The gramophone record cover of ‘Sati Sulochana’ (1934), the very first Kannada walkie-talkie, has been traced recently. Archivists are still searching for the disc and celluloid reels of this historic film. Even the producer’s family has no idea where they might be found.
Similar is the situation of “Bhakta Dhruva”, the second Kannada talkie, released after “Sati Sulochana” and the same year. “Mricchakatika,” the first Kannada silent film, starring stalwarts Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and TP Kailasam, was made in 1931. Efforts to trace the negatives of these films are still ongoing.
We also don’t have classic film negatives made by B Vithalacharya, Kemparaj Urs, BS Ranga, Hunsur Krishnamurthy and R Nagendra Rao. Although some producers and distributors hold a treasure trove of Kannada film material, Karnataka has no professional body to restore and preserve it for posterity.
The 88-year-old history of Kannada cinema could be erased forever if the government of Karnataka does not realize the need for air-conditioned vaults to preserve our films. The National Film Archives of India (NFAI) in Pune can serve as a model.
In March, the Modi government decided to merge the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF), Film Division (FD) and Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI) into the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). A majority of Indian filmmakers and scholars seriously opposed this unilateral decision.
Renowned filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan says managing classics requires special knowledge and dedicated experts. He thinks compromising archival operations is suicidal.
“The merger of NFAI with NFDC will have no impact on regional film archives,” says Suneel Puranik, president of Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy (KCA), which plans to establish an archive for Kannada cinema.
The idea of an archive was mooted by a committee of experts led by journalist VN Subba Rao in 1994. It took the government 16 years to take notice. The process started in earnest after Director Nagabharana took over as head of KCA in 2009. The Bengaluru Development Authority (BDA) was to contribute to the project. The government had budgeted Rs 2 crore. The estimated cost of the project was Rs 6 crore and BDA had released Rs 1 crore. Part of the fund was used to acquire films in DVD format.
It’s not like nothing has been done. In the 1970s, Karnataka became the first state to set up an archive modeled on the one run by the NFAI. A trained curator looked after 180 celluloid films and thousands of documentaries. This is no longer functional, as all films under the department have been turned over to the KCA, which is still in the process of acquiring these films.
SV Rajendra Singh, who headed the KCA between 2014 and 2018, had requested Rs 100 crore from the Siddaramaiah government to set up an independent film archive.
The project came to fruition after Suneel Puranik became chairman of KCA in 2020. The state government formed a seven-member expert committee in early 2021. The committee members visited the NFAI in Pune and submitted a detailed report.
One of his recommendations was that celluloid films be kept in specially designed vaults, where temperature and humidity are controlled. The committee also recommended the deposit of celluloid reels with the NFAI during the creation of the vaults in Karnataka. Even after a year, the report is gathering dust. Meanwhile, the endangered celluloid reels are kept in the air-conditioned rooms of Amruthotsava Bhavan (KCA headquarters, where the archive is offered). The rare rolls of celluloid can turn into powder if not stored properly.
Internationally acclaimed Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli says the film fraternity’s anxiety has good reason. He thinks Karnataka has a lot to learn from European countries that are doing everything to protect their cinematic heritage.
(The author is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru).