A poster of Shivendra’s latest documentary, Czechmate
A poster of Shivendra’s latest documentary, Czechmate

Film: Celluloid’s knight in shining armour

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s work in film restoration and preservation has literally brought India’s film history back from the grave
By Shalini Sharma
UPDATED ON APR 03, 2021 10:52 PM IST

Film preservation is such a nascent idea in India that you have to use a simple analogy to explain its extreme significance. Say you have original paintings of legends like M F Husain or S H Raza. You make reproductions of these artworks and then dump the originals in a godown where they are allowed to rot because you are comfortable knowing you have the prints.

This sacrilege is vertigo-inducing. But the truth is that India’s movie industry is a celluloid genocide: only 29 of 1,138 silent films made in India survive. Eighty per cent of the more than 2,000 films made in Bombay between 1931 and 1950 are unavailable for viewing. These include priceless gems like India’s first talkie, Alam Ara (1931), and first locally-made colour film, Kisan Kamya (1937). Apparently 31,000 reels of film held by government-run archives have been lost and destroyed. Privately-held film companies have been just as neglectful.

Enter the hero

Indian movies always star a hero/saviour. In the world of movie restoration, the equivalent of that hero is Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, filmmaker, archivist and restorer. Shivi, as he is affectionately known, is royalty and the nephew of the legendary cricket administrator, Raja Singh Dungarpur. He is also a Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, alumni and had already made 1,000 commercial films for leading multinationals when he inexplicably decided, out of passion, to make a seven-hour-long film called The Celluloid Man on PK Nair, the founder of the National Film Archives of India, who had painstakingly built up a phenomenal collection of film archives over decades, but on his retirement, was banned from even entering the institution.

A poster of India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra
A poster of India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra

The Celluloid Man sought to put Nair’s pioneering role out there for posterity. It won two National Awards and travelled to over 50 film festivals around the world, but more importantly, it put the idea of celluloid preservation in Shivendra’s head.

Shivendra then took a trip to Bologna in Italy for a restored films festival, headlined by Martin Scorsese’s foundation. “It was in Bologna that I connected with Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation and was told that they had been trying for almost three years to get the reels of the film Kalpana (1948), directed by Uday Shankar (the brother of Pandit Ravi Shankar), out of India for restoration, but had not succeeded,” says Shivendra.

Within three months, Shivendra delivered the cans. When the film was restored, it was screened in Cannes, where he walked the red carpet with Amala Shanker in recognition of the effort he had made to make this possible.

Shivendra (left) with Christopher Nolan
Shivendra (left) with Christopher Nolan

The battle begins

Back in India, Shivendra started a non-profit body called Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) to restore Indian films and documentaries to their original formats and preserve them for posterity. Not everyone saw the point of it and the indifference baffled Shivendra. Producers working on 100+ crore mega projects recoiled at paying a couple of lakhs to preserve their past films. One cannot trace the original negatives of films as recent as Mani Ratnam’s Thiruda Thiruda (1993) and Thalapathi (1991), Gulzar’s Maachis (1995), Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Khamoshi (1996), S S Rajamouli’s Magadheera (2009)… the list is endless. Many films were sold for their silver; others were lost in fires or just discarded as scrap.

Since there were no technical professionals in India to help the restoration process, Shivendra had to create them himself. Over the past five years, he has conducted four annual workshops where students are chosen rigorously and trained free of cost by teachers drawn from leading film institutions and world museums. These workshops have had a tremendous impact.

“We have introduced over 300 individuals to film preservation practices since 2015,” says Shivendra. “There is a growing perception of film preservation as a viable career opportunity. There is also an increased awareness in the film industry and government bodies about saving their films. Movements for film preservation have begun in neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Afghanistan thanks to their participation in our workshops.”

A still from The Celluloid Man
A still from The Celluloid Man

The workshops are backed by a personal endorsement from Martin Scorsese and rousing support from Christopher Nolan.

“Christopher Nolan is a vocal advocate for celluloid as a shooting, exhibition and preservation medium,” says Shivendra. “When he was in India, he saw for himself the work that we do. He has become a friend and a supporter of the FHF.”

Both Hollywood icons have gone on record to acknowledge that the work done by FHF is exemplary and rated it the best in the world in its field.

Support and victory

In India too there is growing grateful support from many leading filmmakers. Jaya Bachchan is one of FHF’s biggest supporters and Amitabh Bachchan threw in the weight of his fame as its brand ambassador. (Incidentally Bachchan is a keen archivist who has actually preserved all his films over the years in an air-conditioned space in his office.) Today the foundation has on its board advisors such as Shyam Benegal, Gulzar, Kumar Shahani, Kamal Haasan, Girish Kasaravalli, Gianluca Farinelli, Kryszstof Zanussi and Mark Cousins.

Shivendra (left) with Amitabh Bachchan, who’s the ambassador of his non-profit body
Shivendra (left) with Amitabh Bachchan, who’s the ambassador of his non-profit body

Shivendra’s team has till now successfully preserved up to 500 films, including important historical footage dating from the 1930s and ’40s, such as India’s first feature film, Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (1913), footage of the freedom movement and rare home movies of the pre-Independence era. He has a team of conservators who maintain an inventory and regularly inspect, clean, rewind and repair the films. They also maintain the films of leading film personalities like Amitabh Bachchan, Shyam Benegal, Mani Ratnam, Vishal Bhardwaj, Kumar Shahani, Farhan and Zoya Akhtar, Govind Nihalani, N N Sippy, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Bhimsain Khurana, Chitra Palekar, Onir, Shaad Ali, Amol Gupte, Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhthankar.

There have been many emotional moments, ranging from despair on hearing that priceless archives were burnt in a fire at the National Film Archives of India to joy on miraculously finding and rescuing discarded film cans from a dumpster.

But, says Shivendra, “The most amazing endorsement of our work happened in 2019 when Mariam Ghani (the daughter of the President of Afghanistan and a filmmaker herself) asked if the archivists from the Presidential Palace Film Archive and the Afghan Film Institute could attend our 2019 December workshop in Hyderabad. We were delighted to welcome these archivists, many of whom had rescued their films from destruction during the Taliban regime at the risk of their lives.”

Ironically, the indifference of filmmakers to the foundation’s past efforts has seen a paradigm shift thanks to OTT platforms. “With the proliferation of streaming platforms leading to opportunities for monetisation, industry stakeholders are seeing the value of investing in preserving and restoring their film libraries,” says Shivendra.

Shivendra has achieved another personal milestone. His latest documentary, titled CzechMate – In Search of Jiri Menzel is another seven hour in-depth exploration of the Czechoslovakian New Wave that has won critical acclaim from cinephiles around the world. British Film Institute and Sight & Sound magazine voted the film amongst the top five releases of 2020. Meanwhile his foundation readies itself for its next workshop, this time in the Northeast, continuing their mission of being the film restoration destination of Asia.

Shalini Sharma is a senior lifestyle journalist and editor based between Hyderabad and Mumbai

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From HT Brunch, April 4, 2021

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