17 December, 2019

Our cinematic history and future at stake: Why film preservation matters now, not later

Conducted by the Film Heritage Foundation and FIAF, and supported by Tata Trusts, annual film preservation and restoration workshops are spreading awareness and training future film conservators

At a dinner, after speaking on film preservation at Kalapana 2019, a Tata Trusts’ platform that brings challenges in the arts forward to be discussed collectively, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, Founder and Director of the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF), asked if we knew in how many Indian languages feature films were currently made. Barring Robert Byrne, Director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the table, and it was assumed he wouldn’t know, all of us, all Indians, were taken by surprise at the answer. The answer, Dungarpur revealed, is 37.

Now this says a lot about our country — that we make many films, we make them in many languages, and while we may have a national language Hindi and a de facto unifying language English, each one of us is proud of our regional roots. Any Indian, whoever he is, when asked where he is from, will naturally and apolitically and very instinctively tell you where his “native place” is or what his “mother tongue” is, even though he now resides in a city far away from that native place. And more than any art form, it is cinema (and perhaps, food now considered as art!) that takes us back to these roots wherever we are.
Our cinematic wealth in telling stories in these many regional languages makes us a very special country. At the Qutb Shahi Heritage Park in Hyderabad where the Tata Trusts supports the conservation of ten major monuments, being carried out by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in partnership with the Government of Telangana and the Archaeological Survey of India, a restored classic, Ritwik Ghatak’s ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ was screened as part of Kalapana’s 3rd edition in December 2019. We were asked by many why a Bengali film and not a Telugu film was being screened.

For many reasons — there is no Telugu film restored to the high standards it deserves; aesthetically, the restoration of ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ renders Dinen Gupta’s cinematography stunningly alive; and further, a story though 60 years old, dealing with the issues of displacement, migration and loss, has contemporary resonances. This is why preserving our cinematic history is so important — beyond a historical bind, as an art form cinema is contemporary and what we make today is our heritage tomorrow.

The Tata Trusts’ Arts and Culture portfolio’s work in conservation supports built heritage, art conservation and film preservation — each distinct and with its own problems. Photography is a new medium, film even newer, barely a century old, compared to our monuments and objects. Unlike stone or paper or textile or metal, photography and film are chemical-based and have a fragility that will not survive centuries if not looked after.

Film preservation is a nascent area, with a handful of conservators existing currently. Further, it is compounded by a newer medium within the art form, emerging on the scene in the late 20th century — this digital era has eclipsed the erstwhile photochemical that dominated the last century. This rapidity in replacing a medium within the art form is unprecedented and took all by surprise. Largely due to the ease of capture and exhibition, and its greater affordability and accessibility, it has caused a crisis — that of almost wiping out an existing medium, film, overnight. Yet we know how film behaves and have understood how to preserve it. No stable digital conservation method is yet to have emerged that lives beyond a few years. A filmmaker who wants to preserve his creation as an art form for his grandchildren, or for his grandchildren to monetise it, must remember, that currently while digital has made filmmaking easier, it would be wise to preserve on celluloid even today.

This is why building awareness as FHF has done through the five workshops they have held, of which Tata Trusts has supported 81 fellowships and infrastructure in the last three at Chennai, Kolkata and in Hyderabad, is so important. It is important to us that these regional thriving industries were chosen and made aware of the challenges that exist both in preserving film and digital mediums and our fellowships included, not only individuals but more importantly the custodians of state archives. It is an appeal therefore to state governments to come forward and assist in preserving the unique identities of their states, the many languages that exist within in which films are made, in support of conservation training and maintaining archives to the standards that FHF’s workshops have set.

We hope these workshops are concreted in an annual course in the future, one that will produce trained conservators in this passionate cinema-loving country of ours. And this can only be done collectively — with the support of state governments, individual patrons and the film community, recognising the urgency of support needed now, and not later.

— Deepika Sorabjee