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Preserving vintage Bollywood films for posterity

Whether cinema gets better with age the way wine does is debatable. But what happens for sure is that reels worsen over time -unless stored suitably. In some cases, despite all the care, a film doesn’t survive the test of time. However, with the concept of digitisation and restoration fast gaining ground in our country, it seems hope is in sight.  Lately, there have been some healthy signs of this change.  A digitally restored print of the 1983 cult film Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was released last year. Taking a cue, a doctored version of Salaam Bombay! hit the marquee, thus marking its 25th anniversary. 


A restored print of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983)

The remake of the 1981 film Chashme Buddoor may have attracted discouraging reviews from critics but the re-release of the restored version won more accolades than the remake. After all, who wouldn’t like technology that makes the flickers, blips and other disturbances disappear while enhancing the overall experience?


A coloured still from the film Half Ticket (1962)

For what it’s worth, the process is not easy. Turns out the good old films’ cans are usually stashed away, leaving the negatives fragile. And this is exactly where some high-tech companies step in to resuscitate cinema. For instance, the Lower Parel-based UTV Group is into digitisation, restoration and preservation. It also owns the rights to the negative rights of movies that were once produced under big banners such as Homi Wadia, AVM Productions (the oldest surviving studio in India) and Gemini. But the actual procedure continues to be a challenge and is rewarding, too.


Martin Scorsese took the initiative to restore the 1948 classic Kalpana

"A film is actually a series of photographs. To be precise, there are 24 frames in a second. And when we sit down to work, we go frame by frame. So, one can guess the kind of labour and time it requires to clean each frame. On top of that, most of the old films were shot on 35 mm and some cans are often found missing from a given set. That adds to our frustration, but we don’t give up,” says Sushilkumar Agrawal, chairman of UTV Group.


A digitised still from the film Do Anjaane (1976)

After its release last month, the documentary, Celluloid Man, managed to shed some light on the pitiable condition in which films are archived in India -if at all, that is. Regardless, going by the recent trend, awareness is gradually replacing tardiness. “As far as film restorations are concerned, especially old movies, Indians always ask about the monetary benefits. For them, if a movie is to be archived, then there has to be a commercial angle. Fortunately, the past negligence is giving way to preservation and that’s what counts,” adds Naresh Jhangiani of Reliance MediaWorks.

This Mumbai-based company has restored more than 1,700 prints -including 27 silent films -from those belonging to Bollywood, NASA, National Archives and Hollywood. In fact, it was also involved in the restoration of Chashme Buddoor. Speaking of which, one of the greatest challenge is to maintain a movie’s tone and texture without compromising on the era in which a film is set. “We try not to overdo anything because it doesn’t make sense to make a film from 1970s look like it belongs to 2000s just because we have the requisite software,” explains Vivek Modi of Reliance MediaWorks.

Even though there’s a sense of optimism, not all movies can be digitised satisfactorily. Modi points out, “A 15-year-old film can be more challenging to digitise than a 60-year-old film. It all depends on the condition of the reels available. There’s a level of expectation when the producers approach us but there’s a limit to what one can do with the original print.”

The drive to preserve past filmmakers’ legacies seems sudden but not without a reason. “Earlier, those in possession of the cans did not know their value. Now that they realise the significance, they flock to us. It’s not always about the money though. It’s also about maintaining cinematic heritage. A lot of people have started digging up stuff in their attic but it’s too late in most cases,” rues Agrawal.  

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