disc-records, etc. The fact that our request for such throw-away material is not being responded to, is an indication of the lukewarm attitude the film-makers have to the Archive. Even a person like B.V. Dharap, who is doing such a yeoman service to the film industry by bringing out the excellent reference volume on Indian Films since 1972, has to go around begging for the material for inclusion in his annual. I am told he has to even pay for this material sometimes. It is high time the film-makers realised that apart from making films for public consumption, activities like the one undertaken by the Archive are equally important and in their own interest.

Better Ties

No National Archive can survive without the active support of its national film industry. If the Archive has a long way to go in spite of its existence for the last fifteen years. It is largely because of the apathy and indifference from such quarters, whose support is indispensable for its healthy growth. A truly representative National Cinematheque will benefit not only the film industry but all film lovers in the country and abroad.

This article is a reproduction of the original published in Fifty Years of  Indian Talkies (1931-1981): A Commemorative Volume published by the Indian Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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About the Author

P K Nair was a film archivist and scholar. He was the founder, director and curator of the National Film Archives of India, established in 1964. 

Other Articles by P K Nair

19 Jun,2021

Why Preserve Films