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'Rewind. Pause. Archive': The Cinema Resource Centre's efforts to preserve forgotten treasures of Indian cinema

The Cinema Resource Centre is a treasure trove of films, songbooks, LP records and movie posters. As they step into their 10th year, founder-trustee Sruti Harihara Subramanian recalls the journey

Published: 11th June 2020 04:27 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th June 2020 04:27 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI: “We are caught up in our worlds. It often becomes about the right here and right now — ‘How are we going to survive?’, ‘How are we going to give the best output to the current audience?’. We have no time to stop and look back. This perhaps is one of the reasons that despite the rich cinema history we have, there is very less done to preserve it,” opines Sruti Harihara Subramanian, entrepreneur-cum-filmmaker and founder-trustee of The Cinema Resource Centre — a not-for-profit public archive designed to enable research on the audio-visual cultural artefacts produced by Indian films. As the Trust steps into its 10th year, the national award-winning filmmaker walks us through the its efforts to preserve and document the forgotten treasures of Indian cinema and film-related memorabilia.

Loaded with memories
Almost over a decade ago, when an inquisitive Sruti stumbled upon a heap of film posters, movie stills and lobby cards that had been disposed of outside a popular theatre, she didn’t think twice before getting her hands dirty. She picked several artefacts that were perhaps the last-remaining physical evidence of an era bygone in south Indian cinema. 

“I came from a family that wasn’t inclined towards films. I don’t remember watching films in a theatre until I was big enough to go to the movies with friends. So, my exposure to films came very late in life. Despite this, I’ve always been curious about the nature of the celluloid,” she says. But for someone who grew up in the pre-Internet era, learning about movies meant observing the minuscule details available on anything and everything — from movie stubs, cassettes, songbooks, posters to magazines. “I eventually started collecting every small cinema-related object I came across, and during my days as an assistant director it became a serious hobby,” she says.

Access to archives
Soon, Sruti realised that she was in the midst of a treasure hunt. From loading her red Maruti 800 with slides, scripts, songbooks and posters that were discarded by production houses to hitting the jackpot and digging out gold from inside a scrap paper dealer’s bag — she found smaller pieces that would go on to complete a bigger jigsaw puzzle. In this case, an archive that would give anyone and everyone a peek into India cinema, especially those made in the regional languages of south India. “Over time, the number of materials increased exponentially and I wanted to make it accessible to the public. I came across several museums abroad that were interactive and immersive. After acquainting myself with creatives and filmmakers from outside the state and country, I realised that there was so much for us to know about cinema. My dream was to go beyond the mainstream screens and create a library or cinema museum,” she shares.

Along with a small team, Sruti registered the trust in 2009 and embarked on a mission to conserve archival material by digitising and cataloguing it in an orderly fashion. “Conserving the material is a very expensive affair. The Trust is completely funded by us. Whatever I have earned so far from filmmaking has gone back into this initiative. Our focus is on digitising whatever we have on an online cloud. Currently, we have two archivists working on the process,” she says.

The 400 magazines; 250 glass slides; 2,500-odd songbooks; 779 LP records; 25,000 vintage photographs; 8,000 posters; 5,000 lobby cards and umpteen script books, photo albums, fan stickers and launch invites that are now part of the TCRC’s  archives not only offer a nostalgic experience but have also been instrumental in aiding cinema researchers and students.  “Ironically, most of these are international students researching on Indian cinema or someone associated with the craft. In a time when there’s a dearth of archival of Indian, especially south Indian cinema, coming across our Trust is equal to hitting the jackpot for these students,” says Sruti.  

Built on donations
Contributions have poured in from the most unlikely sources — a stranger who donated his grandmother’s collection of Deepavali Malar from the 1940s and 50s in pristine condition; enthusiasts who’ve donated audiotapes, songbooks and LPs that they came across during a house clean-up, scrap paper dealers giving away cutouts of artistes that were once translated into posters to vendors from Moore market doing their bit. Yet, Sruti says, help from within the industry has been bleak. “I have gotten a pat on my back, been told that it’s a good initiative. But it stops at that. I am part of the industry too and I realise that we don’t look back at our own history.

Maybe that’s why we hear so many stories of former filmmakers, actors and actresses struggling today despite their enormous contributions to shape cinema. Having said that, I haven’t approached anyone for help either,” she shares.  This year marked a new beginning for the Trust and several plans were chalked to engage experts and enthusiasts alike. “We were ready to host screenings, discussions and collaborate with like-minded people as a way of celebrating a decade of TCRC,” says Sruti.  But like several dreams, the curtains have been pulled down on this one too due to the pandemic. “Everything has been kept on hold. Since we are bootstrapped, we don’t know how long we will be able to sustain the archival process given the current situation. But I still dream of a space adorned with everything cinema,” she says.  

For details, visit Instagram page The Cinema Resource Centre or visit www.tcrcindia.com

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