The month of May has brought not one, but two notable developments in the field of film restoration in India. On the 5th of this month, the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting (MIB) announced that it will grant the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) Rs. 363 Crores to restore about 2200 films over an unspecified time period. On a more human scale, the 75th Cannes Film Festival revealed that it will show two restored Indian films in its Classics section: Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), restored by the NFAI, and Aravindan’s Thamp̄ (1978), restored by the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) under the direction of founder-filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, in collaboration with the Prasad Corporation (India), The Film Foundation (USA) and Cineteca di Bologna (Italy).
Born in Kottayam, Kerala, in 1935, Aravindan is often classified under the loosely defined, pan-Indian Parallel Cinema movement. But he was a poet in that assembly of prose stylists, a genius primitivist in a world of professionals. Aravindan’s third feature, Thamp̄, is an observational portrait of a traveling circus setting up shop at a riverside hamlet in Kerala. The filmmaker initially planned Thamp̄ as a documentary around the circus troupe, and large sections of the final film attest to this original intention. The story is skeletal, there is no plot and very little dialogue or musical score. Aravindan instead devotes the better part of the film to capturing the quotidian rhythm of the village, its landscape and buildings, its people and places, as well as the troupe’s performances.
These improvised vignettes are organized into a symmetric, cyclical day-night structure anchored by recurring figures: a bourgeois repatriate, his rebellious son, the manager of the circus, its muscleman and clown, two young lovers, a prostitute, a truck driver. Discursive elements surface late in the film in the form of sabotage, worker unrest and familial discord, but these sparse incidents are only hinted at, relegated to the margins of the whatever narrative there is.
Thamp̄ is a circus movie and Aravindan’s view of the troupe is coloured not by nostalgia or lament for the circus, but by a bitter fatalism. The performers are a hopeless lot, trapped in the circus since childhood and subject to its waning fortunes, who are likened to their animal colleagues. Their promotional parade through the village is accompanied by upbeat music, but their solemn, downcast attitude turns the procession funereal. A birthday party for a troupe member looks like a wake, until someone is instructed to sing. Resigned to abuse and abjection, the artistes form a lumpen mass whose rootless existence outside the class system is contrasted with the politicized factory workers that constitute their audience.
The performance of the troupe, though accomplished, is marked by a certain weariness that the 43-year-old Aravindan seems to share. The filmmaker appears to be more interested in life at the periphery of the circus, in the fleeting connections that its members forge outside the tent and in the village. This disenchantment with spectacle results in the most extraordinary passages of the film in which Aravindan cuts between the audience and the performers.
While the circus routines are perfunctorily photographed, these candid reaction shots — the first that Aravindan filmed for the project — register a gamut of primal emotions: men and women, babies and toddlers, all staring agape in fear and wonderment at the dangerous, graceful stunts unfolding before them. The performance becomes little more than an occasion to film the villagers, whose virginal reaction contrasts with the camera-aware presence of the handful of professional actors. Like Herz Frank’s Ten Minutes Older, made the same year, Thamp̄ is fascinated by the possibility of innocence, of belief in the spectacle.
The film’s restoration journey began in early 2020, when Dungarpur travelled to Kollam, Kerala, to meet the film’s producer K. Ravindranathan Nair. A cashew baron, Nair had artistic aspirations and financed several canonical works of Malayalam ‘New Wave’ cinema, including films by Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Dungarpur notes that the producer was forthcoming in giving his approval for the restoration. The real hurdle, though, lay ahead.
Since the master negatives of Aravindan’s films had all decomposed, the FHF had to work from a surviving print of the film that it obtained from the NFAI. This posed a triple challenge. “Prints don’t have a great degree of latitude,” says Dungarpur, describing how positives can inherit only a part of the tonal range of the original negative. To begin the restoration process from a duplicate negative generated from the NFAI print, then, already entailed a loss.
Moreover, budget demanding, Thamp̄ was shot on the locally manufactured Indu film stock, which wasn’t as sensitive or fast as the better monochrome stocks of the time. Shot by regular cinematographer Shaji N. Karun, it was Aravindan’s second work in black-and-white (and bookended by two films in colour, Kanchana Sita (1977) and Kummatty (1979, restored by the same team in 2021). Shaji worked mostly with available light, which produces images of harsh contrast and imposes visible limitations in the outdoor scenes, where figures tend to meld into the background.
The NFAI print, finally, had already been projected a number of times, accumulating significant amount of wear and tear in the process. This copy had to be first physically repaired at the FHF facility in Mumbai before being sent to co-sponsor Prasad Corporation in Chennai for 4K scanning and digital clean-up. The restoration laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, which oversaw the high-resolution transfer, also did the sound restoration and colour grading.
“When it comes to challenges in film restoration,” declares Dungarpur, “you have to be a purist.” Fundamental to FHF’s work is the conviction that the intent of the original creator and the artistic integrity of the film must be the guiding factors in a restoration project. To this end, Dungarpur collaborated with Shaji and Ramu Aravindan, the filmmaker’s son and photographer, on getting the grading and the sound right. This painstaking process of shepherding a single film over many months seems to run counter to the MIB’s monumental ambitions, but the conscientiousness stems from an attitude of respect towards the work under consideration.
Would the FHF’s restoration bring back Thamp̄ in the form Aravindan conceived it? Best intentions notwithstanding, perhaps not. “A film and its restoration are ultimately different works,” says Dungarpur. One would hope, even so, that the restored version comes as close as possible to the vision of the singular cine-poet that was Aravindan.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a Bengaluru-based author and critic.