Collaborative Dialogues and Calcutta’s Super 8 Film Movement
My research interest in Calcutta’s Super 8 film movement was triggered by a blog that had been published on the webpage of Activist Canvas. Wanting to know more about it, I scheduled field trips to the West Bengal Film Centre (Kolkata) as well as to the National Film Archive of India (Pune) in 2016. However, both the archival institutions failed to offer any print material related to the movement. Being anchored into research networks in Kolkata enabled me to navigate through such archival absences.
Acquiring contact details of a personal collector from one of my peers, I found a willing collaborator to my research in Amit Bandyopadhyay. He offered me access to all the materials that he had collected at his residence in Kolkata. Bandyopadhyay had been a film society activist (affiliated with the North Calcutta Film Society) and had actively engaged with the Super 8 movement during the 1980s. He had preserved all the booklets, news publications, pamphlets, and magazines that were related to the movement, out of his sheer interest. His personal collection thus enabled me to circumvent the institutional silence on the film movement. To aid me in my research, he laboriously went through the bulk of documents at his residence, sorting out what, he deemed, would be relevant for me. The materials within his collection were replete with notes that he had scribbled on the documents. Bandyopadhyay discussed how Super 8 had seemed to be a harbinger of novel cinematic possibilities during the 1980s. The movement witnessed an active investment into popularizing the format as an alternative media that was cheaper to procure, in comparison with 35mm. The primary motive for mobilizing the format was to document news that the mainstream media did not cover. However, filmmakers soon began to experiment with the format in the realm of “narrative as well as aesthetic strategies,” as articulated by Saumen Guha. Guha was the pioneer of the movement who introduced the format to interested students in Calcutta by conducting workshops (WOLF or Workshop on Little Filmmaking) to train them. Besides WOLF, organizations such as People’s Film Workshop (PFW), Chitra Chetana, and Jadavpur University Film Society (JUFS) also engaged with the format. Further, JUFS and Chitra Chetana jointly organized the first national Super 8 film festival on the premises of Jadavpur University, Calcutta, from 17th to 21st December, 1983.
My conversations with Bandyopadhyay grew organically over time, spilling over into lengthy discussions surrounding the movement. The discussions have been pivotal to my research, where I have traced the genealogy of contemporary independent film practices in Kolkata to the Super 8 movement (Biswas 2019). During our meetings, I informed him about the dismissive attitude from a Kolkata-based librarian who opined that Super 8 was just a “toy for the elites” and therefore unworthy of academic research (conversation with the author, 2016). The specific class constituency who could afford to purchase, and thereby use the equipment cannot be ignored. However, it is also pertinent that the Super 8 movement incorporated workshops and training sessions (WOLF) where interested candidates could collectively use equipment to make films. Besides, there were also facilities in Calcutta which provided Super 8 equipment on a hire basis.
Bandyopadhyay corroborated that the Kolkata-based librarian echoed the dominant perspective, shared by filmmakers who were once associated with the movement, that considered the movement as a failure as it produced films of less technical “quality” than what had been aspired to (interview with the author, February 2022). In another publication, I address this discourse of failure that congealed around the media format and analyze the motivations and aspirations that had fostered the movement’s development in Calcutta (Biswas 2022). With film festivals, scheduled lectures, and screenings, Calcutta witnessed a spurt of enthusiasm around the format.
The process of my research on Super 8 renders explicit the dialogic encounters between the personal collector and myself. Furthermore, Bandyopadhyay read my research papers and offered his critical input where he deemed it necessary. Scholars have theorized the diverse ways in which the format had been used as well as the multiple contexts of the exhibition of films made on small-gauge formats (Szczelkun 2000; Shand 2008; Zimmermann 2008; Mukherjee 2019). There has also been critical work on how private collections can serve as productive repositories for historiography (Schneider 2007). In a similar vein, Bandyopadhyay’s personal collection and his anecdotes about the movement have been crucial to my historical analysis, where I have underscored the cinephilic and activist impulses of the film movement by studying its manifestos. Besides, the personal correspondence with Bandyopadhyay enabled me to contextualize the movement’s specificity within Calcutta’s film culture.
It is significant to mention here that I had also contacted other personal collectors to access documents pertaining to my research. Some of them were skeptical of collaborating with me. They were apprehensive that the academic researcher might be a “parasite,” merely acquiring materials from collectors who had invested their time, energy, and labor into collecting them. They shared their previous experiences where researchers never collaborated with them during the process of writing their papers or after their articles had been published (conversation with the author, April 2021). Bandyopadhyay, too, had been cognizant of the hierarchy between the researcher and the collector. However, he was keen to collaborate with me as he considered it to be a potential avenue for activating a dialogic space where we could collectively deliberate upon the challenges inherent in preserving materials on Super 8. We also discussed the problems of undertaking a historiographical project that has to navigate through a paucity of archival materials. Bandyopadhyay was concerned that his collections should be available to other interested researchers as well. To address the precarity of the few surviving materials on Super 8 at his disposal, Bandyopadhyay suggested that I capture images of all the documents and convert them into PDFs. He construed that the creation of a digital copy could serve as a back-up in the case of contingencies.
Bandyopadhyay’s anxieties about the “long-term and efficient” preservation of the materials resonated with Saumen Guha (interview with the author, February 2023). During the lengthy in-person interviews with Guha, he showed me his personal collections on Super 8, comprising mostly of festival booklets and questionnaires that he had printed for his workshop lectures on Super 8 during the 1980s. He allowed me to capture images of the festival bulletins and the books that he had written on the format. He also asked me to string all the images into a single PDF file so that the print materials had a digital copy. Guha was also confident that there were Super 8 films within his collection at his residence. However, it seemed a gigantic task to him to sort the films out from the bulk of materials that he had collected over time. Through a series of meetings, Guha described in detail the moments in his personal life that influenced him to engage with the format. He also spoke about the political and creative experiments that the movement had aspired to usher in, within the cinematic ecology of the city. The nascent curiosity surrounding the format had also motivated him to deliver lectures in other areas within West Bengal as well as in other states of India. Seeking to participate in the exchange of information on Super 8, Guha was joined by fellow enthusiasts to publish bulletins that focused on worldwide film festivals on the format. Describing Super 8 as the format that facilitated people to “tell their stories through their own voice,” Guha regretted that the advent of VHS eventually limited the film movement’s potential (interview with the author, February 2023).
During the interviews, Guha and I discussed the strategies that we can adopt to preserve the documents as well as the few Super 8 films that accidentally survived within his huge personal collection. He also informed me that a researcher is trying to procure a converter to digitize the few Super 8 films that he has been able to scout. Further, Guha has established communication with filmmakers to know if the state government will be interested in the process of institutional preservation. It will also be a productive step forward if we can acquire materials from other collectors and pool the dispersed resources together. This, however, is still a challenging work-in-progress, continually building upon our discussions on Super 8.
At this specific point in time, it is therefore difficult to predict where these conversations are headed. What is significant, however, are the dialogues that have been forged through my interaction with Guha and Bandyopadhyay. I already have indicated how the discussions have been pivotal to my research, where I have juxtaposed archival materials with anecdotal evidences to write a history of the movement. Additionally, the personal correspondences with Guha and Bandyopadhyay have definitely carved out a collaborative space to collectively think about the networks that we can forge and the different strategies that we can adopt for preservation. I read such dialogic encounters as necessary efforts geared towards determining the efficient preservation of the film and paper traces of Calcutta’s Super 8 movement that have accidentally survived through personal collections.
I thank Dwaipayan Bandyopadhyay and Dr. Parichay Patra for providing me the contact details of Amit Bandyopadhyay and Saumen Guha. I am grateful to Bandyopadhyay and Guha for helping me with their personal collections and for being patient with time-intensive interviews.
Activist Canvas. 2010. “Super-8 mm movement in West Bengal.” February 10. Accessed January 27, 2022. https://canvaspix.wordpress.com/2010/02/10/super-8-movement/.
Biswas, Amrita. (2019) . “Tracing Kolkata’s cinephilic encounters: An analysis of alternative cinema in the city.” Studies in South Asian Film & Media 10 (2): 113–28.
———. 2022. “Super-8 in Calcutta: Analysis of a ‘Failed’ Movement.” Iluminace 34 (1): 31–51.
Mukherjee, Madhuja. 2019. “Little cinema culture: Networks of digital files and festival on the fringes.” Studies in South Asian Film & Media 10 (1): 23–40.
Schneider, Alexandra. 2007. “Time travel with Pathé Baby: The small-gauge film collection as historical archive.” Film History: An International Journal 19 (4): 353–60.
Shand, Ryan. 2008. “Theorizing Amateur Cinema: Limitations and Possibilities.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 8 (2): 36–60.
Szczelkun, Stefan. 2000. “The Value of Home Movies.” Oral History 28 (2): 94–98.
Zimmermann, Patricia R. 2008. “Morphing History into Histories: From Amateur Film to the Archive of the Future.” In Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories, edited by Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann, 275–88. Berkeley: University of California Press.
 Activist Canvas’s web blog traces the history of the Super 8 film movement both in and beyond Calcutta. It studies how groups and collectives had been formed (such as WOLF and PIX) to not only systematically learn about the techniques of making a film on Super 8 but also to make films on the format. The blog offers insight into the various practices that had developed around the format (such as organizing film festivals and establishing contacts with institutions working on Super 8) and argues that Super 8 contributed to the culture of independent filmmaking.
 I use both Calcutta and Kolkata throughout the paper. Since the city was officially renamed to ‘Kolkata’ from ‘Calcutta’ in 2001, I use ‘Calcutta’ to refer to the decade of the 1980s and ‘Kolkata’ to refer to the contemporary.
 In this paper, I focus on the transnational collaborations that the movement witnessed, aside from the horizon of possibilities that the format had ushered in, with regard to film production and circulation. I thereby shift the emphasis from the notion of “failure” discursively associated with the movement to underscore the aspiration towards a participatory practice of alternative filmmaking that the movement had engendered through filmmaking workshops.
 Both Bandyopadhyay and Guha opined that the movement should be understood relationally, in alignment with the film society movement as well as the practices of publishing wall, table, or little magazines that took place in Calcutta.