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‘Manthan’: Remaking a classic

From a damaged reel to Cannes, what it took to bring ‘Manthan’ to life

‘Manthan’: Remaking a classic

(L-R) DoP Govind Nihalani, Anita Patil Deshmukh, sister of Smita Patil, and director Shyam Benegal show the new poster of ‘Manthan’; (below) the damaged negative of the film.

Sarika Sharma

In 2014, when filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur set up the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF), noted director Shyam Benegal had donated him his entire archive. The repository was a veritable treasure trove, with scripts, booklets, lobby cards, notes, and a 35mm print of ‘Manthan’, his 1976 gem. A decade later, the film has been screened at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Amidst a sea of applause, it garnered a five-minute standing ovation, a crescendo to a challenging and exhilarating journey.

(From left) Naseeruddin Shah, Shivendra Dungarpur and Prateik Babbar at Cannes.

Dungarpur’s tryst with restoration began when he was making the documentary ‘Celluloid Man’, an ode to film historian and archivist PK Nair, who was once director of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). Through Nair’s eyes, Dungarpur gained insight into the dismal state of film archiving in India. He was soon collaborating with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation on Uday Shankar’s ‘Kalpana’.

Restoration, step by step

  • The first step is to physically repair the film. For this, you must have an original camera negative. If you don’t have it, then you need the dupe (duplicate). You would also need a print of the film.
  • Once you repair the film, you put it through scanning, Wetgate or Drygate. If the negative is old, go for Wetgate.
  • Next comes digital restoration, which happens frame by frame. You control the flicker and the stability. You balance the film and clean it up.
  • This is followed by colour grading, which entails colour correction, and then mastering into a suitable format.
  • Once restoration is complete, a celluloid film is still the best way of preservation. It gives a 24k resolution; what you watch in theatres is digital, 4k resolution. That’s why directors like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino still shoot on film.

— Courtesy: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, filmmaker and archivist

‘Manthan’ was a fictionalised account of the early phase of the dairy cooperative movement that transformed India from a milk-deficient nation to the world’s largest milk producer, inspired by Dr Verghese Kurien. Shot in Sanganava, a village about 26 km from Rajkot in Gujarat, it boasted of a stellar ensemble cast, including Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Mohan Agashe, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, among others. Nearly 5 lakh farmers from Gujarat contributed Rs 2 each to fund the project. This December, Benegal turns 90. And Dungarpur, director of FHF, wanted to restore the director’s ‘favourite’ film to coincide with it.

“The first thing we did was to speak to the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Federation. No one understood why we needed to restore a film that was already on YouTube. We had to make them understand that the film needed to be on 4K resolution,” says Dungarpur. The Federation had deposited the original camera negative with the NFAI. When the FHF got its hands on it, it was in a bad shape. “The negative had green mold, the colours had faded and there were flicker problems. It was grainy and the prints were not complete. We had to match several copies to get what was the original edit of Shyam Benegal. Also, there was no sound negative. And since this film was dubbed, there were problems of sync as well,” recalls Dungarpur. And then began the year-and-a-half-long crazy journey of restoration, spanning from Chennai to Bologna in Italy.

The film elements underwent meticulous repair by FHF conservators. The scanning and digital clean-up was done at Prasad Lab in Chennai under the supervision of Bologna-based L’Immagine Ritrovata lab; the grading, sound restoration and mastering were also carried out in Bologna. When Shyam Benegal saw the complete film, he was ecstatic. “It’s even better than the original,” he told Dungarpur.

Back in the 1970s, the film had been shot in different stocks — Gevacolor, Eastman and Kodak. The negative was printed on to Orwo and Govind Nihalani, director of photography, was very unhappy with the final print. “He always maintained that what he had shot never came out. When he saw the restored version, he said this is what he had wanted the film to be,” recalls Dungarpur.

The film was part of the Cannes Classics sidebar. The screening was attended by actor Naseeruddin Shah, family of the late actress Smita Patil, daughter of Dr Verghese Kurien, producers of the film and Dungarpur. This was the Foundation’s third year at the event. Earlier, G Aravindan’s Malayalam masterpiece ‘Thamp’ (1978) was showcased in 2022 and Aribam Syam Sharma’s Manipuri-language film ‘Ishanou’ (1990) in 2023.

The FHF has been closely working on regional cinema — Manipuri, Kannada, Odia, Malayalam… “Because that is where the true colours and true essence of India are,” believes Dungarpur, for whom films are an important marker of the era that they have been made in. For him, it is equally important to take these restored films to the audiences.

Post-Covid, life was still struggling to normalise and cinema halls were running empty. “Mr Bachchan (also one of FHF’s donors) was turning 80 and we wanted to showcase his films. ‘Back to the Beginning’ was conceived and 12 of his films were taken to the theatres. What a phenomenon it became! People were thronging the theatres, dancing at songs. It was crazy,” Dungarpur says.

This was followed by festivals dedicated to Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. A Raj Kapoor festival has been planned for the year-end. “Our effort is to bring more and more cinema back, to be able to reconnect with the public and ensure that what was once an important film is released in every part of India,” says Dungarpur. Over the weekend, ‘Manthan’ has been released in 50 cities and 100 cinemas across India.

At present, the FHF is working on Girish Kasaravalli ‘Ghatashraddha’ with Scorsese and George Lucas’ Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation, marking yet another step in the journey to save what could have been lost forever.

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