n the closing sequence of Celluloid Man, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s 2012 documentary on legendary archivist PK Nair, Nair laments the loss of the tactile aspects of handling film, such as the thrill of taking it out from the can: “When we come to know that the cellulose film is getting extinct, I feel so sorry about it because the images with which I have grown up with was always the optical image which is projected on the screen: the beautiful, wonderful, black and white images of the 1930s and the 1940s.” Nair goes on to say that he has been unable to reconcile with the quality of the image in the digital age: “Somehow, I feel there is something terribly missing in those images.”
Photographic film has already become an old medium for a young art form. Compared to music, literature or theatre, cinema was born yesterday. As recently as a decade ago, most people who worked in cinema would have physically handled celluloid; the sight, smell and feel of film would have been an integral part of their working lives.
In 2012, American film historian Haden Guest wrote that “something important” was lost with the removal of the cue marks. Cue marks were symbolic of the art of the projectionist, “those showmen and women whose interpretation of aspect ratio, frame rate, sound level, intermissions, subtitles” brought shades of variations to films.
Film prints elevated the projectionist to the level of a craftsman. Hari laughed when I asked if projectionists miss working with film. “Actually the current projectionists have no idea how to operate the old projectors at all,” he said. “If you give them a reel, they’ll probably drop it, and all the film will come unspooled.”
Filmmakers often speak about the romance of film, and some have tried to put their money where their mouth is. Director Christopher Nolan, for instance, does a lot of shooting on celluloid. In 2018, when he flew down to Mumbai to announce a collaboration between production solutions company Filmlab and Kodak, he participated in events to encourage Indian producers and directors to do more of their shooting on film.
It hasn’t quite panned out that way. “People here are struggling to survive. They don’t have enough money to spare in the theatres. Are we going to preach the greatness of celluloid to them?” renowned cinematographer Rajeev Ravi told The Hindu at the time. “Only a small section of people, a privileged few, still hold nostalgia for celluloid.”
Whether it’s vinyl records or shooting photographs on film, analogue formats are now mostly indulgences that serve as markers of taste. They are often dismissed as affectations by those more directly concerned with the economics of art. A vinyl record costs a minimum of ₹1,500. A roll of Kodak Gold photographic film—with 36 exposures—retails for ₹600. Shooting and distributing an entire movie on film, however, is an indulgence on a millionaire scale.
The scant demand is visible in the number of places supplying and processing film. Raju Shah of Filmlab, one of the last of its kind in India, told me that only two or three independent movies shot on film (on the smaller, cheaper 16mm format) processed in his lab are currently in post-production. When it comes to distribution and exhibition, even these will have to convert to digital.
I've often wondered how all of this plays out outside the cinephile community. The regular movie-goer, far from having strong feelings about format, probably didn't even realise how and when this transition took place, unless they noticed a neighbourhood theatre advertising their leap into the digital age.
In the Fall 2012 issue of Cineaste magazine, Grover Crisp, executive vice-president of restoration at Sony Pictures, brought up a Canadian study in which the audience was shown movies in both film and digital formats. Crisp said the audience was told which was which and then asked which they liked better. “In every test, the audience chose the digital version. Then, someone decided to make a switch and told the audience that the print was the digital version and vice versa. At that point, the audience said they preferred the print, which they thought was the digital.”