Up until a year or two ago, the New York-based George Eastman Museum wasn’t the place where you’d find a sizeable collection of Indian films. But things are a lot different now.
The museum, dedicated to the preservation and restoration of films, has recently acquired the world’s largest collection of contemporary Indian cinema held by a museum or film archive. The collection comprises 774 prints representing 597 film titles, all in 35mm format, made between 1999 and 2013. Some of the Bollywood titles include “Lagaan,” “Devdas,” and “Omkara.”
A large number of film posters were also acquired as part of the collection.
And if you would like to know how this museum laid its hands on this massive collection, once owned by Indian American-run and Lakewood, Calif.-based Naz Cinema, you could attend an ongoing exhibition at the museum, “Stories of Indian Cinema: Abandoned and Rescued,” which will shed light on the story behind this acquisition.
In the fall of 2014, the museum was given the opportunity to acquire a collection of Indian films from an abandoned multiplex in Southern California. What was originally estimated to be a hundred films turned out to be several hundred titles. The exceptional collection includes not only films from Bollywood, but also Malayalam, Punjabi, Tamil, and Telugu productions.
Through staff commentary, original posters and materials, and film screenings, “Stories of Indian Cinema: Abandoned and Rescued,” tells the intriguing behind-the-scenes tale of this collection’s journey to Rochester and the Eastman Museum’s ongoing efforts in film preservation.
The museum, according to a report on Quartz, collected some 30 tons of cinema, stored in 1,300 burlap boxes, besides around 8,500 movie posters.
“We spent almost 20 years of our professional life looking for prints of Indian films that, all of a sudden, came to me as an avalanche,” Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator at the museum, told the publication. “Would you like an Indian movie? Here are 500 of them.”
Naz 8 Cinema, according to the report, “abruptly went out of business, leaving behind all the prints that the George Eastman museum was eager to add to its own collection from around the world.”
“The added value of the Indian cinema collection is that it is, strangely enough, rare,” Usai explains in one of the videos in the exhibition. “Everybody can see these films on other platforms, such as DVDs, streaming, and so forth, but very few institutions can offer their audience the original viewing experience of the people who had watched these films for the first time.”
The museum’s team, Usai told Quartz, “has been working to conserve the collection, a costly and time-consuming process that involved checking each print for damages, and even playing them alongside corresponding DVDs to identify any parts that are censored or otherwise missing.”
The goal, he said, is to “help preserve these essential elements of India’s cinematic heritage for both present and future audiences, adding to the efforts of the National Film Archive of India in Pune, which works with limited resources.”
Another goal, Usai said, is to help non-Indian viewers better understand Indian cinema.
“The George Eastman Museum…exists in order to make the unfamiliar become interesting, compelling, exciting,” he was quoted as saying. “That is another form of cultural pluralism.”
Films like “Devdas” and “Om Shanti Om” have already been screened for visitors. Additional screenings are planned for 2018, including the following titles: “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India,” “Swades: We, the People,” “Umrao Jaan,” “Dev D” and Mani Ratnam’s “Kadal.”