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Kummatty and the anatomy of a restoration

Film Heritage Foundation's Shivendra Singh Dungarpur details how they restored G. Aravindan’s 1979 masterpiece  

The 35 mm released print of Kummatty (1979). Photo courtesy Film Heritage Foundation
The 35 mm released print of Kummatty (1979). Photo courtesy Film Heritage Foundation

“Why G. Aravindan’s Kummatty?” is invariably the first question I am asked when people hear about the Film Heritage Foundation’s collaboration with Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna to restore the poetic yet relatively unknown 1979 masterpiece. After all, there are more obvious “classics” from India. I would say the journey that culminated in the restoration of Kummatty began in 1992, when I had just joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, Maharashtra, to study scriptwriting and film direction.

We were immersed in watching the films of the masters of world cinema—Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Bresson, Antonioni—but nearly three decades later, I still remember coming out of the FTII auditorium after watching my first Aravindan film, Kummatty. Poetic, gentle, visually so powerful, meditative, with silences that spoke—I was captivated. When Aravindan was asked about it, he said: “Kummatty arrives like the seasons. He represents spring. He comes in fact in spring when the rain is over and the plants are green and in bloom. He is part of that nature.”

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I watched every one of his films. Kanchana Sita (1977), Thampu (1978), Pokkuveyil (1982), Chidambaram (1985)—to name a few. Each was different, a unique exploration of the cinematic form, impossible to pigeonhole in conventional genres and narrative styles, free from the dictates of film theory and canon. An autodidact, his uniqueness lay in creating poetry on celluloid through tranquillity and silence, almost a language of its own, deeply influenced by the landscape, folk art and culture around him. His cinema is like a mirror reflecting reality as well as its magic.

As Aravindan once told the journalist Sadanand Menon, “My ultimate in the art form is the north Indian raga-alapana, whose only meaning is the satisfaction and the tranquillity it conveys.” His gentleness and tranquillity had taken on a mythical aspect for us at FTII. The story went that on his set he would never say “Cut!”, but would gently touch the cinematographer on the shoulder. In my opinion, he is one of India’s greatest masters, whose name should rank alongside Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.


Director G. Aravindan and cinematographer Shaji N. Karun on location. Photo courtesy Ramu Aravindan
Director G. Aravindan and cinematographer Shaji N. Karun on location. Photo courtesy Ramu Aravindan

Aravindan died in 1991 at the age of 56 but even today, he is a legend in Kerala. The people first came to know this master film-maker as the cartoonist responsible for the popular cartoon series Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum, in the Matrubhoomi journal, from 1961-73. With a degree in botany, he took up a job with the Rubber Board in Kerala, travelling all over the state but making the time to paint oils and watercolours, learn Hindustani music from Sarathchandra Marathe in Kozhikode and play a major role in establishing theatre groups in Kerala.

As Aravindan narrates it, he became a film-maker by accident. He and his playwright friend Thikkodiyan were trying to get funds to make a film written by Thikkodiyan. The writer Pattathuvila Karunakaran agreed to fund it on the condition that Aravindan would direct it. Despite Aravindan’s protests that he knew nothing about film-making except for the films he had watched and books he had read, Karunakaran was adamant. And that was how Aravindan’s first film, Uttarayanam (1975), came about.

It won five Kerala State Awards and two National Awards. That was the beginning of a remarkable body of work by a film-maker who was at the vanguard of the parallel cinema movement in Kerala and whose work was celebrated globally. The Cinémathèque Française in Paris honoured him with a retrospective of his work in 1984 and his films were screened at festivals all over the world, including Berlin, Cannes and London. In a 17-year career, Aravindan directed 10 feature films and five documentary films.

While Aravindan is undoubtedly considered a doyen of the alternative cinema movement in India, his films have not been circulating as much. When renowned Japanese film critic Tadao Sato saw Kummatty for the first time in 1982, he said it was the most beautiful film he had ever seen. That was the beginning of Japan’s love affair with Aravindan.

Before and after restoration still from 'Kummatty'. Photo courtesy Film Heritage Foundation
Before and after restoration still from 'Kummatty'. Photo courtesy Film Heritage Foundation

The National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in Pune digitised some of his films a few years ago and Kummatty is available on the Potato Eaters Collective’s YouTube page. I knew the digitised versions did not do justice to the original vision of an artist like Aravindan. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the beauty of the imagery, the colours and the soundscape that had captivated me as a film student. I spoke to celebrated cinematographer and film-maker Shaji N. Karun, who shared a close artistic bond with Aravindan. His painterly cinematography had captured Aravindan’s vision on celluloid for nearly all his films and Aravindan had composed the music for Karun’s landmark film Piravi (1989), which won the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year.

In conversations with his son, Ramu Aravindan, and others who had watched Aravindan’s films in the years after they first released, the unanimous conclusion was that the digitised versions were a travesty. I knew then that if his films were not restored soon, we would be left with poor replicas that would reflect a mere shadow of his artistry. I began a quest to assess the celluloid elements of his films that remained and soon realised the urgency of the situation—the original camera negatives seemed to be lost and the prints that were available were deteriorating rapidly. When Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation asked me for my recommendation for Indian films to be restored under its aegis, Aravindan’s films were an obvious choice.

It has been a long and challenging journey since 2018, when I made the first phone call to Bina Paul, the artistic director of the International Film Festival of Kerala, broaching the idea. Excited, she introduced me to Ramu Aravindan, who in turn introduced me to the producer K. Ravindranathan Nair. With a successful cashew export business, Nair was certainly not your usual producer.

I was keen to meet the man who had played such a significant role in the evolution of Malayalam New Wave cinema, producing landmark films like Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam (1981) and Anantaram (1987) and Aravindan’s Kanchana Sita (1977), Thampu (1978) and Kummatty (1979), to name a few, under the banner of General Pictures. His reputation as a dream producer and a philanthropist preceded him.

I had heard film-makers would come to his office to narrate scripts and if he approved, he would sanction the finance but would not interfere in the production. After emails over almost a year and calls with his son, Prakash, he agreed to meet me. I travelled to Kollam on 1 February 2020 and walked into his office to see an elderly gentleman in a simple mundu and shirt. I spoke to him about our desire to do a 4K restoration of Kummatty and Thampu. A man of few words, he readily gave permission, promptly issuing the letters and NOCs so we could begin work.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur with producer K. Ravindranathan Nair. Photo courtesy Film Heritage Foundation
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur with producer K. Ravindranathan Nair. Photo courtesy Film Heritage Foundation

The approach for restoring a celluloid film is the same as restoring a manuscript or a work of art. It is not as simple as putting the film through a scanner followed by digital clean-up, restoration and colour grading. By definition, restoration means the process of returning an item, in this case a film format, to a known earlier state. It involves not just the repair of physical damage or deterioration but takes into account the intent of the original creator, the artistic integrity, accuracy and completeness of the film. It involves complex, exacting processes, including research, selection, physical repair, cleaning and photochemical and digital techniques to repair the image and create new materials.

The first step is to search for and identify the best possible source material, which could be the original camera negative or a print. The celluloid material is inspected, cleaned and repaired before being put through a film scanner followed by digital clean-up, restoration of the sound and image, colour correction and output on a DCP or a new celluloid preservation print, depending on the plans for exhibition and public access. The involvement of the director and the cinematographer, if they are available, is important to ensure the artistic integrity of the restoration.

After the official go-ahead, we put out a call through the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) to member archives and institutions globally, searching for the best available source elements we could use. For a film restoration, the best element is the original camera negative, but sadly, none of the original camera negatives of Aravindan’s films survived—they had all melted, nothing could be salvaged from the liquefied celluloid. This was a big blow; prints can never give you the same latitude as a negative.

We received responses from the US Library of Congress and Japan’s Fukuoka Archive that they had prints but they were not in very good condition. The prints in Japan had Japanese subtitles embedded in the film. P.K. Nair, former NFAI director, had told me about the prints of Kummatty, including one without subtitles, in their collection. I checked with the late Kiran Dhiwar, film preservation officer at NFAI, who confirmed they had two prints. On the producers’ request, the NFAI arranged for me to check these. Pravin Singh Sisodia, our foundation’s film conservator, and I found the prints were not in great condition. But they were shipped to the L’Immagine Ritrovata lab in Bologna, Italy, as they were the best elements we could find. Had it not been for the prints with the NFAI, the restoration would not have been possible.

Cecilia Cenciarelli of Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna sent us a daunting inspection report. The lab found both the prints had a lot of wear and tear and were dirty and deeply scratched. One had a consistent vertical green line on the right-hand side of the image, which had to be removed through frame-by-frame manual work. The colour of the positive was decayed and the film’s natural environment, an essential character of the film, had lost its rich palette of skies, grasslands and foliage and become all magenta, presenting a real challenge for the colourist, who had to spend days working on the colour grading to get it right. Even with highly skilled technicians working with the latest digital technology, the lab said there were still sections where the details could not be recovered.

Before and after restoration still from 'Kummatty'. Photo courtesy Film Heritage Foundation
Before and after restoration still from 'Kummatty'. Photo courtesy Film Heritage Foundation

We were fortunate that Ramu Aravindan had photographs of the shooting location—crucial reference for the colourist. Additionally, Shaji N. Karun, who had shot so many of Aravindan’s films and worked so closely with him, made himself available for several Zoom calls with me, Ramu Aravindan and the colourist at the lab in Bologna to ensure Aravindan’s original vision was honoured to the best possible standard. Normally this would have been done physically, sitting with the colourist at the lab. Doing this remotely over Zoom calls and checking file transfers was a long and arduous process.

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Being a musician, Aravindan was particular about the seamless blending of the music and sound design. Unfortunately, in the case of Kummatty we were hampered again by the fact that we did not have the original sound negative and were working with the sound from the print, which was far from ideal. Ramu Aravindan helped us source his father’s quarter-inch tapes. We digitised about 15 of them in the hope of finding better source material, but there was none. As a result, the sound engineers at the lab had to spend many hours cleaning up and remastering the sound.

But the result more than made up for all the struggles and pitfalls. The restored film was screened at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna on 25 July. I was so sad I could not be there but friends who watched it were blown away by the imagery, colour and sheer poetry of the film, which shone like a jewel on the big screen.

Our dream is to have a theatrical release in India for the restored film, followed by festival screenings and a debut on online streaming platforms. After all the ultimate aim of preserving and restoring a film is to give it a new life and bring it to new audiences as well as remind those who saw and loved the film decades ago just why they fell in love with it the first time.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur is an award-winning film-maker, producer and film archivist.

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