‘You’ve Got To Be Mad’: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur On The Business of Restoring Films

Dungarpur’s Film Heritage Foundation is working towards not just preserving old films, but also bringing them to audiences today
‘You’ve Got To Be Mad’: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur On The Business of Restoring Films

Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival’s ‘Word to Screen’, held at JW Marriott, Juhu, on the 26th of September, highlighted the synergy that exists between text and cinema. The festival’s options market presented the opportunity for writers and publishers to pitch their work to filmmakers and producers, along with panel discussions on adaptations, cinema writing, and more. 

Film Companion spoke to Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, founder-director of the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF), which recently organised a retrospective of actor Dev Anand, with restored prints of some beloved titles. 

Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

Your career started with commercials and documentaries. What drew you to preservation and restoration?

I think it was by chance I read an interview of Martin Scorsese, and that interview spoke about a festival in Bologna, Italy, which shows restored films. I was so fascinated that they were showing such great classics and films from all over the world. I wanted to go there and see what it's like.

There, I met people from the Scorsese Foundation, who were looking for a film called Kalpana (1948) directed by Uday Shankar. So I said, “What, what's the problem? I mean, why can't you restore it?” They said, “No, we're not able to find the material.” I'd seen the film when I was at school in FTII (Film and Television Institute of India), but it was not one of those films that you see regularly. … So I came back to India, and went back to my film school, FTII. I wanted to meet P.K. Nair. He's the man who influenced a whole generation of filmmakers, the whole new wave. He is the one who built the National Film Archive. Together, we went to see the vaults but we were not very happy with what was happening. That got me worried. And then I journeyed all over India to start finding what's happening to the old films. 

And before I knew it, I ended up making a film — which I thought would be just a news coverage, but turned out to be Celluloid Man (2012).... Little did I know that once I start doing this, I would get involved with setting up a foundation, and start archiving and preservation and restoring. And before I knew it, I was doing it not just in Bombay, but all of India. And now we (FHF) are the only non-governmental organisation to do so.

Regarding the preservation of film history books, are there a lot of non-English and non-Hindi books being preserved?

We preserve books of all languages. We not only preserve books, but we also preserve all the newspapers. Some of the best writings are at the regional level, and very rare books. Like the best book on Assamese cinema was written, there are books written on various directors — even a Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time is in Gujarati, which Amrit Gangar wrote. The idea is for us to contribute hugely, to have a library. In fact, the Foundation will be opening a public access film-book library next year, within which we have a huge collection of really old books on cinema. 

What is the process of restoration like?

Every day is a very difficult journey. Every day we’re trying to save a film. Preservation is the most difficult aspect of any career. It's not something which is easy to do, because funds are less, people are less, and it's also time-consuming. It's a lot of hard work, perseverance, and you've got to be really passionate and dedicated. And lastly, you’ve got to be mad!

How do your sensibilities as a filmmaker inform your restoration efforts?

Oh, hugely. Because, you know, I've seen so many films, I've seen when they were released, the condition of those films. One thing I don’t do is I don't impose my creativity on the films I'm restoring. I keep the original artist’s creation. That's the sensibility you need to do that. If I didn't have that sensibility, I would probably interfere. … We work very closely with the people who created these films so that their interpretations are kept intact. 

When we released the Dev Anand festival, people went to see the films. We can call it nostalgia, but these are good films, good scripts. People came and saw them with the same gusto as any other new film. The only difference is that ticket prices of these films were very cheap. So I think when you create something, you’ve got to rely on your vision.

Guide was very beautifully restored, the colours were so stunning.

It could’ve been better because we didn't have the negatives and it still needs a lot of work. But yes. Guide (1965) was in a period of Kodak time when the colours were really powerful. These are films which can still be done better, but we are happy that they’re being received well. People are enjoying the festival and it's been a huge success for us.

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