The novel Devdas, written by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee in 1917, was first adapted for the screen by Naresh Maitra in 1928, and it has since produced 11 productions in six languages by filmmakers as diverse as Bimal Roy and Anurag Kashyap. However, the fate of the 1935 Bengali version by PC Barua, featuring the director in the lead role and produced by the New Theatres studio in Kolkata, is similar to that of the novel’s protagonist: misery is their permanent consort.
All extant prints were thought to have been destroyed by a fire at New Theatres in 1940. Sometime in the 1970s, PK Nair, the director of the National Film Archive of India, learnt of the existence of a version at the Bangladesh Film Archive. Nair guessed that since the movie was in Bengali, it must have played in theatres in Bangladesh too, he told Scroll.in in an interview.
Nair’s counterpart in Dhaka, Alam Mohammad Raut, did not specify the condition of the print. When Nair went to Bangladesh sometime in 1976 or ‘77 to organise a film appreciation course along with Film and Television Institute of India professor Satish Bahadur, he realised that the print was actually held by another government organisation, the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation.
Bangladesh was under military rule in those years, and gaining access to government materials was no easy proposition. Fortunately, Salahuddin Saifi, the head of the Bangladesh Film Development Corporation, was an FTII alumnus. Saifi arranged a screening of Devdas at the Bangladesh Film Archive for Nair.
After watching the film, Nair was shocked to realise that only six of the 14 reels were in decent shape. There were continuity jumps from one scene to the other. As the print had been acquired by the Bangladesh film corporation from local distributors, it was full of scratches.
Nair proposed that he would correct the scratches at the NFAI in Pune. However, the Bangladesh government agreed to send the six reels only if it could get 12 Bengali films at the NFAI that were of interest to the Bangladeshi population in return.
Nair didn’t care for the proposal, and came back to India without the reels. Soon after, reports of the surviving print of Barua’s Devdas appeared in Indian newspapers. The Indian government was keen on getting hold of the print, but ties with the Bangladesh government were not strong enough to make the return possible.
In 2002, a package of seven Devdas films, including Barua’s version, was one of the highlights of the 33rd International Film Festival in Delhi. The Directorate of Film Festivals, which comes under the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, borrowed the print from the Bangladesh High Commission. The screening was conducted under strict vigilance. No video clips were allowed to be circulated, no photographs could be taken of the screening, and the print was returned to the Bangladesh Film Archives.
In February 2015, Prakash Magdum was appointed as the NFAI Director, and was informed by noted film historian Amrit Gangar about the existence of the print in Dhaka. Magdum started a correspondence with the BFA in March, he told Scroll.in.
A breakthrough took place the following month, when Magdum was attending a meeting of the International Federation of Film Archives in Sydney and Canberra in Australia. Every year, FIAF holds a general assembly where issues related to film preservation are discussed. Both NFAI and BAF are members of this federation.
Magdum met his counterpart, Mohammad Jahangir Hossain, and reminded him of the importance of Barua’s Devdas for India. Jahangir requested Magdum to provide them with copies of Bengali films as part of a mutual exchange. When Jahangir and other officials from Bangladesh visited the NFAI and the FTII in August 2015, they brought along a DVD copy of Devdas in exchange for which they were given a DVD copy of DG Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (1913).
On February 1, 2016, the NFAI celebrated its 52nd Foundation Day, where a 10-minute excerpt from the 110-minute version of Barua’s Devdas was screened. However, the DVD version was without subtitles and out of sync, in that the visuals did not match the lip movements of the characters. Magdum hopes to correct the situation, and is relieved that even though the film is incomplete and available only as a DVD, it’s better than having nothing at all.
The entire episode of the lost-and-found copy of Barua’s Devdas underlines the importance of film preservation and restoration. By the time the NFAI was set up in 1964, most of Indian silent cinema had been lost. In 2009, a proposed retrospective of Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta trilogy (Interview, Calcutta 71, Patadik) had to be cancelled at the Cannes Film Festival due to the poor condition of the prints.
The NFAI now has Blu-ray copies of the films of Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and others. The archive is also in the process of implementing the ambitious National Film Heritage Mission project, which aims to preserve, digitise and restore the country’s rich cinematic heritage. The ongoing workshop between the NFAI and the Film Heritage Foundation in Pune, where international experts are sharing knowledge and advice on major aspects of film archiving, is one of many efforts sorely needed to save our heritage from ignorance and neglect.