Over the past decade the internet has evolved into the premier distribution center for cinema, not just in volume but also in diversity. The process was quick and overwhelming, with the invention of Netflix rendering major video retail chains obsolete and putting most niche video stores in danger. More recently, streaming services on the internet have evolved in quick time to distribute and even produce their own cinema. For Indian cinema in particular, the online sphere has been a huge benefit for independent filmmakers and regional filmmakers* who saw very little to no opportunities for wide audience viewership due to single-screen and multiplex theaters in the country being almost exclusively devoted to the overwhelming scope of the Bollywood industry. Many movies, like Manjeet Singh’s Mumbai Cha Raja or Priyadarshan’s Sila Samayangalil, which failed to gain any theatrical distribution in India have been picked up by Netflix and other retailers. In the case of restoration and distribution of older films, indie streamers like MUBI, the Criterion Collection, and independent parties on YouTube have picked up the slack offering many rare Indian movies that haven’t been available online beyond private file-sharing communities.
The restoration and distribution of Indian cinema has seen a major uptick in recent years. Recently, Prem Kapoor’s 1971 film Badnam Basti was screened on Vimeo via The Block Museum of Art in Evanston, IL. In an accompanying panel discussion, Block Museum Graduate Fellow Simran Bhalla mentions that this rare movie was produced by the Film Finance Corporation in the 1960s to 70s when there was a “government push to have quality cinema.” Many films of the Parallel Cinema movement have been streaming over the past year on niche streaming sites. Film programmer Anuj Malhotra tells me that nonprofits like Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) have also been “doing essential work through the institution of an archive, but also through extensive workshops they organize every year in collaboration with Cineteca Bologna, FIAF, and other various leading agencies.”
In addition, over the past decade, The Film Division’s government-funded works started appearing on YouTube after which they were discovered and compiled by film archival researcher Alexander Keefe for his Tumblr blog project Sarkari Shorts. This vast and important collection features both narratives, documentaries, and even some troubling propaganda films that reveal a darker history to film as politics in India. Other independent parties have been popping up and presenting rare and old Indian films previously unavailable online in good prints. The Potato Eaters Collective (who I will refer to here as PEC) is a group of online film preservationists and distributors based in Chennai, India whose aim is to “free art and ourselves from the bondage of market driven capitalism.” They have cultivated movies on their YouTube channel which have been sitting in the National Film Archives of India (NFAI), lost to memory for a long time. Some indelibly important works presented on the channel include Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987), Govindan Aravindan’s Chidambaran (1985), Ritwick Ghatak’s documentary Amar Lenin (1970), and even a Sri Lankan film—Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Dark in the White Light (2015).
In their co-opting of the NFAI’s restorations, the group tells me “we feel that we are doing what ideally NFAI should have done, that is dissemination of the cinematic culture instead of just archiving and storing.” Considering these are ultimately government efforts because of the dependence on tax money, PEC acknowledges that: “We are also critical of the fact that tax payers money should not be in vain. The archiving quality is decent but what about the distribution and storage?” It’s an apt question to consider when restorations and archiving are done, that the movies are rarely made available to anyone. What is the end game? The Films Division has plenty of prints sitting in corridors, as was made aware to the NFAI director Prakash Magdum and one of the best ways to preserve these films is to transfer them to digital spaces for viewing and distributing. “They should just find a channel to disseminate it,” PEC tells me, adding that “it's fantastic rather than a private player, that a government body is doing it.” PEC believes that “restoration and archiving is more of a cultural activity than just another government activity.” Cinema of course has been an indelible part of Indian culture for more than a hundred years now. Archiving of the visual arts necessarily requires sharing cinema, thus making it available not only in physical and cyber spaces but in the cultural memory of the people as well.
There are obstacles to preservation and exhibition in the private corporate sectors, which is where much of older Indian cinema is starting to go. Amazon Prime and Netflix both have huge stockpiles of Indian films streaming on their platforms. As is the nature of these large streaming corporations, the films there come and go often without word or mention, though some sites have managed to keep track of these changes. PEC states “the main obstacles in accessibility of films here and worldwide is the capitalist mode of production and distribution… the neoliberal market economy sees everything as a product and consumption” and what the group says is “a huge problem of standardization.” What the group hopes to provide with their channel is to provide a place to stream cinema that isn’t dependent on algorithms or a conveyor belt of content.
Tommydan55 is another popular YouTube channel which streams Indian and other South Asian cinema. It’s run by independent film restorationist and hobbyist Thomas Daniel, who became enamored with classical Indian cinema after discovering Abrar Alvi’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). He had always had an interest in the process of improving digital media, of India’s Golden Age films was a perfect opportunity to. Thomas tells me that the integrity of the original work is important mentioning, “it goes without saying all films should be shown or released in their Original Aspect Ratio.” Many of India’s classics, especially those restored by Shemaroo Pvt. Ltd, and Indian-based physical media distributors, have been cropped to 16:9 instead of being left in their original 4:3 aspect ratio. PEC asserts that “the aspect ratio and other choices are more of a political choice rather than an aesthetic one.” It’s not because 16:9 is more visually appealing for audiences, it’s because of the standardization of that ratio in modern television and theatrical displays.
Daniels’ YouTube page is a labor of love—a veritable treasure-trove of classic Indian cinema, with improved visual quality thanks to his restoration efforts, all in their original aspect ratios, and free to watch. He tells me, “Each film requires well over 40 hours of precise and painstaking work before uploading. Many still look like crap because some of the sources I use are so bad. But they look a helluva lot better than they did when I got them…. and as time goes on and I learn more and get better, the improvement I can accomplish is substantial.” Many of the great Golden Age public domain classics are on the channel, from Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen to Vijay Anand’s The Taxi Driver (yes, there’s a different one, made 20 years before Scorsese’s masterpiece). He, like the PEC, applauds the valiant restoration efforts of the government while also acknowledging that the distribution of these films is key. “I am pleased the NFAI exists, thanks mostly to [P.K.] Nair, although his successors aren't doing all that well in carrying on his legacy. And they don't release their restored films for home video. What's the point then, of keeping the fruits of your labor locked up?”
Both Tom and PEC are examples of independents engaged in the distribution work that many hoped would be part of the cultural priorities of greater powers in government or, much more dubious but at least well-financed, private sectors. The open format of YouTube provides independents to disseminate cinema to a wide audience, unlike many other places. PEC hopes for continued growth on their platform, saying, “YouTube is the nearest possible way to democratically reach out to masses. [That] it’s another corporation comes with its own problems like compression, advertisements, and stuff. But [it’s still] better than channels with subscription.” Tommydan55 is planning releases of Ramanand Saagar’s Aarzoo and the channel’s first Tamil film Ellis Dungan and T.R. Sundaram’s Manthiri Kumari. PEC hopes to “become a full-fledged production house, a commune for people-oriented art and cinema.”
As we consider the overtake of internet-based distribution channels interrupting and perhaps, more melodramatically, “killing” the theatrical experience, we must also understand the avenues for opportunity that our online world provides for cinema. So many rare and forgotten masterpieces exist buried in the sands of time that traditional distribution channels, with shackles to capitalism, cannot quite accommodate. While it’s certain that our reliance on corporate and oligarchical entities to preserve and keep the culture of the visual arts alive is a dangerous and unstable one, we can sleep well knowing the distribution avenues for independent and governmental efforts for restoring and keeping movies—especially those of the Global South—alive is something to hang our hats on.