April marked a little over a year since the death of Harshad Moraniya, who was at the centre of the world of 16mm prints and screenings in India. Moraniya, who died on March 23, 2021, from Covid-19 in Jamnagar, was known by film industry professionals, projectionists and audiences across the country for his expertise with 16mm projection.

Until the 1990s, in parts of Tamil Nadu, such as Madurai and Tirunelveli, 16mm screenings were very popular during the 10-day festival culminating on the day of Chitra Pournami in April. The projector would be old, the speakers noisy. When the frames froze or flipped, the projectionist would place a call to Moraniya.

In Gujarat too, Moraniya was known as the ardent fan and collector of memorabilia of Gujarati star Upendra Trivedi, whose films too circulated widely through the 16mm circuit. Most occupants of the Naaz building in Mumbai – the hub until the 2011 for Hindi film distribution – called Moraniya before dumping their negatives and prints when they had to vacate the premises. Moraniya retrieved the materials – many of them worn-out positives and negatives in rusted cans – using a chemical treatment he had designed himself.

Besides, Moraniya was a connoisseur who helped locate the prints of films on many instances when copyright owners had procured the renewal rights but did not have access to the original negatives of films or prints in circulation. They relied on Moraniya to help them using his collections or contacts.

Because of his interaction with audiences, Moraniya was also an informed historian of reception. He had studied the reasons for the popularity of certain films through the demands for repeated screenings. For instance, Moraniya screened films such as Jai Santoshi Maa (1975) and Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) in black-and-white 16mm prints in rural parts of Rajkot district with great success. The black-and-white prints were preferred because of the cost-efficiency of printing films that were longer than three hours.

‘A master of innovation’

In parts of Gujarat, the farming community, the primary audience in villages, contributed the highly affordable ticket price of 50 paise to two rupees for the screening – and that too was voluntary. The projectionist and eager audiences would wait for the sun to go down and for enough darkness for the film to be visible on a temporary screen tied to a palm tree or bamboo stalks. In Saurashtra, the 16mm screenings during annual festivals were paid for from a pool collected from the village.

More importantly, Moraniya was the go-to person for 16mm projection repairs. He was not only an avid collector of 16mm cameras and projectors but also a master of innovation.

Imagine mounting a 16mm silent Pathe projector from France with a sound-gate and enabling the projection of 16mm prints with sound. Moraniya’s refabrication of its silent cinema projector would have been news for the Pathe Freres/Pathe Company too!

Indeed, his rigorous engagement with cinema’s techomaterialism helped circulate 16mm films among the poor and underprivileged. His innovations enabled him to screen films at an affordable cost.

A refabricated silent Pathe projector with a sound gate.

Moraniya was equally an expert in colours, and his advice was sought by many filmmakers. His expertise in colour could be explained by the colour and black-and-white prints he produced from the original negatives. He personally monitored the process along with cinematographers, who were fussy about his demands for 16mm prints.

Consider, for instance, when MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1973) was restored for a rerelease in 2013. The new print from a laboratory in the United States was objected to on the ground that the colours looked different from the original. This objection was raised by none other than PK Nair, the legendary head of the National Film Archive of India, who was known for his perfection.

Sathyu responded that the print seen by Nair had neither been colour-corrected nor graded, and that the restored version did do justice to the original vision. Harshad Moraniya could advise on the print’s colour quality. He was familiar with the terrain because of his experience with screening 16mm prints simultaneously on the fringes when 35-mm versions of the same films were playing at the main centres in the cities.

‘Film as a community experience’

In our memories, the joy of watching films together as a community is associated with 16 mm and village screenings. However, such colorful rural experiences, parallel to its circuit in more elitist surroundings, came to an end in the early 1990s.

The popularity of VHS tapes changed the scenario. The 16mm screenings were gradually replaced by VHS decks and television monitors with pirated VHS tapes of Tamil films. What was a communal event for the entire village gradually shrank, with screenings limited to particular streets segregated along caste lines.

In Tirunelveli in the 1990s, the trend of associating particular actors with caste led to violent fights during the screenings. Actors such as Karthik and Ramarajan carried the additional burden of appeasing their divided fans. The aggressive quality of fandom was different from the one during an earlier era of MGR and Sivaji, where fans were divided and spiritedly fought regarding popularity, signified by the box office receipts and the finesse of acting.

At least in Tamil Nadu, one of the significant factors for the slow demise of 16mm screenings was the entry of political parties into cable and television and their investment in the production, distribution, and exhibition of films. Nonetheless, when we think of 16mm films and their diverse audiences, our thoughts go to the pioneer of such screenings in rural India.

Harshad Moraniya was on the fringes but equally at the centre of the materiality and reception of 16mm films in India in an alternative sphere to film society screenings, which were generally patronised by the elite and the middle class. In contrast, Moraniya’s heart lay with rural audiences. His old but well-maintained 16mm equipment would be charged by his energy and resilient spirit and brought exhilaration and joy to villagers and farmers.

(Subhash Chheda, a film archivist and an avid collector of cinema memorabilia, runs Datakino, a research cell on Indian cinema. Swarnavel Eswaran is an associate professor in the English and Journalism Departments at Michigan State University.)