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CINEMA

The colour of profit

ANAND PARTHASARATHY

The fresh release of Mughal-e-Azam, after 44 years, may set cash registers tinkling again and launch a new trend of digitally `colourising' classic Indian films. But many film-makers are not amused.

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Frame grabs from the original Mughal-e-Azam made in 1960.

ON August 5, 1960, Mumbai's Maratha Mandir cinema witnessed one of the most exotic film releases ever staged in India. For the 9 p.m. premiere the foyer was decked out to resemble a Mughal palace, the invitations were designed to look like royal scrolls, and the cans of film were brought to the theatre atop a caparisoned elephant. The 1,100-seat hall was packed with the cream of the Hindi film industry. Simultaneously released in 150 theatres across India, Mughal-e-Azam was the costliest film ever made in India until then - and went on to become the most successful, longest running film, raking in Rs.3.5 crores, a record broken much later by Sholay.

On the weekend beginning November 12, a computer-colourised, digitally re-recorded and Dolby-enhanced version of the old classic will be premiered in 65 theatres in Mumbai alone, and in an equal number of cinemas in the rest of India.

Will the coloured reissue repeat history? The distributor duo of Dinesh Gandhi and Ramesh Sippy, who paid Rs.2.25 crores upfront for the Mumbai territory alone, think the audience will grow slowly as the hype builds up, and will eventually justify the highest price ever paid in India for an old film.

Mughal-e-Azam is the first film anywhere in the world that has been digitally coloured for a theatrical re-release. Earlier attempts by the American film industry were mainly intended to revive television re-runs and drive a fresh release on video cassette or compact disc. Nearly three years ago, Sterling Investment Corporation, which bankrolled the original film during its production - spread over a decade and costing an astronomic Rs.1.5 crores - toyed with the idea of giving fresh life to its lucrative product. Deepesh Salgia became project manager of the task force to enhance Mughal-e-Azam.

A tentative enquiry with Hollywood-based agencies drew quotations ranging from $12-15 million, which made the whole project unviable. A Mumbai firm, the Indian Academy of Arts and Animation (IAAA) offered to do the job at a fraction of the cost - reported to be between Rs.5 crores and Rs.10 crores. A special software, "Effect Plus", to achieve "natural colourisation" was developed after almost 18 months of work. The actual task of colouring all 300,000 frames of the 177-minute film, each a `file' of 10 megabytes, took over 100 professionals another 10 months. This was done after restoring many portions of the original negative, badly damaged by fungus or punctured with pinholes. The challenge lay in working with the grey background of the black and white film, and then overlaying colours as authentically as possible.

Impressed with the enhanced visual product, Salgia and Sterling Investment decided to work on the soundtrack. The music director of the original film, Naushad, assisted by Uttam Singh, took on the task of redoing all the songs - retaining the original voices of Mohammed Rafi and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Shamsad Begum and Lata Mangeshkar, but recording the music with a new orchestra, with key instrumental artists from Chennai. The entire soundtrack, including the original dialogue, was remastered in the contemporary Dolby 6.1 `Surround Sound' format.

Will the effort pay off? The makers and the distributors are betting on today's younger generation. Could they be persuaded by the `colourful' hype to see what wowed their parents 44 years ago?

FIRST launched in 1944, with Sapru and Nargis in the stellar roles as the star-crossed lovers, the film was suspended owing to the trauma of pre-Independence riots. It was then abandoned when the producer, Shiraj Ali Haque, opted to move to Pakistan. It was revived in 1951 when K. Asif found a new if unlikely sponsor, the construction company Shapoorji Palonji and Co.

As Chandramohan, the actor originally chosen for the role of Mughal emperor Akbar, died in 1946, Asif cast Prithviraj Kapoor in the role. The thespian delivered in his trademark stentorian style, the sharp and pointed urdu dialogue penned by Kamal Amrohi (of Pakeezah fame) and three others. A more nuanced Dilip Kumar was the new Prince Salim, the emperor's son, whose infatuation for the court dancer Anarkali almost tears apart the Mughal Empire. With Nargis locked in by contracts with R.K. studios, Asif turned to Madhubala for the role of the doomed courtesan. The casting for the role of the Rajput princess Jodhabai, Salim's mother, was an inspired choice: Durga Khote delivered the performance of her life.

But well begun was nowhere near half done. The fastidious Asif overstretched his schedule and his budget time and again. For authenticity he insisted on a small army of craftspersons from Kolhapur, ironsmiths from Rajasthan and zari workers from Hyderabad to create the period costumes, jewels and weapons. The central battle sequence, where son takes on father, featured 4,000 horses, dozens of elephants and a cast of 8,000.

For the Sheesh Mahal (the hall of mirrors) sequence to picturise the poignant song Pyar kiya to darna kya, Belgian glass worth Rs.15 lakhs was imported to create a 1,000 square metre fairyland which had to be almost abandoned: Having begun his film in black and white, Asif, with three quarters of the film in the cans, then decided to shoot just this one sequence in the newly available technicolour, but found the myriad reflections a serious challenge. He overcame it with some deft camera tricks.

He was so impressed with the rushes processed in London that he decided to remake the film all over again in colour. His financiers, weary after nearly seven years of waiting, refused. Asif insisted, however, on shooting the remaining portions in colour - approximating to the last half hour of the 3-hour opus. By the late 1950s, colour film could be processed in India. Artistically demanding to the end, he used 100 singers for the climactic paean to love, and lovers everywhere - Mohabbat zindabad.

THE colourisation of Mughal-e-Azam seems to have inspired a new line in colourfully enhanced classics from the black and white era. The IAAA is said to be keen on doing the same for Bimal Roy's Madhumati and some of Guru Dutt's famous films. And Ravi Chopra has been reported to be keen on colourising many of his father B.R. Chopra's most memorable films.

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A poster of the original film.

That is an argument not every film-maker is buying. Ever since the news of the Mughal-e-Azam project broke, cinematographers and cine-historians have been expressing unease - sometimes disgust - at what they characterise as tampering with an artistic creation. On the popular Yahoo user group of the Indian Society of Cinematographers (ISC) (http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/isc_ml/), renowned lensman Ramachandra Babu, president of the ISC, raised the alarm first.

Many recalled that mainstream Hollywood had briefly toyed with the idea of colourisation in the 1980s. Ted Turner who owned the MGM/UA library of classics proposed to colourise all the classics for his TNT cable TV channel, including Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life! and John Huston's The Maltese Falcon and the all-time Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman favourite Casablanca. Besides Huston and Capra, Billy Wilder and Woody Allen, who belonged to the Screen Actors Guild and the Director's Guild, lobbied heavily with the United States Congress against these "computerised graffiti gangs". As a result, The Film Integrity Act of 1987 was passed to protect select old films. The act proved toothless and a colourised Casablanca was shown by the Turner network in November 1988, with the insensitive tag line, "Play it again Sam, this time in colour!". However, the film-makers had the satisfaction of seeing the colourising craze die away - but not before headline writers had their day: "Here's looking at hue, kid!" (punning on Humphrey Bogart's parting words to Ingrid Bergman).

K. RAMESH BABU

P.K. Nair.

Veteran film archivist P.K. Nair who virtually set up the National Film Archive in Pune in the 1960s and was its director for nearly two decades, says that colourisation, for whatever reason, is not good. He told Frontline: "As an archivist, I am totally against any form of tampering with the original either putting sound on to a silent film, or colour to a black and white image or blowing up an unsqueezed 35 mm frame to a 70 mm panoramic format. True, all this is being done in the name of `business' as if no one will ever care to see these works unless they are technically updated. This is a fallacy akin to someone coming up with a proposal that the Taj Mahal has to be painted afresh to make it acceptable to modern viewing sensibilities and thereby increase the tourist traffic.

Films like Mughal-e-Azam are part of the country's cultural heritage. It is our moral responsibility to attach the same reverence and sanctity to our film classics as we do to any cultural object and not allow them to be disfigured or distorted. Let us not squander our rich cultural heritage for some cheap profits."

ANAND PARTHASARATHY

Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

Talking to this correspondent in Thiruvananthapuram recently, internationally renowned film-maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan expressed similar views. "The old black and white films had a dream-like quality," he said. "That is because we tend to dream in black and white, rather than in colour. It is an effect a colour film can never achieve." He likened the addition of colour to a black and white film to the "canned" laughter that producers of American and British television sitcoms feel obliged to add. "Have you noticed how so many garba grihas in Tamil Nadu temples are now garishly lit with flood lamps? The true devotee would like to view the deity by natural light or by the glow of an oil lamp. The bright lights and the continuous intonation of `om' through loudspeakers, totally spoils the pious atmosphere for many. Colourising a film is no different... and for the director who made the original product, it is nothing short of an outrage."

But what if new generations of film-goers do not care to see a classic because it is made black and white? Would reaching new and younger audiences justify colourisation? Adoor Gopalakrishnan does not agree: "They must see the old films as they were made."

As filmgoers countrywide queue up to greet Mughal-e-Azam in its second colourful coming; as digital studios cannily assess the global market for a rainbow hued re-entry of classic Indian cinema, the aesthetic argument may not be uppermost in their minds. But seeing how colourisation fizzled out in the West, that history might yet repeat itself here - and today's concerned film-makers may have the last laugh.