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I approach early Indian cinema through the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), the nation’s central, state-supported repository of films.1 Set up in 1964 by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (I&B), NFAI is a modest institution holding approximately 10,000 film titles; a sizeable collection of film posters, song booklets, and paraphernalia; a library; and film screening spaces.2 It was initially founded as a subsidiary of the Film [and Television] Institute of India (FTII) and granted functional autonomy later.
Old state files from NFAI, FTII, and I&B narrate the complex tale of NFAI’s genesis and shed light on its policies and politics.3 These files, when coupled with the interviews I conducted with P. K. Nair, who headed the institution for twenty-seven years, reveal how the first few years of NFAI’s functioning were dedicated to saving early cinema on a priority basis.4
Under Nair’s supervision, NFAI interpreted “early cinema” as all the films made in India prior to 1955, a rough date that marks the end of the use of nitrate film in India, and this period was further divided, although far less significantly, into the silent and sound eras. Nair’s interactions with people from the film industry indicated that more than 70 percent of pre-1955 films were no longer available when he assumed office in 1965. They had decomposed in the absence of proper care, had been recycled for their silver content, or used for making gunpowder, bangles, and handbags in cottage industries, dictating that he scavenge for anything on nitrate film and salvage it on an urgent basis.
The process entailed following many tiny leads in largely unsuccessful wild goose chases and, in the absence of sufficient funds from the state, years [End Page 153] of negotiations with the descendants of early filmmakers and a lot of coaxing, cajoling, and appealing to the better nature of moneylenders with whom film negatives had been mortgaged. It necessitated long distance secret road travel at night to avoid trouble with the authorities since NFAI, ironically, did not have a valid license to store or transport the highly flammable nitrate film. It also involved hiring godown spaces without the state’s explicit permission, storing films in the open for the lack of space, and having to repurchase films made by Prabhat Film Company at a premium much later.5
Some early films were traced back to film labs that were willing to give NFAI a copy if it could produce a permission letter from copyright holders, or hand over the negatives if it could produce a nitrate license. With neither being available, the films remained in sight but still out of reach and were eventually lost. There are numerous such accounts on the difficulties faced in saving early films, with the last bits of nitrate being salvaged in 1992–93.
In January 2003, most of NFAI’s nitrate collection was destroyed in a fire on the FTII premises where they were stored. NFAI claims that a majority of the films lost in the fire had been copied to acetate-based safety film, but an inventory of all that has been lost or recovered is unavailable. For that matter, even the catalog of films in NFAI’s holdings remains inaccessible to researchers, which is by no means unique to NFAI and has its roots in the complications arising from potential ownership and copyright claims; but, this results in the specifics of early films in its holdings remaining partially obscure.
From the information provided by Nair, NFAI staff, and internal documents, one may surmise that of the 1,700 to 1,800 “story films” that were made in India in the silent era, NFAI was ultimately able to salvage eight or nine. These included such international co-productions as Prem Sanyas/The Light of Asia (Franz Osten and Himansu Rai, IN/DE, 1925), Prapancha Pash/ Throw of the...