End the desecration of Indian classics

Futurama: much will be yakked-’n’-yodelled about on the centenary of Indian cinema next year. Raja Harischandra, the nation’s first full-length feature, was premiered on May 3, 1913, at Mumbai’s Coronation Cinema. And so here we are, valentine documentaries by the toppers of Bollywood are in the works, books are being authored, and seminars are being planned on subjects as different as Satyajit Ray’s cinema was from David Dhawan’s. Verbal tsunamis are the weather forecast.
A professor of film studies in New Delhi is even contemplating a tongue-twister of a scholastic exchange on “Cinema of History or the History of Cinema”. Come again? Patiently, the professor explained that speakers would dwell on films which have contributed towards nation-building, espoused social causes, and deserved to be saluted by the now-generation which has begun to ask, “But daddy? Who’s Dilip Kumar?” A documentary filmmaker interviewing senior journalists on the changing role of the media, even had the gall to ask, “But why should the passing away of Dev Anand be headlined on the front page?” Absurd! Okay, so the professor has his heart in the right place but could he please rethink the convoluted title of the academic-debate-to-be?
On another plane altogether, dedicated sections of magazines and newspapers have been bitten by the upcoming centenary’s bug. And why not? Here is an opportunity to look back with affection and awe. The dangerous curve ahead is misinformation. For instance, recently Aamir Khan while detailing his favourite films of all-time, started with Raja Harishchandra. Alas the film’s only surviving print at the National Film Archive of India, Pune, has half vanished. Only two of the four original reels exist, which means 20 minutes of the original 40. The second favourite on Mr Khan’s list was Alam-Ara (1931). Now where did he view it? No print survives of India’s first talkie film at all ever since the early 1960s. Only a boxful of stills do at the archive. Wikipedia and other websites have only added to the incorrect notion that Alam-Ara is alive and kicking in a catacomb somewhere.
In fact the Mumbai film industry needs to wake up and smell the nitrate. Hundreds of prints dating back to 1940-’60s have merely disintegrated in film laboratory godown. Since many of the laboratories have packed up, countless film prints have been sold off to hawkers. P.K. Nair, former chief of the archive, had once lamented that the celluloid is sold off to hawkers to be made into bangles. The desecration continues.
Efforts have been made to retrieve disintegrating prints but only sporadically and unsuccessfully. Ironically, quite a few of the early ’40s films have made their way to the pirated DVD market through Pakistani sources. Families of producers and distributors who moved there after the Partition, presumably still possess the prints, particularly of little known musicals and action dramas. Back at home, there is no official cell to engage in the mission of locating, preserving and restoring dying prints.
Another area that warrants attention are the hidden masterpieces of our cinema. Only the cognoscenti are aware of Daaera (1953), Kamal Amrohi’s ahead-of-its-time salute to feminism. Then there are the seminal oeuvres of directors — Asit Sen, Satyen Bose and Dulal Guha to cite random examples.
Although of variable quality, these deserve to be estimated for their significant themes and solid narrative structures. Indeed, the deeply socially concerned films of V. Shantaram, Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor could be spotlighted in the course of the myriad centenary events. On a lighter note, the uniquely wacky comedies of Kishore Kumar — like Badti Ka Naam Dadhi and Half Ticket — merit an appraisal. There was this spirit of
originality, absurd humour and artistry, which has almost become extinct.
The centenary could also be an occasion to re-look at the ongoing marginalisation of film technicians, especially of the light boys, on-the-spot sound recordists, as well as the junior artistes. They spend a lifetime, underpaid and are restricted to their specific roles.
Meanwhile, fees of stars and directors spiral uncontrollably. Clearly the 2013 celebrations have to spare a thought for the little big people of show business. We know enough about the magic of Sholay, the romantic aura of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and the bang-bang wallop of Dabangg. Simple plea: how about going behind the scenes for once? It’s now or never.

The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director

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