Christopher Nolan’s Vision of ‘Future of Film’ May Not Hold True for India

By Tanul Thakur

The nature of time has been a recurring theme in Christopher Nolan’s films. But Nolan’s abiding obsession isn’t restricted to movies alone. Like his characters, he wants to tame time. And that, in the age of hyper-connectivity, means rising above technology.

In Nolan’s world, it probably means being more human. So the filmmaker doesn’t have an email id. He doesn’t use a cellphone. He dresses in a jacket every day because he doesn’t “like to think about what to wear”. The unspoken expectation from geniuses is that they should be accessible, that they, despite their unrivalled ingenuity, should be relatable.

Nolan’s films – ambitious, Byzantine stories that ask the most elemental questions about the human condition – follow that expectation; the filmmaker – a flesh-and-bone island in a sea of pixels – does not.

Nolan’s preoccupation has placed him at the centre of a fierce debate that champions the merits of photochemical film (celluloid), a medium that faces the danger of imminent extinction because of digital explosion. That apprehension has led Nolan and the renowned visual artist Tacita Dean (who, like the director, works exclusively on film) to initiate a series of dialogues called ‘Reframing the Future of Film’.

Opening at Los Angeles’ Getty Research Institute, in March 2015, the talks have been subsequently held at the Tate Modern in London and at Museo Rufino Tamayo in Mexico City. The talk’s fourth edition saw Nolan and Dean in Mumbai where they discussed film distribution, projection and preservation with the film archivist and director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur at The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) on April 1 and, the day before, at Yashraj Studios, with nearly three dozen professionals from the Indian film industry, comprising figures such as Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Haasan and Shyam Benegal. On the same day there was a 70mm IMAX screening of Dunkirk (projected in the format Nolan originally wanted it to be seen) and a 35mm screening of Interstellar.

No other filmmaker in the country – Indian or otherwise – commands the kind of fan following Nolan does. When a garlanded Nolan came on stage to present Dunkirk, the crowd gave him a standing ovation with the chant, “Chris, Chris, Nolan, Nolan” – its tone paying homage to a scene in The Dark Knight Rises. At the NCPA, the crowd was as ebullient. They had bought tickets ranging from Rs 1,000 to Rs 15,000. They stood up when he entered the auditorium. They clapped, they sat in silence, they laughed. The filmmaker could have talked about washing machines for the next two hours, and they wouldn’t have cared.

But Nolan hadn’t come to India to stroke his ego. He left the theatres after the screenings of Dunkirk and Interstellar. At the press conference in Yashraj Studios, his interaction with the media was divided into three ten-minute slots, each cramming more than half-a-dozen journalists. We were briefed both at the venue and through emails: no personal questions, no photograph, no autograph.

Not without a reason perhaps – Nolan and Dean’s concerns are important and pressing. Over the last decade, digital cameras and projection have nearly outmoded celluloid filmmaking. Most theatres have stopped film projection altogether. The prominent film labs of the world, such as Technicolor and Fujifilm, shut their last facilities a few years ago. Kodak, the only surviving film lab, filed for bankruptcy in January 2012. It eventually survived that hurdle, promising to keep producing film stock, a move that garnered much support from such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen, J.J. Abrams and, the indefatigable film warrior, Nolan.

In each edition of ‘Reframing the Future of Film’, Nolan and Dean have emphasised a few key points. The first among them is “medium specificity” – that a filmmaker or an artist should be allowed to exhibit their works in their original formats, arguing that not doing so – for instance, digital projection of a movie made on film – dilutes the piece of art.

“You can’t take a photograph of Picasso’s painting, stick it on the wall, and say it’s the same thing,” said Nolan at NCPA. Dean made the same point in a 2015 piece, saying, “The intentional mischaracterisation of film as merely technology has been extremely damaging.” They essentially mean this: Unlike digital, which includes numerous formats undergoing constant changes, celluloid can’t be replaced; it is an emotional experience that is eternal.

Christopher Nolan at a recent event in Mumbai.

Their other concern is of “co-existence”, understanding this conversation, according to Dean, as “not film versus digital but film and digital”. “Our message is much more about the freedom of choice,” said Nolan. It is a message that needs to be heard and respected. Our collective culture would be much poorer in a world that has no space for celluloid filmmaking and projection.

Yet Nolan and Dean, even while making valid points, seemed to deflect some thorny aspects of the debate. Their reluctance was further complicated by the filmmaker’s stature – which allows him to operate in exceptional circumstances, a luxury not enjoyed by most – and his massive fandom cheering every word of his, not recognising that he belongs to a different social and filmmaking reality and isn’t well versed with the challenges of Indian filmmakers.

The main fight in Hindi cinema has always been the one between the locals and the outsiders, the Bollywood dynasts and the small town strivers. The old guards and their families, due to affluence and connections, had colonised the industry for long, presenting a sanitised and limited version of India, making high-budget, aspirational films for a mobile middle-class. The message was this: Making films is a rich man’s game. And it was not without a reason. The fundamental unit of celluloid moviemaking – a film stock – can be prohibitively expensive. Buying a 1000-feet 35mm roll, which translates to 11 minutes and six seconds of shooting time, from Kodak costs $769.45. Since it’s difficult to perfect a shot in one take, directors buy surplus film stock. In such a case, the “shooting ratio” – the ratio of film stock’s consumption to its usage – impacts a movie’s budget.

If we consider a very conservative estimate of 10:1, the average in Hollywood’s Golden Age, the cost of buying a film stock for a two-hour feature can run up to $83,000 (nearly Rs 54 lakh). That maybe loose change for a Hollywood giant like Nolan, whose films’ budgets regularly exceed $100 million, but for an independent filmmaker in Mumbai, it is the difference between making and shelving a movie.

By considerably reducing the filmmaking cost and allowing for a higher shooting ratio, digital filmmaking has empowered many independent directors. Armed with smaller cameras at an affordable rental, they’re free to attempt “guerilla filmmaking”, slipping into the cramped by-lanes of Indian towns and cities, capturing their chaos unfiltered without the permissions from the police and other authorities. They can tell their stories, send their movies to different film festivals, and hope to get noticed.

Nolan and Dean’s conversations seemed unaware of these concerns – and it was so because ‘Reframing the Future of Film’ and championing of celluloid filmmaking are inherently Western ideas, helmed by a few high-profile filmmakers who can still demand big-budgets from the movie studios. Nolan seemed particularly disinterested in the struggles of cash-strapped filmmakers. In fact, both during the press conference and the NCPA conversation, he showed limited patience for the costs incurred in the moviemaking process.

Commenting on the “antiquated mechanism of distributing films”, he said, “As if anyone should care how films get to theatres. As if anyone should be concerned about studios using trucks to ship prints across the world.” But this assumption is a privileged position, centered on a filmmaking world solely controlled by the big studios. He then added, “Some of the advantages of digital early on were that it was said to be cheaper; the cameras were smaller. Now my question to the audience is, ‘Why would you care if I save money? We are not going to charge you any less on the ticket.’” But why should we not? Nolan is right when he says that the producers and theatre owners must be held accountable for stagnating the ticket prices, but how can a conversation of this nature exclude a large number of filmmakers on the margins?

“People here are struggling to survive. They don’t have enough money to spare in the theatres,” said cinematographer Rajeev Ravi to The Hindu a few days ago. “Are we going to preach the greatness of celluloid to them?” Later, during the end of the conversation, Kodak’s chief executive officer Jeff Clarke joined Dungarpur, Dean and Nolan on stage. By then the audiences had begun asking questions. One of them was, “How do we encourage the younger generation to use film as a shooting medium, as opposed to digital, especially when it’s tedious and costlier?” To which Clarke replied, “Not that expensive.” The crowd laughed, Dungarpur moved to the next question, and that was it.

The NCPA conversation and the earlier press conference also struggled to address the problem of celluloid projection in a country like India where nearly all theatres have transitioned to digital. Besides, unlike the US, India doesn’t have small indie theatres or a chain of alternate exhibition platforms that can solve such a problem. (At the end of Dean’s talk, on 30 March, at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, a 16mm film of the artist was supposed to be shown. It wasn’t because the projector didn’t work.)

Nolan has surmounted that difficulty with impressive successes in the past. In 2014, for instance, 240 theatres in the US screened the 35mm, 70mm and 70mm IMAX versions of Interstellar two days before its release. Dunkirk got the widest 70mm release in the last two-and-a-half decades. Nolan believes selling film as a “premium experience” will make celluloid projection profitable. But these examples, like many centered on Nolan, are outliers.

At the Yashraj Studios, however, Dungarpur sounded optimistic. “It took ten minutes, just ten minutes, for the tickets of Dunkirk and Interstellar” – priced at Rs 2,000 – “to be sold out,” he said, indicating the Indian audiences’ interest in watching films on celluloid. But that could be a false analogy and a misleading assertion. The majority of cinephiles didn’t pay Rs 2000 to watch a new film in 35mm or 70mm IMAX. They did so because Nolan’s films are big screen events, and having already seen them, they were assured of a return on investment. More importantly, it gave them a rare chance to see the filmmaker in person. Will Indian cinephiles turn up in large numbers for a renowned Indian film – or a film by a lesser-known director? I’ve my doubts.

The other component of the discussion — centered on film preservation – was almost relegated to the sidelines, a pity because that is more relevant and urgent to the Indian film culture. The numbers are disturbing and well known: out of the 1,700 films made in the silent era, barely half a dozen survive as complete films and less than a dozen in fragments; by 1950, India had lost nearly 70% of its films. Film preservation is even more important because digital preservation isn’t a satisfying alternative for multiple reasons.

Preserving a celluloid film digitally is an aesthetic disservice to a movie, invoking Nolan and Dean’s argument of “medium specificity”. Besides, digital is constantly evolving – one file format replaces the other every few years – and they aren’t compatible with each other. Even cloud storage cannot guarantee the safety of data forever. Film preservation, in contrast, is free of formats and, hence, timeless, guaranteed to last for at least the next 100 years – or, according to most archivists, till the time there is electricity.

Dungarpur has made sustained and significant efforts towards film preservation. He first highlighted the crisis in his 2012 documentary, The Celluloid Man, based on the life of the noted film archivist P.K. Nair. Around the same time, in collaboration with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, Dungarpur helped restore Uday Shankar’s Kalpana and a 1972 Sinhalese film, Nidhanaya. He followed that up by floating his own non-profit in 2014, called the Film Heritage Foundation, which has held annual workshops on film handling, repair and preservation.

These initiatives are crucial because movies have never been considered art in this country, as part of our culture that must be preserved. Which explains the pitiable condition of film archiving in India. So an event on the scale of ‘Reframing the Future of Film’ could have focused more on film preservation and restoration, discussing different ways to save India’s cinematic heritage.

Instead it devolved into vague generalities about the importance of photochemical film in a country whose movies are still struggling to be globally relevant, which doesn’t have a culture of film appreciation that enables alternate exhibition centres, whose film industries systematically denies opportunities to many independent filmmakers. In such an environment, propounding the benefits of one medium over the other sounds rather first world – our filmmaking culture needs to find its own language to address its problems.

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