The sad fact of life is that many films all across the world have been lost at various points in time. This loss becomes even more painful when the film is historically important. Let’s take the first full length animated movie for instance, El Apostol, an Argentinean production, which was made way back in 1917. The film was lost to the world when the only surviving print was engulfed in flames during a fire in the 1920s or 1930s. Therefore, something as revolutionary and significant as that film no longer survives, apart from on records.
This misfortune seems even more pronounced when we look at Indian cinema. Being a student of film studies, I was aware that two of the most historically important films in Indian cinema were Raja Harishchandra (1913), which is considered to be the first full length Indian feature film, followed by Alam Ara (1931), India’s first ‘talkie’. What I didn’t know is that at the time when I was learning about these two films, there was still a print of Raja Harishchandra in existence in the National Film Archives of India (NFAI).
In 2003, a fire broke out in the NFAI, where some 4,000 original nitrate prints of movies and clips were completely lost forever. Among them were Raja Harishchandra, and it was reported that Alam Ara also saw its meltdown there (however, these reports have been denied by officials at the NFAI). The bad news is that Alam Ara seems to have been a lost movie since sometime in the 1960s.
Other famous films such as the socially relevant Achut Kanya, and Sorhab Modi’s Sikander, the first ‘talkie’ Marathi film and the first ever Gujarati film were also reduced to ashes in the fire.
Consider the year in which this incident took place – 2003. Of course fires and other such mishaps are inevitable and cannot be controlled. However, considering that technology was way advanced in 2003 than it was in, say, the 1960s, shouldn’t the copies of such important films have been made?
But apparently there are no copies of Raja Harishchandra. I think a few clips of Achut Kanya and Sikander still exist (I am not sure whether copies of the full films had been made). But one thing is sure now – Raja Harishchandra is a lost film. Could it have been avoided? Definitely! Why in the world were there no copies made of this film? I know that the entire film was not with the NFAI as there were only 2 of 4 reels in their possession. But should those have not been preserved? The only remains of the films are some stills.
Now tell me if this isn’t something shameful for India. India is a country that makes the most films in the world on a yearly basis. In spite of the love Indians have for film, is it not disappointing and frustrating that we do not have a good archiving system in place?
It is a matter of anger and absolute astonishment that such things happen in this so-called ‘digital age’. India really needs to look into how bad our archiving system is and find all the reasons for why we barely care about historically important objects.