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Filmmakers Madhur Bhandarkar, RS Prasanna, others debate on use of film reel vs digital format

While purists emphasise on the artistic possibilities of celluloid with passion and nostalgia, the younger lot feels that the emerging digital technology has democratised filmmaking.


Christopher Nolan's latest India visit to encourage shooting films on celluloid has sparked a debate among filmmakers. While purists emphasise on the artistic possibilities of celluloid with passion and nostalgia, the younger lot feels that the emerging digital technology has democratised filmmaking.

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According to Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, founder of the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF), the last 70mm film shot in India was Ram Gopal Varma's Raat (1992) 26 years ago. Movies, however, continue to be shot on 35mm and 16mm film.

National Award-winning filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar agrees that the depth of colour, sound and texture that film provides, can never be match by the digital format.

However, director RS Prasanna says that, in the last 20 years, the digital camera has helped talent from middle-class families to emerge and make a mark.

"A film like Shubh Mangal Saavdhan [2017], which deals with erectile dysfunction, could not have been possible if the digital era in Bollywood [Hindi film industry] had not started. Many filmmakers of my age group started shooting videos with their family's video camera as it was affordable by the middle-class.

"That has given birth to many filmmakers who started nurturing visual storytelling from a young age. With the advent of the digital camera, filmmaking has become a commoner's dream as opposed to being an elite affair," Prasanna told IANS, a news agency.

While appreciating the effort of senior filmmakers to encourage shooting and watching films on celluloid, he said it's important to move with changing times.

"I think the debate is almost like painting versus photographs. Both the art forms can co-exist, but as a storyteller, my priority is to share the story with the world through my cinema. And I think for the common audience, the format does not matter," said Prasanna.

Comparing the two modes to handwritten letters and emails, Bhandarkar said, "For the new generation, it might just not be a relatable thing, but one cannot ignore the magnitude of a film camera, once experienced.

"It is the same with the audience as well. One cannot feel the power of celluloid film unless it is experienced in a 70mm screening."

Most big Hindi film production houses are encouraging the digital format as it is more economical.

Acclaimed filmmaker Anurag Kashyap said while it's sad to see celluloid film — which has its beauty, but limitations — being phased out, digital cameras offer an ease of operation that wasn't possible before.

"It is easier to acquire the skill of shooting in digital. And in the modern, dynamic environment of storytelling, they are an asset in keeping costs low and making it possible for people from everywhere (who might not have budgets, access or skill to shoot on celluloid) to tell their stories effectively.

"In an era when you can shoot an entire film on a phone, digital definitely has the edge over celluloid — being cheaper, faster and more accessible," Kashyap told IANS.

However, purists believe that with the tendency of shooting extensive footage, multiple retakes and cost of data storage — the idea of digital being cheap is nothing but a misconception.

Dungarpur added, "Celluloid has never been more expensive than digital. Look at the number of hard drives and (the amount of) footage you deal with; look at the expense of data storage. Celluloid always had discipline and focus on the art."

Director Abhay Chopra, grandson of late filmmaker BR Chopra, agrees that today's filmmakers tend to shoot excessive footage to be on the "safer side".

"That way, maybe the cost of a film shot on celluloid camera and one with a digital camera comes quite close. But I want to say that we do not misuse the freedom... We maintain the deadline."

Prasanna said: "Being a new film director, no actor will give me extra days and no producer will invest extra money for production after the given deadline. We are not indisciplined people.

"And being a disciplined talent has nothing to do with the format we are using to shoot a film. I am sure that, in the early days, there must have been some filmmakers who used extra film rolls and faced criticism from producers for extending the budget."

Bhandarkar said shooting on a digital camera is liberating because of its cost-effective nature.

"I remember in my early days, after a producer liked my story, the first question he would ask was, 'How many reels do you think you need to complete shooting?' Since filming is a creative process, if I needed extra reels... not that I was not provided, but surely I noticed how producers would make faces," recounted Bhandarkar, known for movies like Chandni Bar (2001), Page 3 (2005), Traffic Signal (2007) and Fashion (2008).

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Besides, the bigger challenge is the absence of enough labs for processing, storage and restoration of film reels. It recently emerged that the original negative of Dev Benegal's English, August (1994) was destroyed because of poor storage.

"How many labs are there to process the footage from films for editing? Since most of the labs do not have analogue equipment, we will face huge problems in post-production. And, most importantly, where will we project them? Is there any theatre and projectionist left to handle celluloid?" questioned Chopra.

In fact, during Nolan's visit to Mumbai, his film Dunkirk (2017) had a 70 mm IMAX film screening, followed by a 35 mm film screening of Interstellar (2014) — on projectors that came from the US.

Still, Dungarpur is hopeful.

"The most important thing for us, as Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke promised, is setting up of a lab here. Then, for the projection on film, we need cinema theatres to have celluloid projection."

Bhandarkar said: "Since we tend to follow the Western world, I can see how effectively, in 10 years, a much-improved and advanced celluloid filmmaking is coming back into practice. Nothing goes out of fashion, all old things come back.

"Both can co-exist in future without being obsolete."