I've spent much of the weekend listening to Christopher Nolan speak impassionedly about the importance of photo-chemical film. The director and visual artist Tacita Dean were in Mumbai for three days to espouse the cause of film as a viable medium for story-telling, of film and digital not being in opposition but being two alternatives, of the rigor of shooting on film, of the dance of light and life and unpredictability that makes film magical. The brochure for the event carried a quote by Nolan. He said: I gave a speech some years ago where I was asked to defend film, and I said that I felt like a stonemason defending marble. It's ridiculous. This is why we're all here. It's what we do. This is film.
Nolan is the creator of multiple films that have grossed billions of dollars and been nominated for a slew of Oscars. Two of those were screened during his visit – Dunkirk in 70 mm and Interstellar in 35 mm – but he barely spoke about his cinema or his process. At each event, he stuck to the script – why artists and audiences must revive analog film.
This is a tough sell. In India, until 2010 most filmmakers were working on film. But by 2014, film was in a steep decline. In the West, last year, acclaimed films like Dunkirk, Wonder Woman, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Florida Project were shot on film. But in India, most of the major storytellers have shifted to digital. At the Mumbai Film Festival, we are barely able to show three or four analog films (among the 200 plus usually programmed at the festival) because there aren't many theatres that have projectors anymore. Photo-chemical film requires commitment. It's not enough to be an artist. You need to be an activist.
The question is – is anyone in Bollywood an activist? Does anyone care enough to dedicate time and energy to the cause of film? Nolan and Dean traveled to India expressly to promote film, not themselves or their work. They spent hours trying to dispel myths and change the narrative around film as an antiquated medium. At a closed door discussion held at Yash Raj Studios (attended by the powers that be including Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Kamal Haasan, Shyam Benegal, DOPs Sudeep Chatterjee and Santosh Sivan and several others), both spoke about how the demands of the medium have profoundly impacted their art. Nolan said that during the Dunkirk shoot, he was afraid that the large and very noisy IMAX cameras would disturb his actors but in fact, they were more focused, because he said, "They could hear money whirring away."
Nolan's visit has made all of us pause and think but what photo-chemical film needs is an Indian Nolan – an artist with a missionary zeal and enough clout to impact the eco-system. Thankfully, we have one trooper – Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. Shivendra, a National Award-winning filmmaker and archivist, set up the Film Heritage Foundation in 2014 with his own money. For the last four years, with minimal support and a paucity of funds, the foundation has tried to tackle every aspect of the problem – awareness, outreach, film preservation. It's a gargantuan task but Shivendra and his team have stayed the course.
Perhaps the first step the industry can take is to give more support to the Foundation. And hopefully, soon, someone in Bollywood will lend his or her power and glory to take the cause forward.
Because film isn't merely entertainment. It's our shared heritage. And it needs its own warriors.