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Bhagwan Das Garga: A treasure trove of Indian cinema’s bygone years

Some exhibits at 'A Story Called Cinema: The BD Garga Archives' were reminders that the more things change, the more they remain the same

The exhibition, ‘A Story Called Cinema: The BD Garga Archives’, was held earlier this month at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi.
The exhibition, ‘A Story Called Cinema: The BD Garga Archives’, was held earlier this month at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi.

During a 1957 trip to Moscow, the film critic and historian Bhagwan Das Garga experienced something very special: a clandestine screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part II, made more than a decade earlier but banned by Joseph Stalin. In an essay about the film for Sight and Sound magazine months later, Garga wrote of the exigencies of scribbling notes with an interpreter’s help:

“Eyes glued to the screen and hand scratching away frantically in the dark—possibly it was not the best way to watch a film for which I had waited all these years. But I was anxious to conserve as much of the experience as I could."

The mental picture this conjures fits the man well. Garga was only in his 30s then, but by the time he died in 2011, aged 86, he had dedicated a lifetime to the delicate art of recording and conserving that which is in danger of being lost; keeping cultural artefacts from slipping out of our hands and memories. To this end, he made dozens of documentaries—Amrita Sher-Gil and Satyajit Ray were among his more notable subjects—and he continued publishing books about cinema and gathering memorabilia into his 80s.

To experience his writing is to find oneself wading into history, surrounded by ghostly voices, and to be reminded that film is so fragile and ephemeral—the word “film" here applying not just to neglected old movies, but to the stock on which they were recorded. One of Garga’s most poignant experiences as a young man, mentioned in his book The Art Of Cinema, was a meeting in the 1940s with the son of the film-making pioneer Dadasaheb Phalke, and learning that a trunk full of Phalke’s films needed to be salvaged since the material was inflammable nitrate stock. No one they contacted was willing to help; in fact, some distributors suggested they should try to melt the reels down to retrieve a few rupees’ worth of silver.

I thought of that story and others when I attended the exhibition A Story Called Cinema: The BD Garga Archives, held earlier this month in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. In one of the exhibits, a tent made up to resemble the travelling shows of the past, scenes from Phalke’s 1919 film Kaliya Mardan were being shown. The child-god Krishna—wearing what looked like a striped pajama top!—was in battle underwater against the giant snake Kaliya; it was thrilling to watch, but also a reminder, as the same few minutes of film played over and over, that this is one of the very few Phalke works still extant.

Though some of Garga’s own documentaries were being screened too, and lobby cards and posters from his personal collection were on display (as was a letter written to him by an ailing Satyajit Ray), the exhibition wasn’t so much about him as about Indian cinema’s bygone years—which is exactly as he would have wanted it. There, in one room, was a brightly coloured bioscope, its many viewing portals offering austere black and white images—and there, by way of contrast, was a DVD player showing scenes from newer films, complete with sound and colour. There were photos from the 1920s and 1930s, of actors and directors who are barely known today as well as more familiar personalities in unrecognizable avatars (the very young and lean Prithviraj Kapoor in a 1934 film; a vampish Lalita Pawar in a slit dress)—but there were also life-sized cardboard cutouts of contemporary actors: Amitabh Bachchan in Mard, Dimple Kapadia in Saagar. And, from the early years of sound cinema, there were elegies for the orchestra pits of silent movies, lost in the age of the “all-talking, all-singing picture".

Looking at exact replicas of the clothes worn by Raj Kapoor as the tramp in Shree 420 (1955), or Balraj Sahni as the farmer in Do Bigha Zamin (1953), I experienced the mixed emotions I had felt in Paris’ Cinémathèque Française on seeing gowns from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty And The Beast or Louise Brooks’ dress from Pandora’s Box (1929). For the film buff, it can be spooky and melancholia-inducing to encounter such iconic costumes now made banal: in faded colours, hung up for display, even posed to mimic a gesture or action.

These exhibits might seem misty and distant to our modern eyes, but there were also reminders that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Garga’s own writing often demonstrates this. Here he is on censorship, in a 1968 essay: “Our censors eulogize the Middle Ages and Victorian virtues, ignoring the mainstream of modern thought […] Little do they realize that traditions cannot be dug up and revived. They can no more be willed or argued into existence than the drainage system of Mohenjodaro be made to work […] These are the zealots who held up a film, Temples Of Tomorrow, on the plea that its title, which referred to our new projects, dams, etc., violated Hindu sentiments."

Similarly, the old films he wrote about may look and sound creaky, but the content is often still fresh, easy to relate to…and in some cases, more wicked and hard-hitting than what we have today, as I discovered when I recently watched Mehboob Khan’s 1942 Roti. My appetite for the film had been whetted by clips shown at one of the talks at the exhibition, but I was scarcely prepared for the off-kilter force of its opening sequence, a caustic exercise in social propaganda. A sutradhaar (storyteller) like figure mocks the hungry poor. “Bhookh lagi hai? Bhookh lagi hai? (Are you hungry?)" he leers—and then, when an old man is hit by a car as he struggles to retrieve a piece of bread, come the words: “Mar ja mar ja mar ja! Bojh zameen ka halka kar ja." (“Die! Die! Die! Make the earth’s burden lighter.")

It is all heavily stylized, with echoes of German expressionism, theatre and Russian montage, but the premise—that the world isn’t for the poor, that they will be redundant no matter who is in power—is as topical as ever. It struck me that if such a scene were to be attempted in a current-day satire—with a character singing a tuneful but sadistic song telling poor people to “Die!"—it’s unlikely that our censors would recognize the narrative context; they would probably cut the scene because it “offends sentiments". And I can picture the ever-vigilant Garga rolling his eyes at that, and opening a new page of his notepad.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.

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