Why it’s time to call action for efforts to save reels in Kannada cinema

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8 mins read

Why it’s time to call action for efforts to save reels in Kannada cinema
Sati Sulochana remains lost in the annuls of history because of a lack of efforts to preserve the reels.

Film preservationists and conservationists from across the country fell silent after watching Hommage — a 2021 South Korean film directed by Shin Su-won —at the 14th edition of Bengaluru International Film Festival (BIFFes). The film depicts a cinematic time travel of a middle-aged filmmaker connecting the timeframes between 1962 and 2022.The film’s plot presents Jiwan, a female...

Film preservationists and conservationists from across the country fell silent after watching Hommage — a 2021 South Korean film directed by Shin Su-won —at the 14th edition of Bengaluru International Film Festival (BIFFes). The film depicts a cinematic time travel of a middle-aged filmmaker connecting the timeframes between 1962 and 2022.

The film’s plot presents Jiwan, a female protagonist who is a struggling middle-aged female director, and works to restore the sound for A Woman Judge (1962), the only feature film available from South Korea’s second female director Hong Eun-won. Shin underlines the fact that film archiving isn’t just about the past, but working to preserve a memory.

Hommage jolted film protectionists and conservationists and reminded them of the fate of Sati Sulochana (1934) — the first Kannada talkie, which was released on March 3, 1934.This gramophone record jacket debunked the belief that the first talkie had 18 songs. The record jacket testified that the film had 30 songs and had soundtrack. Tragically, film archivists are still searching for gramophone records and the film’s celluloid reels. Even family members of the producers of Sati Sulochana are clueless about the whereabouts of the records and reels.

To understand the importance of Sati Sulochana, one has to revisit the history of the nine-decade old Kannada cinema. The tradition of talkies started in India with the Hindi film Alam Ara in 1931. Significantly, Bhakta Prahlada in Telugu and Kalidasa in Tamil were released in that year. But the first Kannada talkie Sati Sulochana had to wait for its release till 1934. When R Nagendra Rao, one of the pioneers of Kannada cinema, was in search of producers for his dream talkie project, he came across Shah Chamanlal Doongaji and Shah Bhurmal Chamanlal Doongaji, two businessmen in Chickpet, who agreed to fund the project.

Kannada film historian and writer NS Sreedharamurthy was successful in tracing the gramophone record jacket of Sati Sulochana. 

Kannada film historian and writer NS Sreedharamurthy was successful in tracing the gramophone record jacket of Sati Sulochana. 

The film’s director YV Rao also acted in the film, which had an ensemble cast of Subbaiah Naidu, doyen of Kannada theatre, Nagendra Rao, Lakshmi Bai, and Tripuramba. The film shot in Chatrapathi Cinetone Studio of Kolhapur was released on March 3, 1934, at Doddanna Hall — later turned into a cinema theatre called Paramount near KR Market — and ran for six months. Sati Sulochana became so popular that people from nearby villages of Bengaluru came to watch the film riding bullock carts.

The hunt for Sati Sulochana’s reels and records are on to mark Vishwa Kannada Cinema Day on March 3.

“I received a huge cache of documents from writer Dr Vijaya Subbaraj, daughter of Seetharam, who played the role Narada in Sati Sulochana is not the only movie which remains lost in the annuls of history.. The collection she sent in 2018 contained a screenplay of some of the scenes of Sati Sulochana and lyrics of some songs. The film attracted a huge crowd just because of the trick shots including Mayaratha (illusionary chariot) and Maya Seetha (illusionary Seetha). But we are still searching for the remnant celluloid reels of this film because my idea was to make a documentary on Sati Sulochana to mark 90 years of Kannada cinema,” Sreedharamurthy told The Federal.

Sati Sulochana is not the only film lost to time due to a lack of efforts to preserve these gems of the history of Indian cinema.

Bhakta Dhruva, the second talkie, which was released after Sati Sulochana in 1934 and Mrichchakatika (1931), the first silent film starring stalwarts of Indian cultural spectrum Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and TP Kailasam, have suffered the same fate. The negatives of the remnants of classics of B Vithalacharya, Kemparaj Urs, B S Ranga, Hunsur Krishnamurthy, R Nagendra Rao and others too are nowhere to be found. Negatives of only 1,500 of nearly 3,500 films produced in the past eight decades are available. Even these 1,500 are in a tattered condition,” says National Award recipient and film scholar BN Subramanya, who supported Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy’s project to set up a film archives.

“Though archivists have not received much success they haven’t given up their search. They are scurrying through flea markets, looking under furniture and in cupboards of abandoned laboratories, warehouses and old cinema halls. Though a treasure trove of scores of Kannada films is lying with some producers and distributors, there is nobody either to procure or restore the same for posterity,” said Subrahmanya.

A repository of Kannada films is in a precarious condition in the absence of climate controlled vaults to preserve them. “It is time for the government and Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy to wake up to protect and preserve visual culture,” said film scholar and former artistic director of BIFFes, N Vidyashankar, who headed a committee formed by the government to set up a state-of-the-art Karnataka Film Archives.

“This phenomenon is, however, not limited to Kannada films alone. It is a pan-India phenomenon. As many as 1,338 films were made in India in that period. Of these only 29 have survived. Most of the first talkies in the regional languages don’t exist. It is estimated that by the late 1950s, we had lost 70% to 80% of our films,” said Vidyashankar.

Cans of celluloid films stored in Karnataka Film Archives at Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy Bengaluru.

Cans of celluloid films stored in Karnataka Film Archives at Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy Bengaluru.

American-Italian Martin Scorsese has called this phenomenon a cultural emergency.

The Film Foundation (TFF), founded by Scorsese, creates creating awareness about film preservation and protection. TFF created in 1990 with an aim of preserving film history has helped in restoring 700 films from 19 countries across the world including India’s Kalpana (1948) directed by Uday Shankar, which premiered at Cannes in 2012. According to Scorsese, “Preservation is crucial for the universal language of film in the time of great divisions.” He advocated taking up the work of saving film heritage on a war-footing. “We can’t pass the buck anymore and certainly cannot consider this to be the government’s responsibility alone,” he said.

History of film preservation

The need to protect and conserve films gained importance in the early 20th century in Europe. “With the onset of the First World War, the physical protection of film material became important for obvious reasons. Today, however, the condition of films of this period is extremely poor. After the World War ended, large collections of films and documents were destroyed. The 1930s saw film archives established in all typical film-producing countries and these became the first organisations to join the umbrella organisation for film archives — The Federation Internationale des Archives du film (FIAF). Today, this institution has over 120 affiliates from more than 60 countries,” says Thomas Ballhausen in his essay on the History and Function of Film Archives.

Filmmaker, archivist and the founding director of Film Heritage Foundation Shivendra Singh Dungarpur believes that India’s first talkie Alam Ara was sold for its silver. According to Dungarpur, Indians won’t consider moving images as an art form integral to their social and cultural heritage and a visual document of our times. They mostly look at cinema purely through the prism of commerce. This is the reason why we have lost a colossal amount of our film heritage and continue to lose lots more every day.

NFAI and film preservation

Despite the many stories of apathy, there have been many silver linings too.

Understanding the urgent need to preserve and protect cinematic heritage, National Film Archives of India (NFAI) was founded in 1964 with an objective to trace, acquire and preserve the heritage of cinema for posterity. According to a report, while the current state of film preservation in India leaves much to be desired, NFAI has launched an initiative to restore 5,000 essential Indian films.

Ministry of Information and Broadcasting woke up from its slumber in 2022 and announced the world’s largest film restoration project under the National Film Heritage Mission (NFHM) with a budget of Rs 363 crore and handed over the responsibility to take up preservation and conservation of films to NFAI. The plan of the Ministry under NFHM is to restore approximately 2,200 films.

In addition to restoration, NFHM will also support ongoing preservation of film condition assessment, preventive conservation and digitalization with the total allocated budget of Rs 597 crore, which is one of the world’s largest film preservation missions, according to Information and Broadcasting minister Anurag Singh Thakur.

Karnataka: pioneer in film archiving

It is a tragedy that despite a BJP dispensation in the state until recently, Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy (KCA) could not cash in on the funds allocated to NFHM.

Former KCA chairman KCA Suneel Puranik breathed life into the three-decade old Karnataka Film Archives project.

Setting up of a Karnataka Film Archives is one of the priority programmes of KCA, recommended by an expert committee constituted by the government in 1994. Despite recommendations of the committee, it took 16 years for Kannada cinema to take cognisance of the issue of conservation and preservation of films. The process of setting up the film archives commenced after the formation of KCA in 2009 with TS Nagabharana heading the institution. He had envisaged a grand plan to set up state-of-the-art Karnataka Film Archives with the financial assistance extended by Bengaluru Development Authority (BDA) and using Rs 2 crore earmarked by the Karnataka government in the budget. The estimated cost of the project was Rs 6 crore and the BDA had released Rs 1 crore at that time.

While Karnataka has lost many of its films, it has been a pioneer in many ways in film preservation. In fact, Karnataka has had an archive of this kind since the 1980s and, in fact, has been the first state to have its cinema archives along the lines of NFAI. A trained curator has been taking care of celluloid prints submitted to the Information Department under government guidelines. Besides 180 celluloid films, this unit protected thousands of documentaries made on land, language, culture, personalities, historical incidents, film scripts of giants of Kannada cinema, and lobby posters among other things.

Film personalities, who have headed KCA, claimed to have tried hard to set up an Independent Kannada Film Archives. SV Rajendra Singh Babu, who headed KCA, sought Rs 100 crore from the Siddaramaiah government for the archives project. As other priorities such as organising the Bengaluru International Film Festival (Biffes) consumed the time of heads of KCA, the archives project was swept under the carpet.

The Kannada Film Archives project took a concrete shape after Suneel Puranik became chairman of KCA in 2020. The state government constituted a seven-member expert committee in early 2021. The brief of this committee was to study and submit the modalities to set up a state-of-the-art Kannada Film Archives. Members of the committee visited NFAI and studied the ‘scientific processes’ of setting up film archives and submitted a detailed draft report on setting up of Kannada film archives along the lines of NFAI.

The committee in its draft recommendations directed KCA to fast-track the process of gathering, preserving, digitizing and restoring all the archival material of every form. One of the important recommendations is to store celluloid films in especially designed vaults, where temperature and humidity are controlled according to international specifications. The committee also recommended depositing celluloid reels, which are already in the degenerated state in NFAI, till vaults are created in Karnataka.

A poster of Sati Sulochana.

A poster of Sati Sulochana.

Two years since it was submitted the draft report is gathering dust and KCA has not taken the initiative to finalise and submit the same to the government. Meanwhile, endangered celluloid reels are being kept in air-conditioned rooms of Amruthotsava Bhavan (headquarters of KCA, where a scientific archive is coming up). A step is underway to store the Kannada cine related materials in the newly created infrastructure. Cine archivists and academicians are worried about rare celluloid rolls, which may turn into powder if not preserved scientifically.

Filmmakers and film archivists are concerned about the decaying of a valuable collection of Karnataka’s film heritage. Internationally renowned filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli acknowledges the anxiety of the film fraternity. According to him, restored films have to be stored in vaults at the right temperature along the lines of steps taken by a few European countries to protect the film legacy.

“Failure of recommendations of the expert committee in protecting and preserving Karnataka’s film heritage will be the end of the celluloid history of Kannada and Karnataka cinema and I am apprehensive of our old classics being lost permanently,” film historian Subrahmanya said.

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