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Shivendra Singh Dungarpur: Building a safe house for cinema

The Film Heritage Foundation is attempting to make cinema preservation a national dialogue

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

Mick Newnham is scaring the kids. A former conservation manager at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, with a touch of Robin Williams in his manner, he has run through slip discs, spores and spiders, and has now reached snakes as a possible hazard that a film archivist might face. “If you think about it, film archives are great for snakes," he says. “They are cool, have plenty of dark spaces to stay, and there are always rats, which is a major food source."

In another room, David Walsh, consultant with the Imperial War Museum in the UK, is passing out old film stock to demonstrate different aspect ratios. These sessions are part of a two-day “Film Preservation In Practice" workshop in Mumbai, organized by the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF), a not-for-profit started in 2014 by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. Classes on film handling, rescue, repair and preservation are conducted by Walsh and Newnham. Participants have come from the National Film Development Corporation, to learn how to save films in their collection; from FHF’s workshop earlier this year in Chennai; from various state archives, or private ones run by the Tata group, the State Bank of India or the Bombay Natural History Society.

This is a shorter version of the annual workshops the FHF has conducted since 2015. “We’re the only institute in India that has developed film preservation not as a national cause but also as an opportunity of skill development," Dungarpur says. Apart from the government-run National Film Archive of India (NFAI), the FHF is arguably the only body in the country involved in serious film preservation. And it’s the only organization, Dungarpur says, that is involved in education in the field of preservation.

The tattered reel of Konkani film ‘Mogacho Aunndo’ when it arrived at the foundation.

Only a minuscule number of the 1,700 Indian films made in the silent era survive today. Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian feature film, exists as a re-shot version, and only in part. The first talkie, Alam Ara, doesn’t exist at all. Ever so often, there’s a report of a fire destroying an archive, or of cans rotting in a godown. In a country as inattentive to its cinematic heritage as India, it isn’t surprising that few within (and virtually no one outside) the film industry knows of the FHF. This might change next week, when the foundation brings director Christopher Nolan to Mumbai for a series of events.

A trip by the director of Inception and Dunkirk is certainly a coup for the FHF, more so because Nolan seems to be coming with the express purpose of talking about filming on celluloid and arguing for its continuation. He’s a rare Hollywood director who prefers to shoot on film rather than digital. On 1 April, he will be in conversation with Tacita Dean, an acclaimed conceptual artist and experimental director, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). Dean is a passionate advocate of photochemical film, writing in The Guardian in 2011: “What we are asking for is coexistence: that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendancy of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other."

Potentially more wide-reaching than the NCPA talk is the closed-room conference that Nolan and Dean will be taking part in on 31 March, along with 35 industry professionals—“major influencers", in Dungarpur’s words. It’s a heady list—Amitabh Bachchan, Gulzar, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Ajay Bijli, other actors, directors and technicians—with a specific agenda: the continued use and preservation of film as a medium.

Dungarpur hopes Nolan’s trip will lead to increased exposure for the FHF, but, more importantly, also open up new sources of funding. Rescuing and archiving film and cinema-related material is an expensive business. When Dungarpur started the organization with his wife, Teesha Cherian, it was largely with his own money (he was a successful ad film-maker). Since then, they’ve built two facilities: one for non-film material (in Tardeo), the other for films (in Navi Mumbai). The film vault houses some 500 films; it can accommodate about 500 more. Dungarpur is considering moving it to another, larger space. How much does it cost to set up a film archive? It depends on the films being preserved, he says, but Rs5 crore is a reasonable estimate.

The workshops have received sponsorships, and there have been individual donations, but funds have been hard to come by. “For the non-filmic material, our conservator, Priya Kapoor, comes from Delhi," Dungarpur says. “The restoration, it costs a lot of money. We have to keep the material in temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults. The same goes for the films." Where filmic material is concerned, he stresses that he’s only talking about rescue, repair and preservation. Restoration—painstaking, research-intensive restoration, the kind that Janus Films achieved with its stunning transfer of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy—isn’t possible to achieve in this country, he says.

A technician works on an old film still at the Film Heritage Foundation office.

Dungarpur has nevertheless been an integral part of restoration efforts. In 2010, he was approached by the World Cinema Project, an offshoot of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. The director was keen to restore Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948), but after two years of trying, they still hadn’t been able to acquire the negative. Dungarpur realized that this was a rare chance. “I knew that if Scorsese restores Kalpana, it will open the doors for the entire preservation of the country’s (cinematic) heritage," he says. He made repeated trips to the NFAI over six months before they handed over the dupe negative—a duplicate print. The film was restored at the Cineteca di Bologna, and premiered at Cannes in 2012. He again collaborated with the Film Foundation to help restore Sri Lankan director Lester James Peries’ Nidhanaya (1972). In mid-2014, months before the FHF conducted its first workshop, Scorsese wrote them an enthusiastic letter of support.

Irish film-maker and writer Mark Cousins (The Story Of Film, I Am Belfast), who’s on the advisory council of FHF, placed the organisation’s efforts in perspective. Over email, he wrote: “At the Edinburgh International Film Festival, I did something called The Paradise Movie Hall of Kolkata, an immersive season on Bengal films. I was shocked at the poor state of preservation of many of the prints. And when I was making The Story of Film, I was again dismayed at the fact that even Indian movies that I considered classics were not ‘safe’. There seemed to be lots of agreement that something had to be done. One of the things that must happen is a mentality shift. In general it has to be better understood that one of the great things that India did in the 20th Century was cinema. Its filmic heritage must be seen as precious."

knew that if Scorsese restores ‘Kalpana’, it will open the doors for the entire preservation of the country’s (cinematic) heritage.- Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

The FHF office is an oasis of cinephilia in busy Tardeo: here a Mitchell camera, there a Polish poster for Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire (1977). On another floor, in the non-film archive, an employee is examining photographs with a microscope. Another is working on a piece of film. I’m shown the warped reel of Govind Nihalani’s Drishti (1990) in a dehumidifier, where it will lie for months until it’s fit to work on. We move on to the vaults housing the non-film material. Shelf after shelf is opened—photographs, posters, lobby cards, song booklets, censor certificates, magazines, organized by year, language, sometimes by actor or director. I see, for the first time, a physical copy of Filmindia, a cinema journal founded in the 1930s, in which K.A. Abbas wrote criticism before he wrote Raj Kapoor films.

During the Nazi occupation of France, archivist Henri Langlois worked to save countless classic films, hiding them when he learnt of an SS raid, getting actor Simone Signoret to wheel film canisters in a baby carriage past Nazi troops. Dungarpur mentions Langlois several times in our conversations. If they have one thing in common, it’s the idea of film conservation as a matter of life and death.

‘Dunkirk’ will be screened in Imax 70mm at Carnival Cinemas IMAX, Wadala, Mumbai, on 31 March. Visit for details.

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