The only surviving original print of the acclaimed 1948 Hindi classic Kalpana, a masterpiece by the director Uday Shankar, would not have existed if not for the relentless efforts and patience of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, an advertising director with an uncommon penchant for preserving films for posterity.
Dungarpur, along with Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation, helped restore the old film for more than six months at the Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna. The restored work was screened at this year's Cannes Film Festival, in its Classic section. The film, which critics and historians consider to be an ode to experimental cinema and dance choreography, is now back in India, stored at the National Film Archives of India (NFAI).
"I had seen Kalpana some time ago and it was a great film. When I met Scorsese's people, they said they wanted to do it but because of bureaucracy, they gave up," says the 43-year-old. Dungarpur says it took him three months just to have the project approved in India and acquire the film's release so he could send the copy to the Foundation.
The other film that Dungarpur partly sponsored to restore is Alfred Hitchcock's first film, the 1927 silent cinema classic The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. The movie recently screened at the Barbican Centre in London as a prelude to this year's Olympics and was telecast on UK television and the web.
Dungarpur, who hails from a royal family and originally set out to make feature films in Bollywood, says restoring the Kalpana print was all thanks to PK Nair, the founding director of the NFAI and the one who had the foresight to make a backup print of Kalpana.
"All the filmmakers believe we learnt everything from Nair, who preserved every bit of cinema left in India," he says. "He showed us everything, gave us our identity. In 1964, he started the NFAI, and whatever is there, it is because of him. He is the gatekeeper of Indian film heritage."
Out of 1,700 Indian silent films, only nine have survived and all through Nair's efforts.
This year, Dungarpur released his documentary on Nair and the man's work and restoration legacy. The film, Celluloid Man, premiered at the Cinema Ritrovato Festival in Bologna in June.
"It took 11 trips to the National Film Archive's headquarters in Pune to convince the authorities to let me film with Nair," recalls Dungarpur.
"I started the film two years ago and what a journey of discovery it has been. I learnt about the lost heritage of Indian cinema and how important it is to preserve and restore our films before it is too late."
Dungarpur says that when he was a student at the Film and Television Institute of India, a school that works closely with the National Film Archive, he would see Nair in the institute's cinema: "A shadowy figure in the darkened theatre, scribbling industriously in a notebook by the light of a tiny torch - winding and unwinding reels of film, shouting instructions to the projectionist and always, always watching the films."
In a country where historical monuments are being razed to make way for infrastructure projects, where ancient manuscripts are withering away in neglected corners and languages are fading, picking up the gauntlet as a saviour of old film prints is a brave act. The sheer trouble and time it takes to even secure access to archival material is enough to turn anyone off.
Dungarpur recognises these challenges, but remains focused on his plans to formally set up a foundation, by the end of the year, that will focus on restoring and preserving films in India.
"We make films, exploit them commercially and throw them out. We don't have training or schools focused on restoration," he says. "Look at Chaplin films and how well preserved they are. Can you say that for India?"