Monday, March 14, 2016

Saving 'lost' movies was a service to the nation; how about saving rare heritage collections?

P.K.Nair's death last week was yet another reminder of a national weakness of India: Lack of institutional interest in protecting the country's artistic richness. Consider cinema. In volume, India produces more movies than any other country. In quality, some world classics are Indian. Yet in safeguarding this heritage our governments have been always indifferent. Morarji Desai, finance minister, imposed punishment taxes on the film industry as a moral duty. C.Rajagopalachari, when he was briefly "Prime Minister" of Madras, actually lobbied for closing down the industry on ethical grounds.

The industry itself has been negligent about the preservation of its products. Hugely successful banners -- Mehboob Studios, Wadia Movietone, R.K.Studios, Prabhat in Poona, Gemini in Madras -- were all owner-centred. When the owner passed on, so did the studios and all that was achieved on their creative floors. Bombay Talkies was no better although it was "professionally" organised by the Germany-returned Himansu Rai with the Germany-trained Devika Rani as partner. After Rai's early death, Devika Rani found it difficult to manage the company. When she too moved away, the enterprise crumbled. Film reels were left to rot with abandoned studio sets.

This is why P.K.Nair's arrival was fortuitous. When he joined the Film & Television Institute in Poona in 1961 as research assistant, the Hindi film industry was in its post-independence Golden Age. As he was a movie fanatic from his school days, his research meant collecting old films and related material. In just three years he was instrumental in setting up the National Film Archives of India.

The importance of what he achieved was enormous. He traced and restored India's first movie, Dadasaheb Phalke's silent Raja Harischandra and Uday Shankar's one-of-a-kind Kalpana. Gemini, like Bombay Talkies, was relatively better organised, but even the big- thinking S.S.Vasan had failed to preserve his masterpieces. It was Nair who salvaged Gemini's Chandralekha as well as Bombay Talkies' Kismat, Achyut Kanya and Bandhan. NFAI's vaults bulged with 12,000 movies when Nair retired in 1991.

When such feats come out of one man's obsession, the question arises: What happens after him? In NFAI's case, the spectre of bureaucracy loomed. When, a decade after Nair's retirement, fire destroyed more than a thousand films in the archive's vaults, including Harischandra, a bureaucrat said the loss was not serious because copies were available. Does the future belong philistines who cannot differentiate between an original and a copy of a copy?

What, for example, is the future of the incomparable collections put together by two human wonders of Chennai, Film News Anandan and V.A.K. Ranga Rao? For 64 years now, Anandan has been collecting everything about films, from song books to posters to stills to star profiles to an astonishing set of 100-photograph albums of the mid-1900s superstars. At 88 he is now enfeebled, walking and talking with considerable difficulty, his eyesight gone bad. But the man is still collecting things with the help of his family. In 2003 Chief Minister Jayalalitha saw the value of his work and helped him by funding a filmography he was compiling and later by acquiring his collection for the Government. Film News Anandan still dreams of seeing his life's work put on display in a permanent gallery. That's the least so unique a collection deserves. Will that happen when he is still around?

Ranga Rao is perhaps the finest living scholar on film history, film dance and film music. His knowledge is so extensive that authors are scared of him; at one glance he can see their mistakes in dates, spellings and factual details. In the process, he has also assembled India's largest collection of 78 rpm gramophone records, about 42,000 of them in 40 languages. Beyond music, his recordings include recitations by Tagore, speeches by Gandhi and even advertising nostalgia like commercials of Sait beedi. What an extraordinary storehouse of knowledge for researchers and rasikas alike. He has apparently made plans for a trust made up of relatives to manage this rare collection after his time. What other option is available in our country?

Centres of higher education in the West go to great length to acquire such collections and put them to wider use. Even little known universities in America have funds to buy, for example, manuscripts by authors. The collections of people like Film News Anandan and V.A.K. Ranga Rao are invaluable assets a university can make available to researchers. But our universities are otherwise busy. Maybe they should ask themselves: Isn't ignoring the treasures of the nation anti-national?