Blackest years of Indian cinema

Published Dec 12, 2013, 4:20 pm IST
Updated Mar 18, 2019, 11:31 pm IST
Almost all major countries in the world have churned out film classics during the war years.

Almost all major countries in the world have churned out film classics during the war years. But if an Indian film is absent among the classics, in spite of the fact that Phalke made 'Raja Harishchandra' in 1912, here is the reason. The Indian films made during the period, between 1940 and 1947, have been completely lost.

“The films made during that period have been fully destroyed and there was no way of retrieving them, at least in parts,” said P K Nair, the former director of the National Film Archives. “The film stock imported into the country during the period was of inferior quality,” he said. The material used for manufacturing celluloid was also used for making war-related equipment like parachutes. “So the west used the best for the war effort and dumped the low-quality stuff in India,” he said.


The first half of the 1940’s was also a time when the country had a thriving film industry and so there was a huge demand for raw stock. Mr Nair said that more than 70 percent of films made before 1950 had been lost. “They just disappeared,” he said. The country had made 100 silent films and of this only nine had survived. “Of this nine, only three or four are complete,” he said. This was mainly because the nitrate films used before 1950 were highly inflammable. “They were lost because of fire, accidents or willful neglect,” he said.


When films were made of acetate material, they became less flammable but still they deteriorated even faster. This was because of what Mr Nair called the “Vinegar Syndrome”. Acetate releases acetic acid, the key ingredient in vinegar, which corroded the film aggressively.

The advent of colour did not ease problems of preservation. “Colour added one more dimension to our problem,” Mr Nair said. If acetate films survived nearly a decade, colour films lost their quality in two years flat.

“Colour deteriorates with each projection. It loses its separation and gradually becomes uni-coloured. If red is dominant, the film became reddish; if blue, it become bluish and so on,” Nair said.


Even a relatively new film like 'Ek Duje Ke liye', the Kamal Hassan-starrer that worked wonders at the Bollywood box office in 1981, was nearly destroyed until a copy was dug up from a barn. in Russia by Prasad Labs.