The importance of film archives has been widely debated around the world since their invention in the late 19th century. Over the decades, filmmakers and archivists have argued that every country must preserve great works of cinema, especially in celluloid format, and establish exhibition systems where the public can freely access them. In the middle of the 20th century, countries like the United States, France, United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and the USSR had all granted the cinema the status of art, and just like the historical museums and public libraries, cinematographic archives recognized as repositories of the national treasure. While India’s first film archives were created in this larger historical climate, the attitude of the Indian state towards cinema has been fundamentally different. Our government still considers film as a means of information and dissemination and often overlooks its cultural and historical value. This is evidenced in recent developments where the government has decided to shut down four of its oldest and most reputable film units – the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Film Division (FD), the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI) and the Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF) – failing to provide any information to the public on the future of thousands of historic films and film material they preserve.
What are these film archives and why are they important? The Government of India established the Film Division in 1948. Given the task of producing and distributing newsreels and documentary films, FD was a renowned archive from the very beginning. After independence, films made by the former colonial agencies of Information Films of India, Indian News Parade and Army Film and Photographic Unit were handed over to FD. Over the next few years, it preserved audio and visual records of the history of India’s decolonization and nation-building process, and today it saves almost 8,000 news and documentaries on historical events and political figures. These also include rare works by stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, MF Husain, Mani Kaul, Pramod Pati and newer films by contemporary filmmakers. The NFAI was established much later in 1964 with a mandate to trace, acquire and preserve the heritage of fictional cinema in India. Built under the supervision of renowned curator PK Nair, the NFAI has reserves of several thousand films, books, screenplays, posters and photographs dating back to the 1910s, and it actively promotes film research and scholarship on Indian and southern cinema. -Asian. Besides FD and NFAI, the other two important film units include CFSI, established in 1955, and DFF, established in 1976. While the former is responsible for the production of children’s films, the latter organizes the National Film Award, Dadasaheb Phalke Award, and the International Film Festival of India (IFFI). These four institutions have historically provided original prints from their archives for screenings at film festivals, film societies, and educational institutions around the world. However, despite their contribution to the preservation and promotion of India’s national heritage, their future looks precarious. This arbitrary and opaque move by the MIB was harshly criticized at various public forums at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) where renowned filmmaker Adoor Gopalkrishnan warned the government against “destroying film institutions by merging them with a moribund body like the NFDC”.
In its latest orders of December 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) decided to close all regional and national offices of FD, NFAI, CFSI and DFF and place them under the umbrella of the National Film Development Corporation (NDFC). The NFDC is a public sector enterprise established in 1975 to promote filmmakers outside India’s traditional film industries. In the past, the NFDC has been recognized for its contribution to parallel cinema, and also criticized for its inability to provide operating infrastructure for independent films. In 2018, the Niti Aayog assessed the functioning of the NFDC and declared it a deficit unit. Subsequently, the question of its closure was proposed in Parliament, and the need to assess FD, NFAI, CFSI and DFF was also discussed. Three years later, without any consultation with the Indian film fraternity, the MIB decided to merge them into NFDC.
What is the problem if a public company like NFDC manages our archives? While any attempt by the MIB to bring greater efficiency to public institutions is welcome, the suspicious way in which the merger is being carried out raises concerns. First, the MIB was unable to explain why four publicly funded organizations are being merged with one loss-making company. Second, it has remained largely silent on the issue of the archive’s handover and has released no plans for how the transfer of fragile and flammable materials like celluloid will be done. In recent months, the MIB has also dismissed more than eight RTI investigations, a petition written by FD employees, and ignored numerous articles, public debates and open letters written by concerned filmmakers, historians and archivists seeking clarification on the question. Could the trend of turning archives into for-profit entities mean that the government might try to divest from them in the future if they don’t perform “up to par”? In such a dismal scenario, what will become of the free and unhindered access Indian audiences enjoy to historical films made in our country? Would they still be free?
Unaware of the seriousness of the situation and misled by the garb of digitization, some naïve filmmakers overlook the importance of physical archives. They claim that in recent years, the NFAI and FD have uploaded rare Indian films, posters and photographs to their YouTube and Instagram accounts to increase public access and therefore it will not be a problem when these archives are not will no longer exist in the future. It’s almost laughable when you forget that large multinational corporations own social media sites and there have been countless examples of interviews, reports and articles being deleted when these sites gave in to pressure and demands governments and interest groups. Are we believing that our movies will stay online forever? Or do we imagine a future where we fund a public archive from our individual hard drives? How many movies could we keep and how many years would our hard drives survive?
We must remember that archives are the repositories of our history. And it is important to protect them from the vested interests of political regimes that aim to rewrite national histories in their favor. If our archives do not remain autonomous public institutions, they will undoubtedly be altered, damaged or destroyed forever. We are now in a time when the rhetoric of nationalism is being launched in various public forums; we must understand that this particular aspect of the preservation of our film heritage is a matter of national interest. Therefore, the government must urgently declare our archives as national heritage that cannot be monetized under any circumstances. They belong to the Indian people and must be protected and isolated from any commercial pressure.
The writer is a national award-winning filmmaker, currently teaching at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences