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Indian Cinema: What Becomes of Our Film Heritage Under an ‘Umbrella’ Body?

Under the National Film Heritage Mission, the digitisation process at FD and NFAI has been passed on to NFDC.

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Now that four institutions – the Films Division, Directorate of Film Festivals, National Film Archive of India, and Children’s Film Society of India – lose their solo identities and merge with the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC), I decided to glance at the website of NFDC.

It is an old website. There is a section called ‘Cinemas of India’. Apparently, more than 300 films have been funded, or supported, created, distributed, produced, co-produced, or not distributed, or neglected or abandoned, by NFDC. Out of that, there are a few films mentioned on the website. Ten are titled ‘Classics’, 44 films are in the ‘Directors Special’, 13 films are in the ‘Popular’ category, with many films repeated in each section. Then there is the ‘Best of Regional Cinema’, whose terminology itself is patronising; in this section, there are 15 films. There are also four black & white films and some four films in the Satyajit Ray package. You can watch these for Rs 60 for 72 hours, or as a monthly or yearly package.

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Who Held the Power to Support a Work?

Many years back, the NFDC had embarked on the digitising process of their feature films, which are in the celluloid format. From that, they made DVD copies for distribution, and now they have made them accessible online.

Many of these films are important films from the Indian New Wave movement, associated with the earlier times of the NFDC. I checked for Kumar Shahani’s films such as Maya Darpan, Tarang, Khayal Gatha. They were not mentioned on the website. Surely, they were made with NFDC support. Since NFDC did not have their own facilities for digitisation, all its films were outsourced and digitised at private labs. Prasad Laboratories, Chennai was one of them.

One of the films that they took up for digitisation was Pahala Adhyay, directed by Vishnu Mathur, made in 1981. Since I was involved in the film as a still photographer then, I know it was an NFDC production.

For me, Pahala Adhyay was a unique avant-garde film with an amazing, gentle yet simmering structure. I would rate this film as the parallel of parallel cinema, creating a kind of challenge even in the parallel cinema world, heralded by FFC. But there was no mention of Pahala Adhyay on the website.

I remember, the film received no support from the powers in NFDC for release and distribution after it was made. Just ignored.

Such power to support or not support a work often rested with a few persons in the organisation. There were many stories of similar nature. Take the example of Kamal Swaroop's Om-Dar-B-Dar. That film was simply ignored by the NFDC after funding it. Kamal Swaroop had to invent ways to ensure that the film was viewed by a small circle. In 2013, the NFDC had planned an official national release after 26 years of a digitally restored print of the film. Today, it is a cult film. The film surpasses the notion of real-time and film time. It also goes beyond the notions of structure and boundaries. I was relieved to see that ‘Om-Dar-B-Dar’ now finds a place on the NFDC website.

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‘Percy’ by Parvez Merwanji

So, when Pahala Adhyay came for colour grading and restoration to Prasad Labs, Vishnu Mathur came from Mumbai to be there. The cinematographer of Pahala Adhyay, Navroze Contractor, came from Bangalore. Navroze had been associated with many New Wave films as a cinematographer of the ‘70s and ‘80s and was already finished with the colour grading of Mani Kaul’s ‘Duvidha,’ and a few other films. ‘Percy’ by Parvez Merwanji, was another lovely film shot by Navroze.

Unfortunately, Parvez passed away soon after making that film. So, when the digitisation process for this film came up, instead of asking Navroze for colour grading, the NFDC asked another cinematographer who just happened to be around at the premises of the NFDC to grade that film, and he did. Navroze was upset with this callous approach. “Apart from the fact that I was the cinematographer of ‘Percy’, Parvez was also my close friend. NFDC knew I am available, but just asked another cinematographer to grade that film and that cinematographer just did it, without even checking with me. We even knew each other. What is this work ethic?”

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The Many Dismissed RTI Applications

Some four years back, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting wanted to explore the merger of Film Media Units and they set up an Expert Committee on the matter of Rationalization/Closure/Merger of Film Media Units, (NFDC, CFSI, FILMS DIVISION, NFAI AND DFF) and ‘Review of Autonomous Bodies’ (FTII, SRFTI AND CFSI). The Members included Bimal Julka (ex-Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting), and filmmakers TS Nagabharana, Shyama Prasad, AK Bir and Rahul Rawail.

This Committee submitted its report and the government decided to go ahead with the merger. Despite many RTI applications, the reports were not made available, which raised further questions about the legitimacy of the whole process.

The report was kept secret like a trump card for many months and was ‘disclosed’ only recently. The report basically recommended a merger. Now, this merger has been in motion from the beginning of April 2022. Prakash Magdum has already been relieved of his duty as the Director of NFAI, with immediate effect. He has gone back to his earlier government posting. Someone has been given additional charge, who now heads multiple posts at the NFDC. This is proof of the merger.

Just a few months back, the NFAI had included me as a committee member to identify Tamil feature films, which were made in celluloid format, for digitisation under the National Film Heritage Mission. Our job was to shortlist films from the negatives and prints that are already with NFAI archives, to be converted to either 2K or 4K resolutions. I did some spadework with many more friends and submitted a list of Tamil Films, prioritising them, and added many more for future digitisation and preservation. Film historian and author Theodore Bhaskaran was also part of this committee. The chairman of this committee was filmmaker Vetrimaran.

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Film Archiving Is a Tricky Business. Can NFDC Do Justice to It?

But with the merger, I have no idea what would happen to this committee now. Similarly, a committee of a similar nature was set up for all the language films. There is a huge volume of work. The process of digitising is slow. The machines available are just a few. Archiving is a tricky business, as one is racing against time. It is costly, and involves vendors, who have invested heavily in equipment, and that needs recovery and profit.

There is a business aspect to it. In archiving, there is no guarantee that these digitised versions will not require further restoration as already, 6K and 8K are here, and 2K will soon become outdated. What happens to the prints and negatives after the digitisation?

Why was none of the earlier videotape formats, which were used as recently as 2015, not even considered for archiving? What about all the amazing works made for television and those by independent filmmakers who had made passionate films in video format? Don’t they need to be preserved as a nation’s film heritage? There were no clear answers.

Once, filmmaker Shaji Karun had said, “Indian cinema in its entirety represents the emotion of the nation.” Now, under the National Film Heritage Mission, the whole of the digitisation process that was happening at FD and NFAI has been passed on to NFDC. The Films Division has already handed over all its archives of celluloid films to the NFAI. I now hear that the facilities at NFAI are being misused by influential filmmakers to digitise their works, including videotapes, on a priority basis.

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Memories of Mrinal Sen's 'Bhuvan Shome'

I wonder how NFDC will function in its new family. For me, attending the NFDC’s Film Bazaar at IFFI has been one of the most positive experiences in recent times. Many new filmmakers are emerging, coming up with brilliant films on their own terms. When the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) started in 1975, there was a clear objective and vision to support films that reflect the life around, moving away from the mainstream works meant for entertainment, which were done with private financing. Also, the films were not supposed to become propaganda.

Journalist BK Karanjia held the Chairman’s post both in FFC and in the rechristened NFDC. The parallel cinema movement and the FFC/NFDC have something in common. In my recent documentary film ‘A Documentary Proposal’, filmmaker Mrinal Sen talks at length about the FFC when he got funding to make his film Bhuvan Shome. Apparently, there were many applicants for funding, and a condition that if the budget of the film exceeds a certain limit, it has to go for the President’s approval. So, Mrinal Sen proposed a low budget and made the film. He says, “Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was very happy that a film can be made on a low budget.” Mrinal Sen himself wanted to prove that a low-budget film can be made. “Because there are all these producers who believe that filmmaking is an expensive proposition. It is not.”

Bhuvan Shome went on to become a cult film. In my documentary, Sen also spoke at length about how a taxi driver in whose taxi Sen was travelling saw this film at the only NFDC theatre at Churchgate, Mumbai, and complimented him and refused to take any taxi fare. For Sen, that was the biggest compliment.

On the NFDC website, I searched for Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome. I couldn’t find it.

(The author is a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer based in Chennai. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Cinema   Indian Cinema 

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