Unexpected, Contingent, Accidental: Cinema in the Contemporary Digital Archive
In counterpoint to the idea of accidental archivism, this essay considers the idea of a contingent archive. Archival accidents, for example the unexpected appearance of a media object opening up novel archival directions, may be based on a certain latency of a field yet to be properly articulated as a field of memory, history and knowledge. I pay special attention to the field of video as critical to an expanded archive of cinema, and how it comes to be constituted to create this infrastructural possibility, especially from the late 1980s in India.
There is an element of curiosity, and a desire for surprise, a pleasure in not knowing what we are likely to see when we trawl the Internet. Focusing on cinema in India, this paper takes the surfacing of the cinema in digital formats as a register of the unexpected, the contingent and the accidental. As I will argue, the contingent is distinctive, for what it draws attention to is not the play of pure chance; it is an engagement with the fact that the how and when of the emergence of archival objects depends on other things, actions and events. Films that were considered lost turn up on YouTube; sounds and images of lost cinematic objects may arrive in bits and pieces, as video and audio files, as memes, analog transferred into the digital, uploaded by the commitment and obsession of lovers of film, but also more casually. Provenance is not always clear, and cinephiles and lovers of film music offer proofs and weigh in with opinions to identify a film clip or a musical rendition. Elements of the official film and media archives, some of which are notoriously impossible to access, may also come to light; other parts, accessible but dormant, unused, may also yield the unexpected.
A couple of years ago, there suddenly surfaced on the ‘net a series of photographs, probably dating to about 1951, just after India’s independence from British colonial rule. The photographs circulated widely, on a number of sites, and attracted attention for their apparently salacious content. The photographs featured A.R. Kardar, a long-standing and respected film producer and director, with a career traversing the Calcutta, Bombay and Lahore production centers of the subcontinental film industry, dating back to the silent era. The photographs show Kardar and an associate receiving two girls who then disrobe, and finally strip to their underclothes. Kardar is shown at various distances from the girls—in one image, very close, when he touches one of the girls; he and his associate scrutinize them with great care and apparent discernment. Kardar also stands at a distance, apparently in order to view the gait of the auditioning girls as they walk. The camera for the shot is placed at an angle, and is well posed to capture the relationship between the evaluative eye of the producer and the unselfconscious, even matter of fact way the girls present themselves and perform for the producer and, of course, for the camera. However, there must have been clear instructions by camera man James Burke, then head of Life magazine’s New Delhi bureau, that his subjects should forget the camera, and not look at it or the person using it. Apart from one tell-tale look of this sort, from Kardar’s associate, there is no breaching of this instruction. And yet the camera must have exercised a significant presence, assuming an ideal angle, and determining the angle and line of the girls’ walk (Sarkar 2023; Let’s Talk About Bollywood 2013). It appears Burke was successful in entering the intimate interior worlds of Bombay cinema in those years, for we also have, along with the Kardar photographs, ones capturing the Hindi film actors Madhubala and Begum Para (Bollywoodirect n.d.; Famous Personalities 2014; Old Indian Photos 2014).
While the photographs in Kardar’s offices are completely unexpected, those of the women actors are not; and yet here, too, we may note a risqué quality to the pictures. Begum Para lies on the ground, striking a sultry pose and exposing her décolletage to the camera. In several shots, Madhubala’s sari pallu (border) falls off her shoulders, exposing her blouse. It is the studio “audition,” however, which is startling, and implies a singular and secretive public for its perusal; for while we may assume that the phenomenon of women presenting their bodies to the producer was not untypical, as in the nature of a public secret, to photograph the event was untypical, its singularity highlighted by the fact that the capture was done by a foreign cameraman. Moreover, the photograph was never published in the world of illustrated print. Finally, when it was published, it was done so well after Burke’s death and anonymously, at least until we get further information about who uploaded it.
The same goes for the appearance of films considered lost, or about which there was little or no awareness. Consider the history of information film genres. In the South Asian context, presently we have some newsreel, some topicals, perhaps one industrial or process film, promotional films, and very little in the way of advertising film. A particular frustration arises from the fact that more might be available in deposits such as the British Film Institute, but access policies are restrictive. In one instance, I was the recipient of an informal sharing arrangement that gave me Tins for India (1941) by the iconic director, Bimal Roy, and made in the well-known Bengali studio, New Theatres. I proceeded to share the video more widely. There was nothing accidental about the film’s emergence, but it might appear accidental because it came online without any formal or official edict. It was contingent on a collegial sharing of resources. The official release came later, when the film appeared as part of a package released online by the BFI to commemorate 70 years of Indian independence. The BFI also holds a rare Dunlop ad film, Dream House, made in 1954, featuring leading film actors Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari and directed by an iconic short filmmaker, Hari Sadan Dasgupta. Unexpectedly, it is now widely and easily available on YouTube, shared by one “Shams” in 2018. The existence of these films in various foreign deposits points to the existence of an audiovisual archive that dates to colonial times, but is not available to the very people whose lives and histories constitute its main content. Here, I share the evolving agenda that has emerged to assert rights to the image, and to make such film material available to scholars, practitioners, and a wider post-colonial public (Hediger, Campanini, and Cheeka 2021).
Formally speaking, these media materials, from Burke’s photographs, an as yet solitary industrial process film, a rare advertising movie, are digital deposits facilitated by the participatory architecture of Web 2.0. And, in the very process of the deposit, moving from photochemical index to digital information, they signify earlier times and present time. Quite separate from the advent of the digital, even the official archive can have the aspect of being recent and, indeed, contingent. Taking circulation and exhibition as key to the film archive, with the understanding that each cinematic performance is subject to possible mutability (Hoek 2010), my research identified railways as important not only to film delivery but also to film production, circulation, and exhibition in the 1920s and 1930s. Sarai researcher Satakshi Sinha started trawling the National (paper) Archives for further information and came across a very informative memorandum from the publicity officer of the Great Indian Peninsular Railways, AE Tylden Pattinson, dating to 1927. An instruction was scrawled on the cover of this governmental file, “Destroy by 1940.” As Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (2018) has noted about the colonial origins of India’s National Archives, a key component of the initiative was firstly to destroy files considered insignificant or redundant, a paring down and streamlining of holdings, rather than holding onto everything. The government archive had this original administrative design, to function as a memory that served government institutional economies and needs and ensured against unwieldy demands on space and storage. The continued existence of the memo on railways and cinema, marked for destruction, comes across as entirely fortuitous.
There is another informal domain to be explored. A number of entertainment films previously considered “lost” have surfaced on YouTube, some of which have been quite revelatory, leading to a rewriting of film chronologies. This too is a contingent, rather than accidental archive, and relates to the video as key “carrier” of feature film content. Tamil film scholar Stephen Hughes (2013) noted a few years ago that the celluloid holdings of the National Film Archives of India of Tamil cinema in the so-called studio period of the 1930s and 1940s were hugely outflanked by commercial video availability of feature films. And it is indeed in video history that we can look for the substance of a contingent film archive. Reflecting on my own development as a film historian, one shared by others of my generation, VHS was a key resource from the late 1980s. After sitting at the Steenbeck at the National Film Archives in Pune during the day, I would set off to explore video markets to get a hold of movies in the evening. Around the same time, in the United Kingdom, doing research for a dissertation on Indian popular cinema, I found myself keeping careful track of two sources. The first were the various video rental units, often doubling as sweet shops, in North and South East London. Video versions had to be scanned carefully for deletions, as it was assumed customers were primarily attracted by song and dance sequences. Personal VHS libraries of this sort helped one go repeatedly over the film with an intricacy that Steenbeck viewing did not allow for—and the films circulating in the video market were not always available as celluloid. The second option was recording from TV, with Channel 4’s Cinema of Three Continents programming, and Nasreen Munni Kabir’s initiatives to promote Indian cinema, getting me excellent copies of canonical films such as Awara (Raj Kapoor, 1951), not to mention song sequences assembled by Kabir along with interviews of composers, lyricists and others to document Hindi/Urdu cinema in Movie Mahal (1986–1988). By this time, companies such as Shemaroo, which originated as a book circulating library in 1962, started buying up video rights to motion pictures and setting up video rental outlets. By the mid-1990s satellite television and the development of 24-hour channels had companies getting rights in order to fill viewing time. All sorts of movies quite remote from the canonical oeuvre, including horror movies, started populating television in the early hours of the morning. Fresh from my off-air recording practice in the UK, I managed a bit of the same by using timer-recording, and despite the vagaries of electricity and cable connections.
It was in one such foray that I recorded Amar Rahe Yeh Pyar/May This Love Be Eternal (Prabhu Dayal, 1961), a film about the Partition of India seen through the experience of a woman who loses her husband and child as the subcontinent careens into the horrendous blood-letting between communities. In Sarai, our media research program, the VHS was copied in the early 2000s, though I do not believe it was digitized. Nevertheless, it was available for a growing scholarship on the cultural history of the Partition. When film scholar Bhaskar Sarkar (2009) assembled material for his book Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition, this was one of several films he could not find in the National Film Archives’ celluloid holdings. This VHS copy was an artefact of the video transformation, which involved the commercial mining of cinema for mass distribution through television and video cassette players, and now through online portals and YouTube. As Ramon Lobato (2012) points out, video constituted a shadow economy of the cinema, a distribution network which took it into a myriad viewing contexts beyond the cinema theater. I would add that not only did it reconstitute the market for feature film content, it provided the wherewithal for the expanded archive of cinema that we know today. A low-resolution video of Amar Rahe Pyaar now features on YouTube, along with another film Sarkar could not find in the celluloid archive, Apna Desh/One’s Own Country (V. Shantaram, 1949). And there are many, many more such instances of lost celluloid materializing as easily accessible online video. It was an infrastructure brought into being by commercial drives and televisual programming, and drawn on by cinephiles to develop the personal collections that constitute the loosely configured online digital deposits of cinema today.
Let me return to the government archive as a site of contingency. Despite bureaucratic constraints, the official archive was a contested site in which individuals and groups who compose it play a game of peek-a-boo, watching for a viable moment to facilitate a public life to the archive. There were music lovers lurking in the thickets of the state. The archive of state broadcaster All India Radio, notoriously difficult to access, nevertheless started emerging online, as individual employees set up websites and Facebook pages to make past music programs available. In all of this, we get a sense of how the digital contemporary features a particular constellation of historical time, capturing a diverse and dispersed range of material, some of it emerging from the disaggregation of the nation-state. A state which commanded, controlled, and planned now appears somewhat differently, as decomposed into a complex matrix of motivations, impulses and artefacts that find hospitality in the digital present.
From an archival point of view, it is the work of the collector outside the state who has been key to our ability to map an intricate archive of the cinema. The government radio employee sharing governmental recordings with a community of like-minded film and music lovers is part of a burgeoning group of amateur archivists and collectors. As Ravikant argues, the collector here is a complex media entity, collating film in video formats, film music in gramophone and audio cassettes, visual and print material in posters, cassette and gramophone record covers, publicity leaflets, film magazines and song booklets, even source novels where relevant. In turn, these communities of enthusiasm and sharing adapt to the new possibilities of moving material online, circulating it, and developing techniques to search the data they have assembled. The film historian is a relatively modest and minor entity in this bigger tribe.
This essay draws extensively on conversations I have had with Ravikant, the leading media historian who is developing a major archive of cinema, radio and print at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.
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Sarkar, Vaaswat. 2023. “Listen to the First Ever Audio Recording of the Inside Of a Black Hole.” Homegrown March 31. Accessed May 23, 2023. https://homegrown.co.in/homegrown-voices/listen-to-the-first-ever-audio-recording-of-the-inside-of-a-black-hole.
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 The research of Sabeena Gadihoke (2022) has established that Burke’s photographs came to be uploaded through an agreement between Time-Life and Google in 2008. However, the way different sets of images came to circulate and be discussed is not always clear.
 The field considerably expands if we consider colonial amateur films and home movies, something I have addressed separately (Vasudevan 2012).