Reel deal: Salvaging the works of master filmmakers

At the just-concluded 75th Cannes film festival, Union information and broadcasting minister Anurag Singh Thakur offered a cheerful message for film professionals from around the world who had gathered at the inauguration of the Indian Pavilion at the event’s film market. “We have started the work to restore 2,200 movies across languages to their former glory,” said Thakur to applause from the cinema community members.

One such film restored under the government’s National Film Heritage Mission was part of the Cannes Classics category at the famous festival held during May 17-28. Satyajit Ray’s 1970 classic Pratidwandi (The Adversary)—the first of his Calcutta Trilogy—had been given a fresh lease of life at the Prime Focus Technologies laboratory in Mumbai in time for the Cannes premiere. It was a 4K resolution digital print made from the original 35mm camera and sound negative kept safe by Ray’s Kolkata-based producer Purnima Pictures.

National treasure

“We have preserved the negatives of all films produced by us,” says Arijit Dutta, son of Purnima Dutta, who coordinated the film’s production spearheaded by his grandfather Nepal Chandra Dutta and father Asim Chandra Dutta in the late ’60s. The Dutta family, which produced three Ray films— Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1968), Aranyer Din Ratri (1969), Pratidwandi (1970)—and many more, including Tapan Sinha_’s Hatey Bazarey (1967), which won the National Award for Best Picture, is keen to restore the remaining two films of the master.

Along with Ray’s Pratidwandi, another newly-restored Indian black and white film was part of the Cannes Classics this year. Malayalam film Thampu, directed by G Aravindan, had been restored at the Prasad Corporation Pvt Ltd’s Post-Studios in Chennai and L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory in the North Italian city of Bologna. The tale of a travelling circus shot in documentary style, Thampu symbolises the essence of conservation of cinema. “There is an element of timelessness and history in the film,” says filmmaker Shaji N Karun, who led the camera department of Thampu’s production. “We etched the wonder in the eyes of the innocent villager,” he adds about the curiosity of the people when the circus arrives in their village.

At the Cannes Classics screenings, both Pratidwandi and Thampu, while endearing cinema lovers to the magic of the medium, also underlined the strategies that need to be adopted to bring back our national treasure from the doors of death. As the world’s largest film producing nation, India is home to a sizeable volume of movies lying in ruins due to a variety of factors such as neglect, unfavourable conditions in which they are kept, and accidents like fire and floods. The government’s restoration project, first launched more than a decade ago, is expected to salvage the works of both masters and other filmmakers. The important question, however, is will the public and private restoration projects in the country be able to keep up the quality of restoration or film fans see beautiful movies descending into an assembly line amid the massive scale of work.

New technologies

On top of the strategy for high quality restoration is new technologies, which can aid a combination of ambition and passion for cinema. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now used by engineers to replace a damaged frame with better ones from other sources. New 4K scanners can capture the original image better. The old liquid gating technology allows improved wet scans of film negative stuck together in cans for decades. “The tools available for digital restoration are improving every year,” says Davide Pozzi, who heads L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory in Bologna. “This is the field we will see more AI in the future. Every film is a different challenge. We have to put in our best technology for restoring each of them,” he adds.

Agrees Gérald Duchaussoy, the head of Cannes Classics. “Technological progress is being made every day in film restoration. Thampu is a perfect example of what we would like to screen. It is a rediscovery for many film buffs and professionals,” he adds.

“Restoration is an art form. It is a painstaking and time-consuming process,” says Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, founder of Film Heritage Foundation, a non-profit entity launched in 2014 to support conservation of the country’s cinematic heritage. “Film restoration can’t have a volume. It took us one year to restore one film,” adds the Mumbai-based Dungarpur, an alumnus of Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. Dungarpur’s Film Heritage Foundation recently joined hands with the World Cinema Project of American director Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation and the Cineteca di Bologna film archive in Italy to restore two of Aravindan’s movies—Thampu (1978) and Kummatty (1979).

Kummatty, Aravindan’s painting of a Malabar folklore tale on celluloid canvas, was restored last year at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, Italy, considered one of the finest film restoration laboratories in the world that also organises the world’s largest film festival for restored movies in June-July every year (June 25-July 1 this year). The restored version of Kummatty premiered at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in February this year. “I remember watching Kummatty as a young college student. There were only a few people in the audience,” says Prakash Nair, son of K Ravindranathan Nair, who produced five of Aravindan’s films, including Kummatty and Thampu. “At the IFFK, the film’s screening was housefull, and another show was organised. It was like this generation was waiting to appreciate a film like Kummatty.”

(Faizal Khan is a freelancer)

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