Shivendra Singh Dungarpur on restoring G Aravindan's Malayalam classic Thamp, and its premiere at Cannes 2022

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur on restoring G Aravindan's Malayalam classic Thamp, and its premiere at Cannes 2022

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur on restoring G Aravindan's Malayalam classic Thamp, and its premiere at Cannes 2022

Among the many old restored classics lined up at Cannes film festival this year is Thamp, a 1978 experimental film directed by G Aravindan, one of the few flagbearers of parallel Malayalam cinema. With Thamp, the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) humbly adds yet another feather in its cap - a couple of weeks ago, another restored G. Aravindan film Kummatty was screened at the International Film Festival of Kerela (IFFK) to a thundering response.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, the founder of FHF, couldn’t be more happy to see these films finally receive the recognition they deserve. He vividly remembers the impact G Aravindan’s cinema had made on him back when he was an FTII student in the early 90s. Dungarpur marvels at how they retained an element of magic-realism while dealing with day-to-day issues and relationships - so naturally he decided to undertake the restoration of two of the filmmaker’s works as FHF gradually consolidated its feet.

Thamp (1978) | Courtesy Film Heritage Foundation

Except when Dungarpur met the films’ producer K. Ravindranathan Nair in 2020, it was only to realise the films’ original prints had melted to a great extent - so they had to acquire the dupe negative from National Film Archive of India (NFAI).

The catch here is that dupe negative does not provide the shadows and image stabilisation of the original. Dungarpur notes, “It becomes easy when you have the original camera negatives of the film as they give a lot of depth and latitude in the frames.” In addition, Aravindan had apparently used a very unique kind of film stock, which was available only in Ooty and gave high-contrasting frames. So, FHF collaborated with Prasad Corporation (Chennai) which did the clean-up work, post which the film was sent to Cinetica Di Bologna in Italy for grading and further work. The process took place in two phases, and overall took more than a year.

While Thamp’s restoration was supervised by FHF, it was Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation (TFF) that came onboard for Kummatty’s restoration. Talking about their association with TFF, Dungarpur reminiscences how it all started when Pt. Ravi Shankar had met Scorsese and introduced him to Kalpana, a lavish dance-drama film made in 1948 by his elder brother Uday Shankar, and how “Scorsese was mesmerised by the dances.”  He also recalls the herculean struggle to obtain the film from local authorities who were initially quite rigid and hesitant to give it out to any external body.

G.Aravindan

Kalpana was eventually chosen for a special screening at the Cannes festival in 2012, and Dungarpur nostalgically ruminates how they have come a full circle exactly 10 years later with Thamp being chosen for a Cannes screening this year, saying “As far as India is concerned, Kalpana was undoubtedly the beginning of world-class film restoration.”

2012 was also the year when Dungarpur found himself involved in the restoration process of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent-era classic The Lodger: Story of a London Fog (1926), as part of a project initiated by the British Film Institute (BFI) restoring Hitchock’s films before his transition to Hollywood. It was around the same time when Dungarpur also finished making ‘Celluloid Man,’ his documentary on legendary film archivist PK Nair. “Celluloid Man was my Satyagraha,” he states, clarifying that he didn’t start off intending to make a documentary per se. “I merely wanted to shoot something with Mr Nair and share it with the government, giving them a peek into the state of NFAI. I also thought I could share the footage with news channels, bring more light to the subject.”  There was no looking back from here. This was when Dungarpur deep-dived into the pursuit of film preservation, putting his much-successful career of ad filmmaking on the backburner.

Dungarpur fondly talks about PK Nair’s mission where he took old classic films to Heggodu, a small village in Karnataka, trying to build a culture of film-watching as a more widespread communion activity. “As you saw these villagers who had no link with cinema appreciating films like Roshomon and Apur Sansar, you realised that film is a language of its own.” 

However, Dungarpur also finds our collective attitude towards film preservation rather lackadaisical and indifferent in general. There is a legit reason we have lost over 98 % of our cinema from the Silent Era, he believes. “The prevalent culture in our country is as soon as we finish one film, we move on to another project - naturally we have no clue after a few days where our film negatives remain lying.” Dungarpur recalls talking to people from many multi-generational film families who still think of movies primarily either as ‘something that entertains’ or ‘make money for us.’ He reflects,

“We need to understand that what we create is not solely ours. It’s only when one learns where we came from that one can better grasp where are we headed - this is why we need to preserve our cinema.

Films being the newest form of art have never been looked at as a medium of purely creative expression - there is a lack of understanding in this regard. It’s a new language, but all languages need to co-exist.”

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

Dungarpur credits the great film preservation work happening in the west to its filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese among others who cared about the masters they learnt from and hence made huge efforts to preserve their works. Yet, Dungarpur believes that things in India too have changed for the better in the past decade, post Celluloid Man - in terms of realising the importance of film preservation. “FHF has undoubtedly provided a backbone for training people in this field of work,” Dungarpur notes, further talking about various initiatives like film screenings and workshops that have added to the awareness about his foundation and its work. “People now know about digitisation and other restoration-related processes, and thats a huge leap for us.”

While noting that film festivals are definitely a great way to lend these great old films a bigger audience, Dungarpur particularly lauds the ‘Virtual Screening Room’ initiative by Scorsese’s foundation where film-lovers from all over the world are given free online access to an old film restoration for a day, additionally also getting a peek into the entire restoration process.

FHF is now also integrally associated with Manipur State Film Development Society (MSFDS), helping the latter in preserving their older films. One of its on-going projects is a 1990 Manipuri film by Aribam Syam Sharma titled ‘Ishanou,’ while another major project is Mayamriga, an Odia film from 1984 directed by Nirad N. Mohapatra. Dungarpur also talks about how they have helped countries like Srilanka, Nepal and Afghanistan in building their film archive, adding that “we have to look at India as a whole sub-continent when we talk about its film heritage, considering how many of the neighbour countries’ film cultures are interlinked with ours in several ways.”

In December, 2020, the Union cabinet decided to merge four of its film media units — Films Division, Directorate of Film Festivals, National Film Archive of India, and Children’s Film Society - with the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), which is now gradually coming into action. Dungarpur sounds hopeful about this development, expressing great confidence in their decision to digitise most of the archived films, yet maintaining he is curious to see how the merger will be received in the long run. He adds, “Being a member of the executive committee, I too want to see how the dialogue is going to emerge. We don’t know what the structure is, but I am going to meet up with them soon to get a better understanding of what is government’s attitude going to be towards NFAI, the most important institution of our lives. One thing I do maintain is that these organizations should have less state control.”

The one thing that Dungarpur isn’t happy is our mainstream cinema’s complete switch to digital shooting format. He tells us about Sudeep Chatterjee, the cinematographer of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s recent films like Padmaavat and Gangubai Kathiawadi who has also been working closely with FHF and has often expressed his keenness to shoot on film, so has R Balki (whose next film has Dungarpur partaking in as an actor). However, Dungarpur feels we have gradually killed the infrastructure required to have such choices available for our filmmakers. “This is exactly what Nolan was advocating for, when he came to India for a discussion organised by FHF - that we should have the freedom to shoot on film. The kind of grain and texture it gives you - There is nothing like shooting on film.”

BH Harsh is a film critic who spends most of his time watching movies and making notes, hoping to create, as Peggy Olsen put it, something of lasting value.

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