When Christopher Nolan Arrived in Mumbai to Save ‘Film’

Christopher Nolan, the director of contemporary classics like Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar and Dunkirk is in India with visual artiste Tacita Dean to start a dialogue on film preservation and the co-existence of the two mediums - celluloid & digital, in a world where the former format is phasing gently into the night in a hyper-digitised world. The Oscar nominated WWII film, Dunkirk, was shot entirely on epic 65mm, as opposed to digital. It received the widest release of that film format in recent history. He is known to constantly talk about the immersive quality of 70mm film and how that texture is lost when you shoot on digital.

Behind this visit is the Indian archivist and restorer of films, who has been incessantly crusading for the cause - Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, the founder of Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) - the largest non-governmental film archive in India.

Dungarpur made his first feature documentary Celluloid Man in 2012. The film, while paying tribute to India’s legendary film archivist, P.K. Nair also highlighted the early history of Indian cinema and the dire need to preserve India’s cinematic heritage.

Tacita Dean, Christopher Nolan and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur at the YRF studios.

Tacita Dean is a visual artist who works primarily in film. In fact, film is an indispensable medium of her work. She describes the process of this medium as a series of 'magical transformations of grain'. Dean has been fighting against the imminent extinction of film. A nominee for the Turner Prize in 1998 and a winner of many art accolades including the Venice Biennale, she found success as part of the generation of so-called Young British Artists and was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 2008. Early in her career she garnered popularity for making enigmatic short films, that were displayed in galleries on loop. Dean paints, draws, takes photographs and makes installations. She is a founding member of savefilm.org

Reframing the Future of Film in India includes four public events over three days from March 30- April 1, 2018.

Dean held a public lecture at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum on March 30 - Process and the Non-deliberate Act: Why the medium of film is important to artists. A 70 mm IMAX film screening of Dunkirk and a 35 mm film screening of Interstellar is scheduled on March 31, where Nolan will take centre stage.

The fourth event, Reframing the Future of Film: In Conversation with Christopher Nolan, Tacita Deanand filmmaker & archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur will be held at the NCPA on April 1.

Dean, Nolan & Dungarpur also joined the prominent names from the Indian film industry in a closed-door roundtable discussion - Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Haasan, Shyam Benegal, Santosh Sivan, Anurag Kashyap and Farhan Akhtar, exhibitors like INOX & PVR and others.

The trio addressed the media on March 31 at the Yash Raj Films Rehearsal Hall, Mumbai. Is film no more than a quaint relic? Dean and Nolan championed the distinctiveness of the medium.  They made a case for keeping the medium available for future generations. You watch digital differently and you experience it differently. The luminaries talked about seeing films projected on film as an essential part of our visual experience and history. Disbanding of the means of celluloid is like surrendering a part of that history. The event also aims to determine new archival and exhibition standards that secure film’s future. 

Notes from Reframing the Future of Film

Dungarpur spoke about the lone battle of Film Heritage Foundation or FHF and how they couldn’t find better representation. They finally have the support from two of the leading film exponents in the world.

"“We deeply appreciate their (Dean and Nolan) support for a cause that our foundation stands for. Since our inception, we have been speaking for film as a shooting, exhibition and archival medium. We are sure that their advocacy will have a great impact in getting this message across to both film and art communities in India. We shouldn’t forget that till 2014, we were still shooting on film in India.”" - Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

Dean, Nolan and Dungarpur addressed the media.

Dugarpur enthused that after the round table, two DOPs expressed their commitment to film - Santosh Sivan and Sudeep Chatterjee, the cinematographer of Padmaavat.

"“As an artist who makes and exhibits film...I have had no choice but to fight to get film re-appreciated for what it is: a beautiful, robust and entirely different way of making and showing images in the museum and in cinema. Film has characteristics integral to its chemistry...I cannot be asked to separate the work from the medium that I used to make.”" - Tacita Dean

Nolan and Dean didn’t turn evangelists for the medium recently. It was in 2015 at the Getty Research Institute in LA, that they staged the first in the series of events highlighting the significance of preserving film in the digital age and counteract the pessimism around it. The event united significant professionals from art, film preservation and cinema. Similar events were held at Tate Modern in London during the London Film Festival and at Museo Tamayo in Mexico city.

"“The Indian film industry is the largest one in the world... we need to preserve and protect works of past and make it available for future audience.”" - Nolan "“Audiences are constantly undermined by the people who finance films. That’s a myth that the audience don’t understand. They do know the difference...The accusations that film is too difficult or too expensive is an accusation to undermine the medium.”" - Nolan "“ I like the poetics of the medium. The table had a profound understanding of the medium...My personal aim is that I want it to be normal to shoot on film.”" - Tacita Dean on the round table "“I shot Celluloid Man with every possible camera that existed...what was fascinating for me was the transition when I used different formats. This debate is important especially in India where there’s such emphasis on HD and we are disrespecting the aspect ratio...we are seeing a sad way in which celluloid has been neglected...If the audience wants to see a film in a 35 mm or 70 mm format, where will they go? It’s important to make that space available. I wanted to work on a club in Liberty Cinema for the 35 mm format. Even NCPA has the projectors but they aren’t working. This dialogue will offer inspiration to have them running soon.”" - Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

When Durgarpur mentioned that the tickets to the 70 mm IMAX screening of Dunkirk in Wadala were sold in 10 minutes, he attributed it to the keen interest of the audience to experience the film in the format that the director intended. Nolan’s quip gave us a glimpse into his wry British humour. “It’s also a good film,” he added.

"“Filmmaking is not about logical, pragmatic thinking, it’s about dreams and about magic...about escapism and experience....Making films is also about facing insurmountable obstacles. None of the fights are easy but they are worth it. They are all part of that tension that can actually be productive.”" - Nolan  "“I’m not the right person to answer that but for me digitisation is the facsimile and not the original. If you go and see a painting in the art world, it’s a painting - not a digital copy of the painting. And the museum is the place that protects the original object. First of all we are going to stop talking about film vs. digital. This discourse is about film plus digital... We are living in a landscape where we can have both. Everything is about choice.”" - Tacita Dean On Netflix altering the cinematic discourseWhat the Talk Did Not Address

Dean came across as more hard-line than Nolan, eloquently putting forth her stance on the survival of photochemical film. But the 30-minute talk didn’t take into account concerns like the environmentally unfriendly nature of film or the accessibility of art/cinema to common people via digital means, as pointed by Rajeev Ravi in an article in The Hindu.

It would take many events and more crusaders to pave a practical way forward in navigating the troughs and crests of this journey of reviving film.

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