Classic films: From celluloid to dustbin

Believe this: Film prints of the black-and-white classics as well as countless hits from the 1970s are on their deathbed or have perished already. Although DVDs of Ghar, the film which established Rekha as an actress of substance, are accessible its
film print has gone with the wind.
Alarmingly, over 5,000 films are in the danger of going up in smoke. Laboratories which stock the prints have been either selling them off for shekels or just shredding them. Surviving reels and footage of various musical entertainers as well as purposeful social dramas toplining Madhubala, Ashok Kumar, Meena Kumari, Suraiya, Shammi Kapoor, Kishore Kumar and Balraj Sahni, among others, are likely to be exhumed any day now as so much garbage — unless a miracle intervenes.
Seminars are conducted ad nauseam in Mumbai about the present and future of the movies, but not even a millimetre of concern is spared for the rediscovery, restoration and preservation of the city’s grand film heritage. Why or where does one ferret the hidden masterpieces?
Once in a while, an innocuous double-page public notice is printed in the trade magazines. Example: the one which had been issued by the Bombay Film Laboratories Pvt Ltd (now known as Raheja Princess Apartments Pvt Ltd). It stated, “Persons claiming any right in any of these films are hereby once again notified that if they fail to take delivery of the negatives owned by them after complying with all legal requirements within seven days of the publication of this notice… the same will be disposed off as hazardous waste at the disposal facilities at Taloja of the Mumbai Waste Management Ltd, thereafter.”
Just another notice? Just another day in the celluloid paradise? No way. The negatives of the old black and white films, because of a lack of claimants, have been binned. Even if some of the prints are in a mottled or gangrenous stage, they could be restored in full or in part. Surely every film lover hopes that some cans could actually yield negative prints
which have survived the vagaries of time and neglect. But then hope is a four letter word, isn’t it?
A film archivist of Pune, says, “Obviously, owners of the rights or their inheritors have not come forward to retrieve the films. No lab can store them forever since it is costly to maintain the prints at certain airconditioned temperatures and under humidity control. It is but natural for the lab to move on and do what has been common — to dispose the prints as waste material.”
The films which have been under threat are a mixed but tantalising bunch. In the rubble pile, there are Meri Surat Teri Aankhen (1963), featuring Ashok Kumar, Asha Parekh and Pradeep Kumar, which is remembered to this day for an unforgettable music score by S.D. Burman. Nanabhai Bhatt’s Kangan (1959) is another immediately identifiable film showcasing Dadamoni with Nirupa Roy.
The yahoo “rebel” star Shammi Kapoor wooed Madhubala in Boy Friend (1961) and serenaded his would be-wife Geeta Bali in Coffee House (1952) and Miss Coca Cola (1953). All the three Shammi Kapoor films have figured on the about-to-be-lost list.
Consider these endangered titles too: Char Diwari (Shashi Kapoor-Nanda, 1959), Dhake ki Malmal (Kishore Kumar-Madhubala, 1956), A.R. Kardar’s Dillagi (Suraiya-Shyam, 1949), Halaku (a very fragile Meena Kumari with “Loin” Ajit and Pran, 1956), Kidar Sharma’s Hamari Yaad Aayegi (Tanuja as perky as ever, 1961), Kishore Sahu’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Sahu as the Prince of Denmark and Mala Sinha as the delicate Ophelia, 1954) and Nanabhai Bhatt’s Madam XYZ (the undervalued Shakila with the forgotten Suresh, 1959).
And if India’s first talkie film Alam Ara (1931), is often mentioned in film chronicles, few know that only a few of its scattered photo stills survive. Before Alam Ara, Ardeshir Irani produced and directed the silent Wild Cats of Bombay (1927) and Cinema Girl (1930). These are untraceable.
Ditto Baburao Painter’s Savkari Pash or The Indian Shylock (1925), believed to be the keystone of the silent era, is untraceable. Films produced by the dozen by Imperial Studios, Madan Theatres and the early films of Sagar Company. Indrasabha (1932) packed with a staggering number of 60 songs has vanished.
To put it mildly, the loss is incalculable. And going by the concern of the film industry in general to New Delhi’s ministry of information and broadcasting, in charge of film culture, this loss is absolutely irreparable.

The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director

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