India is renowned for having one of the world’s most prolific film industries, but it’s only in the last couple of years that the country has started to think seriously about preserving its cinematic heritage.

Restoring India’s film output is a huge job and one that is complicated by the country’s hot and humid climate – which hastens the deterioration of prints – and the fragmented nature of its film industry. Historically most Indian films have been made by small, family-run production houses, rather than big studios, so few large libraries or collections of films exist.

However two government organisations with significant catalogues – the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) and the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) – are now racing to restore classics from the Hindi and major regional-language film industries.

The NFAI has partnered with Reliance MediaWorks to restore an initial 1,000 films from its archives, while the NFDC is working with three post-production companies – Pixion, Avitel and Prasad – to restore its library of 246 films produced by the government body between 1975 and the present day. One of the first films to be restored by Reliance MediaWorks, Mrinal Sen’s 1983 Khandahar, screened as part of this year’s Cannes Classics programme. The NFDC has so far restored 15 titles – including Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire (1984), Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1985) and Shyam Benegal’s Mammo (1994) – and plans to complete another 60 over the coming year. 

Established in 1964, the NFAI acquires prints of award-winning and culturally significant films to be preserved in its vaults, but although it has a collection of around 6,500 titles, this only represents a small portion of the country’s output and much has been lost. Only two reels remain of India’s first feature film, Dadasaheb Phalke’s 1913 Raja Harishchandra, and there is no longer any copy of India’s first talkie, Alam Ara, directed by Ardeshir Irani in 1931. Much more recent films have also gone for good.

“One of the problems is that producers are not serious about archiving their product,” says NFAI director Vijay Jadhav. “We’re now appealing to independent producers to understand the importance of archiving. After a few decades, some scenes or shots may have cultural importance, whether or not the film was a hit or a flop.”

Jadhav adds that the NFAI has only recently gained the technical expertise to store films under ideal conditions. Until the early 1990s, prints were kept in sheds at the NFAI base in the city of Pune without proper air-conditioning. And many films were lost when a fire tore through the facility in 2002.

However, much has changed in India over the past decade. The country now has world-class digital post-production and specialist restoration facilities – run by companies including Reliance, Pixion and Prime Focus – which in addition to saving India’s cinematic past, are also acting as outsourcing centres for restoration work from the West.

Reliance MediaWorks is using a combination of chemical and digital restoration technology at its Mumbai facility which expects to employ some 1,200 people by March next year. Some of that technology has been transferred from the US – Reliance acquired LA-based digital restoration company Lowry Digital in 2008 – while some is being developed in-house. Each restoration starts by using chemicals to clean the print, if it’s not too fragile, then passing it through a digital scanner that is specifically designed for old prints. The evaluation team then decides which processes are required – some of which are automated, while others require skilled artists to digitally paint in lost information.

“We are creating this talent from scratch and introducing certification for the industry,” explains Reliance MediaWorks COO Hemen H. Doshi. “We also have a committee of technical experts that revises our work. They suggest improvements or sometimes ask us to expand the scope of the restoration, depending on the time and budget that is available.”

The NFDC has under-taken a similar task but has a slightly easier job as most of its films are not too old – dating from the 1980s and 1990s – and in many cases has an original negative to work from rather than a print. The post houses that the NFDC is working with also use both automated and manual processes, once the print has been converted to a digital format. In addition to fixing dirt, tears and scratches, the technicians also have to deal with colour fade.

“We often need to restore the colour, or contrast in the case of black-and-white films, frame by frame which is a long and tedious process,” explains film director and cinematographer A.K. Bir who is a member of the NFDC’s technical committee. “The colorist sits with the original director or DoP of the film – or if they’re not available as in the case of Ray’s films, then someone from the technical committee.”

Bir adds that the process raises questions about whether to restore the films to look exactly as they did when first made, or to improve the lighting and other elements in line with today’s superior technology. “You have to consider whether the audience that will be viewing the film will want to see it from an aesthetic and historical perspective, or to see a perfect visual image, and that is an on-going debate.”

Although its restoration efforts are motivated by cultural concerns, the NFDC is also planning to monetise its films. “Before we started this process, we could only monetise around 100 films or 30% of our library, because we didn’t have the right materials,” says NFDC managing director Nina Lath Gupta. “Now we want to make them available across all formats.” The government body is currently setting up a distribution operation that will release the films on DVD and the internet, and also sell the remastered titles to broadcasters.

The situation is much more complicated for the NFAI as it doesn’t own rights to its archive and therefore needs to collaborate with the producers concerned. However it does plan to make the films available for researchers, film festivals and films societies.

Some smaller restoration efforts are also underway in India. Individual films such as Chetan Anand’s 1964 Haqeeqat and Goutam Ghose’s 1979 Maa Bhoomi have been restored by their producers or the families of the filmmakers. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation has also been involved in the effort to rescue India’s cinematic heritage – and recently restored Ritwik Ghatak’s 1973 A River Called Titas, which also screened in this year’s Cannes Classics programme. 

Ironically, although most restoration efforts around the globe employ digital technology, the NFAI and NFDC are following many other film archives in storing their remastered titles in the old-fashioned analogue format, because no digital media has yet proven to be suitable for archiving. “Digital formats change constantly, but if you keep film in good condition it should last for 100 years,” says Bir.