The 1st ArCuREA at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute

System Administrator Wednesday June 5, 2024
NETPAC Jury Patrick F. Campos at the ArCuREA
NETPAC Jury Patrick F. Campos at the ArCuREA


Legacy, History, Possibility

Stunned in my seat as firebrand Mrinal Sen’s Oka Oori Katha closes with the face of Nilamma, a beautiful, nurturing woman, now dead, and then the celluloid combusting, flaming red, before burning out, I asked myself what this could mean.

Having had the privilege of viewing Sen’s internationally acclaimed works, I was unprepared for the profound experience of witnessing this restored masterpiece. It was a rare opportunity, shared with fellow film enthusiasts, to see this and other meticulously preserved Indian films for the first time at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata, Bengal, the birthplace of new Indian cinema.

Why have I not seen this film before? What is this 65-year-old film still saying to the nation, especially before election season?

The taunts and prayers of drunken Venkaiah, one of the most unforgettable antiheroes of philosophical cinema, linger long after the film ends. He is a cynic outcast, an anarchist provocateur, a Marxist philosopher, an apocalyptic prophet, and a petty thief, all wrapped into one, devastatingly portrayed by Vasudeva Rao.

Venkaiah remains a voice of social conscience. He understands that “fools work hard all their lives and die, while landlords steal from everyone and become rich” and determines never to be part of the corrupting social order. Nevertheless, his son Kistaiah is visited by the angelic murmurings of human nature and the longing to live with Nilamma, a desire for marriage they learn cannot be consummated without tragedy beyond the community. Venkaiah’s inability to resolve this paradox at the cost of Kistaiah’s joy and Nilamma’s life reverberates in his final cry of anguish and indignation, which echoes in my mind.

Venkaiah is also the voice of the artist’s conscience. Oka Oori Katha (translated as The Marginal Ones) confronts the stark reality of rural destitution and exploitation in a feudal system. At the same time, it is a bitter antidote to hypocrisy for Sen, foremost, and the class of radical artists and intellectuals he belonged to.

Brechtian in form and searing in its political critique, I learned that it is also a pan-Indian film. Set in arid Telangana using the Telugu language, it not only unveils the lives of the margins but also decenters “national” cinema in the dominant language, beyond the “parallel” movement of Sen’s posse. It continues to ask: What is the value of a film for those who make it, watch it, and whose stories they endeavor to tell?

From this side of history, it captures the antinomies of masterful filmmaking calling for social justice in digital form, canonized and kept perpetually pristine by state funds and made available to posterity for as long as the image of burning celluloid could perturb the powerful and the complacent.

Archive, Curate, Restore

My experience of watching Oka Oori Katha grounds my appreciation and exemplifies the significance of the first ArCuREA, which stands for archive | curate | restore, a multievent program organized by SRFTI and held at its campus last March. The ambitious program asked far-reaching questions about why and how films should be preserved, what restored films can do for us today, and how the archive survives and continually expands its meaning despite everything that works against it. I had the pleasure of giving a talk on programming Southeast Asian cinema and representing the Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema (NETPAC).

ArCuREA included a series of online conversations with international artists, among them Naomi Kawase, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and Asghar Farhadi, and curators, such as Markus Ruff of Arsenal, Sabih Ahmed of Ishara Art Foundation in Dubai, and Riyas Komu of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. It hosted a hybrid colloquium on film archiving, curation, and restoration, which covered broad-ranging issues.  Administrators of the National Film Archive of India, Asian Film Archive, Thai Film Archive, Taiwan Film and AV Institute, Bangladesh Film Archive, and others discussed institutional experiences. Historian Paolo Cherchi Usai reflected on his germinal essay on the ethics of film preservation. Curators, restorers, and archivists from Eye Filmmuseum, University of Amsterdam, University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, and the Coordinating Council of Audiovisual Archives Association discussed the state, technologies, and potentials of digitization.

Novel practices and modes of theorizing involving the archive were explored. Among others, professor Ravi Vasudevan posited “an expanded archive,” editor Ollie Huddleston spoke of repurposing archival footage, film scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha reflected on the afterlife of celluloid, the collective Soundcamp elaborated on live archiving and acoustic commons, and curator Nida Ghouse and recordist Umashankar Manthravadi’s elucidated their archaeology of sound.

Embodying ideas in these fascinating talks, of which the above is but a sampling, a series of exhibitions and performances were mounted. Rajadhyaksha showed a selection of auteur Mani Kaul’s films, which he reappropriated for museum display. Shai Heredia selected historic experimental shorts. Shabnam Virmani, who played a live show, showcased works interweaving folk music, Kabir’s poetry, and Sufism. Anuja Ghosalkar restaged her one-woman play utilizing archival footage of her performances. Ghouse also showed two films around Germany that traced a “film history in the absence of archives.”

Paralleling these curators’ exhibitions was the festival of restored films, where I saw Oka Oori Katha. This festival featured early Indian cinema, recovered works thought lost, centenary tributes to auteurs, and gems from regional cinemas throughout the subcontinent.

Monument, Document, Event

ArCuREA is an outworking of critical themes in archive studies, figuring audio and visual artifacts, as curator Giovanna Fossati does, as monuments, documents, and events.To illustrate, the event of screening the restored Oka Oori Katha, celebrated as a monument of Indian and world cinema, reopened the film for its present viewers as a historical document. This layered experience, juxtaposed with the explosion of ideas in the colloquium, fueled another highlight of ArCuREA—the Cinema Curation Workshop.

The workshop, equipping the next generation to advocate the work of archiving, curating, and restoration and usher it toward new horizons, gathered 20 participants, the crème de la crème, out of 140 applicants from around India. These young artists, scholars, and cultural workers participated in the program’s aspects. Bringing diverse preoccupations and temperaments, they pitched curatorial proposals based on the confluence of ideas and inspirations. Two proposals stood out.

Akashdeep Banerjee returns to his family’s archive for his melancholic project on personal memories and social mobilities. Through a series of experimental works spanning three generations, a four-minute study of which he presented at ArCuREA, he initiates a virtual dialogue with his cosmopolitan though now long-gone grandfather using moving image diaries the latter shot when he was Akashdeep’s age today. Akashdeep then draws out the palimpsest of spaces by superimposing yellowing photographs of his forebears over his current home, which he has never left. He frames these archival images through a half-remembered childhood dream of setting out to search for his father and returning to save his mother.

Meanwhile, Hou hsein draws upon his ethnography of the vanishing video parlors in Mumbai, where pirated movies and soft porn are programmed by slum denizens using salvaged equipment in cramped rooms for dirt-cheap admission. His project seeks to recreate the space and an eerie moment recounted to him when the projector and sound system, failing to play a DVD, instead mirrored the interiors of the parlor back to its spectators over gibberish in the prime minister’s voice. It is an ode to sanctuaries dedicated to cinema as an escape from neoliberal chaos and urban legends of hauntings reminiscent of horror movies beloved by parlor patrons.

A jury, which included Professors Sanil V, Anindya Sengupta, CS Venkiteswaran, and me, awarded Hou hsein the NETPAC Best Curatorial Proposal and special mentions to Akashdeep and Nikhilesh Mishra. NETPAC’s co-president, Bina Paul, joined me in handing the prizes to the awardees at the momentous closing of ArCuREA on 22 March at the main theater of SRFTI.

Though they seem distant from Sen’s Oka Oori Katha at first glance, I apprehend the film and these curatorial proposals through ArCuREA’s vision of the unending archival, curatorial, and restorative tasks of erecting and dismantling monuments, laying open and interrogating documents, and occasioning events, which, though ephemeral, are capable of mediating new or uncovering unknown or forgotten connections.


Patrick F. Campos is a film scholar, programmer, critic, and associate professor at the University of the Philippines.


Supriya Suri's Interview with Muhiddin Muzaffar

Director Muhiddin Muzaffar (1) 2 Min

1. I entered the cinema through the theatre. I was an actor in our local theatre called Kanibadam, named after Tuhfa Fozilova. After working for five years, I decided to do a theatre director course. I graduated with honors and became a director. We successfully staged performances at international festivals.


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