‘The restoration for Ishanou took a year’: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

The director of the Film Heritage Foundation says Manipuri cinema has lived on the fringes of the public imagination.

Published : Jun 01, 2023 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur: “It’s really an achievement that Ishanou was selected for Cannes.”

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur: “It’s really an achievement that Ishanou was selected for Cannes.” | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Film Heritage Foundation has restored some of the classics of Indian cinema, especially films from the margins. What prompted you to select Ishanou for restoration?

I saw Ishanou in 2021 in Imphal, when I was there at the invitation of the State government, which wanted my help to set up a film archive. I was excited as they were screening a 35 mm print of Ishanou which has become a rarity these days. I also met the director, Aribam Syam Sharma, a doyen of Manipuri cinema and a Renaissance man.

When the film began, I could see the print had scratches, flickers and uneven colours. Yet the beauty of the film and the simple yet powerful narrative rooted in the unique culture of Manipur transcended the distortions. I was mesmerised by the poignant story of a young mother torn between her family and the call of the divine. I decided that Ishanou must be restored to its former glory.

Manipuri films have not received the critical attention they deserve. Restoration then becomes a political act of remembrance as well as a historical act of salvaging a classic.

Manipuri cinema has lived on the fringes of the public imagination. When we spoke about restoring Ishanou so few people were aware that Aribam Syam Sharma’s work is acclaimed in India and internationally. Ishanou was screened in Cannes in 1991, and Sharma’s Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious) won the Golden Montgolfiere at the Festival des 3 Continents, Nantes, in 1982. We knew that if we didn’t restore Ishanou, it would slip through the cracks and be forgotten.

It’s really an achievement that Ishanou was selected for Cannes. This year the Cannes classic line-up has the biggest names of cinema —Godard, Ozu, Hitchcock…. They had 150 films and 80 documentaries to choose from and yet Ishanou was selected, the only Indian film in the category. I think its screening at Cannes will give the film a new lease of life and hopefully it will travel the world, as our restoration of Aravindan’s Thamp did last year.

What were the challenges you faced while restoring Ishanou?

The restoration took a year. The source film element used for restoration was the original 16 mm camera negative that was preserved at the National Film Archive of India. The negative had vinegar syndrome on certain reels, mould and warping, broken perforations, scratches, halos on the emulsion, and base distortion. Film Heritage Foundation’s conservators worked tirelessly to repair the negative before it could be scanned at the film restoration laboratory, L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna.

The real challenge was the use of portions of inter-negative in the original camera negative that resulted in wide variations in image quality, making it very grainy in parts and not matching the other parts of the film. Additionally, there was no sound negative, so we had to work on the sound from the two 35 mm prints lying with Sharma. The sound design of the film is very important paradoxically because of the long portions of silence and also, of course, because of the music composed by Sharma. The film had been shot on 16 mm on a low budget in available light conditions, as a result of which there were focus and lighting issues that impacted the image.

As a result of the challenges arising from the poor condition of the source material, hours of meticulous and painstaking manual work went into the digital restoration, clean-up, managing the grain, and, in particular, the colour correction of the film—the process took months, and needed constant coordination between myself in Mumbai, Sharma in Manipur, and the lab technicians in Bologna. Sharma gave inputs throughout the restoration process and worked on the subtitling of the film himself.

Manipur is ravaged by violence now. And at its centre is the Meitei community. Do you think bringing back Ishanou to the limelight will help the cause of peace? 

The selection of Ishanou for Cannes should be a matter of pride for all Manipuris, irrespective of which ethnic group they belong to. Cinema, and art in general, have the power to be a vehicle for education and social change. A film like Ishanou reminds us how rooted communities can be in their traditions and culture and how they draw their distinct identities from their unique religious and cultural practices. While this film in particular may not offer hope as far as the ethnic conflict in Manipur is concerned, it is a window into the world of the Meitei community. It gives you an inkling of the insecurity any tribal or ethnic community might feel if their traditional way of life is threatened by a changing social and political landscape.

C.S. Venkiteswaran is a film critic and documentary filmmaker based in Thiruvananthapuram.

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