Vijay Tendulkar’s acclaimed 1972 play Ghashiram Kotwal, based on Nana Phadnavis, an influential Peshwa minister of the Maratha empire in the 18th century, also inspired a big-screen adventure. The movie of the same name, made in 1976 by a short-lived collective comprising Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduates, disappeared from view shortly after being released in a theatre in Pune for a week. Its negatives were lost to the ravages of time, and even the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) didn’t have a copy.

Unlike the play, which has survived in various forms—the publication of Tendulkar’s script, the recordings of Jabbar Patel’s original staging that have been put on YouTube, and restagings—there has been no record of what the movie set out to do and how it differed from the stage version.

Until recently, that is. There was one surviving print of Ghashiram Kotwal at the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin, Germany. That print was digitized, restored and screened at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival’s Forum section in February. Arsenal has also issued DVDs of the movie, and these will be released soon in India—fulfilling a long-standing dream of K. Hariharan, a film-maker, film scholar and member of the Yukt Film Cooperative, to show the movie to his children.

“The restoration conversation started three years ago, when I requested the German embassy to fly down the print to show to my kids," Hariharan says in an interview from Chennai, where he lives. The embassy demurred, saying it would be too expensive, but they had a better idea—why not digitize it instead? Arsenal loaned Hariharan the print. He got it digitized at the Prasad EFX studio in Chennai, and this version was screened at the Berlin festival. Hariharan finally saw the movie again at the Forum, which is curated by Arsenal and focuses on “avant garde, experimental works, essays, long-term observations, political reportage and yet-to-be-discovered cinematic landscapes", according to the festival’s website.

A still from the restored version of ‘Ghashiram Kotwal’.
A still from the restored version of ‘Ghashiram Kotwal’.

Ghashiram Kotwal, like the play, was in Marathi, and aimed to transport Tendulkar’s political satire about power, corruption and statecraft on to the screen. Most of the actors were from Jabbar Patel’s original production, with some exceptions—Om Puri stepped into the role of Kotwal, played by Ramesh Tilekar for the stage. The 107-minute film—“We couldn’t afford more than that," says Hariharan—caused some consternation when it was screened for the press in 1977. “They felt it was impossible that 16 people had made the film," Hariharan recalls.

By the time Yukt was ready with its next project, its members had realized that movies could not be directed by committees. Mirza got solo directorial credit for Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan, marking the end of the collective and the start of his own career, which includes such milestones as Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.

Yet the best thing that could have happened to Ghashiram Kotwal was that it was part of a package of films that travelled to Berlin in the 1970s, where a new print was issued with German subtitles and stored in Arsenal’s archive.

The story of Ghashiram Kotwal’s restoration is also the story of one of the coolest film institutions around. Arsenal is the kind of movie paradise that cinephiles around the world dream of. The organization holds regular screenings of local and international films in various formats at its centre at Potsdamer Platz as well as at venues across Germany. Many of the screenings are of the 8,000 titles in its archive, which include several Indian films that have travelled over the years to the Berlin film festival, and whose prints have been kept at the Arsenal storehouse for safekeeping.

Restoration is not the primary goal of Arsenal, but it has become one of its functions, given the need to air films stored in its vault and make digital versions accessible to newer audiences.

Deepa Dhanraj’s documentary Kya Hua Is Shehar Ko? is one of the films that benefited from Arsenal’s interest in contextualizing and recontextualizing international cinema. A digital restoration and screenings at the Berlin film festival in 2013 led to a revival of interest in the 1986 documentary, which is hard to access in India.

“The Arsenal film archive is quite unique as it’s not like a national archive and therefore not comparable to the British Film Institute or the National Film Archive of India," says Nicole Wolf, a lecturer in visual cultures at Goldsmiths at the University of London, UK, and the person responsible for getting Kya Hua Is Shehar Ko? restored.

Arsenal’s mission was never to collect German films—rather, their eclectic interest has been in film cultures from around the world, Wolf adds. She was part of the “Living Archive—Archive Work as a Contemporary Artistic and Curatorial Practice" project in 2013 which invited 38 film-makers, curators and film historians from around the world to trawl through the titles in its vault and present their selections based on their own perspectives and interpretations. Wolf, who has studied the Indian documentary scene for several years, found a print of Kya Hua at Arsenal and collaborated with the “Living Archive" project and Goethe-Institut in Delhi to digitize the documentary and produce a DVD. “Arsenal was very much looking after the technical restoration process, while I was involved in research in terms of the context of the film," Wolf says.

The reason Arsenal has close to 85 Indian films and documentaries in its collection, including such arthouse classics as John Abraham’s Agraharathil Kazhuthai, Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik, Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mukhamukham, G. Aravindan’s Thampu and Mrinal Sen’s Chorus, is that copies of the prints had to be made with German subtitles, explains Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, co-director of Arsenal. “The idea was to make these films available to German-speaking audiences," says Schulte Strathaus. The films that Arsenal will store and digitize, if needed, are those that “have an interest", she adds. “The idea is to initiate curatorial projects and to show films in a contemporary context."

Indian programmers and curators end up making interesting and serendipitous discoveries at Arsenal, as did Shai Heredia, a film-maker and founder of the experimental film festival Experimenta, who was one of the participants in the “Living Archive" project. It was in Berlin that Heredia found a 35mm print of Pattabhi Rama Reddy’s Samskara, the 1970 movie she regards as being key to alternative Kannada cinema, and which she had wanted to screen at Experimenta. The NFAI had a print that it wasn’t willing to loan to her, while Reddy’s family had given their only print to a distributor who was to show it across Europe. This distributor had donated the print to Arsenal before leaving Europe, and it was this version that Heredia found. Samskara opened the Experimenta festival last year.

“The reason Arsenal is important is that it is an archive that gives access, and that it values the materiality of film," Heredia says, pointing to their trove of titles in formats like 35mm and 16mm. “Their point is that a film has to be shown, whatever its format. Access to an archive doesn’t merely mean that I can go there and watch a film, it means that I should be able to take the print out and show it to you."