Aravindan Govindan

First Spanish retrospective

“Why Aravindan Govindan’s “Kummatty” and “Thamp”?” is invariably the first question I was asked when people heard about Film Heritage Foundation’s decision to restore the poetic yet relatively unknown 1979 and 1978 masterpieces if compared to the more obvious “classics” that India has produced over more than a century of cinema. I would say the journey that culminated in the restoration of “Kummatty” began in 1992 when I had just joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune to study scriptwriting and film direction. It was a time when we were immersed in watching the films of masters of world cinema . . . Tarkovsky, Bunuel, Bresson, Antonioni . . . but even almost three decades later, I have a distinct memory of coming out of the FTII auditorium after watching my first Aravindan film “Kummatty” . . . poetic, gentle, visually so powerful, meditative, with silences that spoke . . . I was captivated.

I watched every one of his films. “Kanchana Sita” (1977), “Thampu” (1978), “Pokkuveyil” (1981), “Chidambaram” (1985) . . . and the wonder of it all was that each film was different, each a unique exploration of the cinematic form, impossible to pigeonhole in conventional genres and narrative styles, free from the dictates of film theory and canon as he was an autodidact. His uniqueness lay in creating poetry on celluloid through his tranquillity and silence, almost a language of its own, so deeply influenced by the landscape, folk art and culture around him. His cinema is like a mirror reflecting reality as well as its magic.

Aravindan Govindan was one of India’s most extraordinary filmmakers and a leading light of the New Indian Malayalam cinema of the 1970s and ‘80s. A true Renaissance man – he was a painter, cartoonist, musician, theatre director, and filmmaker. An autodidact, his films were free from the weight of film canon, marked by an entirely original approach to cinema. In a tragically short career spanning from 1974 to 1991, he made 11 films and 10 documentaries with almost all of his films receiving national or state awards.

From his first film “Uttarayanam” (1975) to his last “Vasthuhara” in 1991, his remarkable filmography included cinematic gems like “Kanchana Sita” (1977); “Thamp” (1978);“Kummatty” (1979); “Pokkuveyil” (1982); “Chidambaram” (1985) and “Oridathu” (1987).

Aravindan was fascinated with music as a child and learned classical music for a long time. He graduated with distinction with a B.Sc. degree in Botany and secured a good position with the Rubber Board. At the time, he was exploring his interest in art, painting oils and watercolours and took part in group exhibitions. A noted cartoonist before he entered the world of cinema, Aravindan had a cartoon series called “Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum” (Small Men in the Big World) that appeared in the Malayalam weekly Matrubhumi from 1963 to ’71. He also took active part in the theatre movements in Kerala and was instrumental in establishing the Navarangam and Sopanam theatre groups.

He has been described as a poet-philosopher with a vision, who made mystical, transcendental films that showed deep compassion for the eccentric, the marginalized, and the alienated. In the words of Aravindan – “Cinema, like painting or music, is best when it is pure and serves an aesthetic function.” And each of his works is a testimony to the purity of his philosophy as an artist.

While Aravindan is undoubtedly considered a doyen of the alternative cinema movement in India, the circulation of his films has been diminishing with the passage of time. When renowned Japanese film critic Tadao Sato saw “Kummatty” for the first time, he said it was the most beautiful film he had ever seen. The National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in Pune had digitized some of his films a few years ago, but I knew that these versions did not do justice to the original vision of an artist like Aravindan. I knew then that if his films were not restored soon, what would be left would be poor replicas which would reflect a mere shadow of the artistry of the great filmmaker. I soon realized that the situation was urgent as the original camera negatives seemed to be lost and prints that were available were deteriorating rapidly.

The beginning of the journey for the restoration of Aravindan’s films began when I travelled to Kollam in Kerala on February 1, 2020 to meet the producer, K. Ravindranathan Nair. A businessman with a successful cashew export business, Mr. Nair was certainly not your usual producer. I spoke to him about our desire to do a 4K restoration of two of Aravindan’s films “Kummatty” and “Thampu”. A man of few words, he readily gave his permission to restore the films. We had spoken to our long-time collaborators – Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation and CIneteca di Bologna about restoring Aravindan’s films and we came to an understanding that they would restore Aravindan’s “Kummatty” and we would restore “Thamp̄”.

Once we had the official go ahead, we put out a call through the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) to member archives and institutions all around the world searching for best available source elements that we could use for the restoration of the film. But sadly, as I had feared, none of the original camera negatives of Aravindan’s films survived – they had all melted and nothing could be salvaged from the liquefied celluloid.
We received responses from the Library of Congress in USA and the Fukuoka Archive in Japan that they had prints, but they were not in very good condition and in the case of the prints in Japan, Japanese subtitles had been embedded into the film. I checked with the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) who confirmed that the archive had prints of the films including unsubtitled ones. I travelled to Pune with our foundation’s film conservator to inspect the prints, and found that they were not in great condition. But they were still the best elements we could find so we first shipped the prints of “Kummatty” to the L’Immagine Ritrovata lab in Bologna. Having worked with both Prasad Studio in Chennai and L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna in the past, we decided that we would split the restoration process for “Thamp” between the two labs. We spoke to Saiprasad Akkeneni of the Prasad Corporation Pvt. Ltd. in Chennai, who agreed to partner with us on the restoration by doing the scanning and digital clean-up of the film at their facilities in Chennai.
The restoration of “Kummatty” was very challenging. On inspection, the lab found that both the prints had a lot of wear and tear and were very dirty and deeply scratched. One of the prints presented a consistent vertical green line on the right-hand side of the image, which required painstaking frame-by-frame manual work to be removed. The colour of the positive was decayed and the film’s natural environment, an essential character of the film, had completely lost it rich palette of skies, grasslands and foliage and become all magenta presenting a real challenge to ensure that Aravindan’s original vision was honoured to the best possible standard.

The fact that the restoration was done in the middle of the pandemic made the process even more complicated especially with regard to the colour grading, a process that would normally have been done in person at the lab. Instead, the footage had to be shared with us online and we had to spend days giving our feedback online and on Zoom to the technician working on the colour grading to get it right. Even though the cinematographer Shaji N. Karun who had shot so many of Aravindan’s films and worked so closely with him, made himself available for the long consultations between myself, Ramu Aravindan, the son of the filmmaker and the colourist at the lab, it was difficult for him to explain the exact colour tones online. So Ramu Aravindan travelled to the location and took photographs so we would have a better colour reference.

Being a musician, Aravindan was very particular about the seamless blending of the music and sound design of his films. Unfortunately, in the case of “Kummatty” we were hampered once again by the fact that we did not have the original sound negative and were working with the sound from the print, which was far from ideal. Ramu Aravindan helped us to source his father’s quarter-inch tapes and we digitized about 15 of them in the hope of finding better source material, but there was none. As a result, the sound engineers at the lab had to spend many hours cleaning up and remastering the sound.

But the result more than made up for all the struggles and pitfalls we had faced. The restored film was screened at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna on July 25, 2021. Friends who watched it, were blown away by the imagery, colour and sheer poetry of the film, which shone like a jewel on the big screen.
The restoration of “Thamp” was also an uphill task. There were tears and broken sprockets in the film and as the dupe negative was struck from a print, it did not have as much latitude as an original camera negative would have had. The scanning of the picture and sound and the hours of manual work that went into the digital clean-up of the scratches and tears and the image stabilization was done at Prasad Studios in Chennai. The restoration workflow was a process that needed constant coordination between myself in Mumbai, the Prasad technicians in Chennai and the lab in Bologna.
“Thamp̄” had been shot in black and white by Shaji N. Karun on Indu Stock, an Indian brand of film stock that was manufactured in Ooty. The source material was in poor condition so the scanned film had thick black lines, very grainy images and required image stabilization. In the print we worked on, the outdoor scenes were fill of high contrast images – the blacks were very black and the whites were very white, with no mid-tones and no details of shadows. We didn’t want the film to look absolutely clean as it digital high-definition films do. We wanted to match the beauty of the original imagery and to retain some of the grain so the film still had the feel of celluloid. Once again both Ramu Aravindan, and Shaji N. Karun, who shot the film, besides myself gave constant inputs and feedback on the grade. Another huge challenge was the sound, which was of very poor quality as it was taken from the print. Aravindan was always very particular about the sound design in his films and the sound was especially crucial in “Thamp” as it was shot in a cinema-verité style with a cast primarily of non-actors of the circus troupe where the ambient sound and detailing and layering of small details like the sound of the water, the murmur of voices and the buzz of insects were integral to the artistry of the film. A lot of work had to be done in Bologna on the sound restoration, which took months till it finally met with our approval.

But when I saw the final restored version I knew it was extraordinary especially given the condition of the elements we had to work with. And I was proved right when the restored “Thamp” was selected for a red-carpet world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 2022.
The festival is the stomping ground of eminent filmmakers, archivists, film historians and cinephiles and I heard that many of them were astounded and excited at the discovery of a new master of cinema, or for some, the rediscovery of an old master. Our dream is that the restored film should have a theatrical release in India followed by festival screenings and a debut on online streaming platforms. After all the ultimate aim of preserving and restoring a film is to give it a new life and bring it to new audiences as well as remind those who saw and loved the film decades ago, just why they fell in love with it the first time.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur