On 12 November 2004, the classic Hindi film Mughal-E-Azam, which had hit silver screens back in 1960, was re-introduced to cine lovers in its coloured avatar. It became the first ever Indian film to be coloured digitally, and the experiment was much appreciated by the audiences. Mughal-E-Azam in colour had a successful, 25-week-long run in cinemas across the country.
Chennai’s Shapoorji Pallonji Group had taken up the restoration and colourisation project for the film, assigning Deepesh Salgia as the project designer and director.
“The first step was to scan the old black-and-white frames at a high resolution,” Salgia told Guardian 20. “The next step was restoration, to get a good quality output from the black-and-white reels. The restoration work for Mughal-E-Azam was done in Acris Lab, Chennai. Once the restoration was done, the frames came to the Indian Academy of Arts and Animation (IAAA), directly handled by Rajeev Dwivedi, the technical director for the project.”
Since this project was the first of its kind in India, Salgia’s team had to ensure that they had enough time and resources to spend on it. The pre-project research alone took around 18 months, and another 15 months were spent on the main body of work.
“As the process of colourisation is very unique, so we had multiple levels of checks—technological check, artistic check and historical check—to ensure that the colours were as close as possible to the original colours. We had an art director and a historian to give their artistic and historical perspectives, and to add credibility to our project. Around 2004, most films used to have a Digital Intermediate [colour balancing] for a few shots only. But we did the colour balancing for Mughal-E-Azam, the entire film, at the Rajtaru Studio in Mumbai. At the same time, the film was digitally converted from the old 35mm format to cinemascope,” Salgia informed.
To get a better sense of the technical aspects of film colourisation, we got in touch with Rajeev Dwivedi, the technical director of this project. “We used our proprietary tool for film restoration and colourisation,” Dwivedi said. “High speed scanners were not available at that time, so the entire process of colourisation took approximately 15 months. However, now we take eight weeks to complete a film project. We have been working on World War documentaries for the last five years, and have completed and produced more than a hundred such films for various broadcasters.”
The process of film colourisation is not confined to technology; it has a lot to do with aesthetics and with historical know-how. In the black-and-white era, movies were shot in three colours—black, white and grey—to achieve variation in tones, and establish contrasts based on light and dark areas.
Visual restoration and colourisation is just one part of the story. To salvage and upgrade the film’s soundtrack was just as important for the team of restorers. According to Deepesh Salgia, “Musician Uttam Singh was working on the soundtrack of the film under the supervision of Naushad Ali, the original music director. After the track containing voices of the artistes was restored at Chace Studio, Los Angeles, all the songs were re-created. Musicians were called from South India and the entire soundtrack was again played and recorded and then re-mixed in a 5.1 digital version. The voices of the original artistes were kept intact.”
Film colourisation in general is a cost- and labour-intensive process. First, the original negatives are digitally restored, which in itself is a very demanding endeavour. After the restoration is done, the colourisation proper begins. Every artist in each scene is selected and labeled separately, and all these elements are colourised one detail at a time.
In India, Ultra Media & Entertainment Group is another big player in the film colourisation business. They have completed work on three major projects: Chori- Chori (1956), which they colourised in 2013; Half-Ticket (1962) in 2014; and Dill Tera Deewana (1962) in 2014.
“Colourisation is a very expensive process even in terms of the economic cost invested in the process, as it needs specialised skill and software for execution,” said Sushil Kumar Agrawal, CEO, Ultra Media & Entertainment Group. “Back in the day, film colourisation was done manually, where the actual print was coloured. But in recent years, we’ve had specialised software doing that job with a better output.”
Agrawal, too, emphasised the importance of historical knowledge and thorough research in this line of work. “The process of colourisation is a tedious one,” he said. “It needs a team of skilled experts to ensure that the job is done perfectly keeping every small detail in mind. An in-depth research needs to be conducted on the time and context the original film was set in. Attention needs to be paid on the colour and texture of the subject in focus and also the background at the same time. Each and every frame of the original has to be observed in detail.”
A lot depends on the choice of film as well. “Not every film can be colourised,” said Agrawal. “Films like Pyaasa, Shree 420, Aaawara, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi are cult classics. But colourising them will destroy their original essence. On the other hand, films that are peppy, films that have engaging outdoor scenes and hit songs are the ones that can be colourised. In fact, these films, if colourised rightly, can connect the youngsters as well.” Ultra Media is now in the process of colourising Paigham, a classic from 1959.
While some celebrate colourisation technology as a landmark achievement of our age—helping reintroduce forgotten cinematic gems to young audiences—there are those who believe that transposing black-and-white films to the realm of colour destroys their essence.
“Black-and-white films were made with the available technology at the time. Everything was worked out accordingly, the lighting, composition etc. Colourisation puts the film in danger of being rid of its original charm and aesthetics. It should either not be done at all or done with a very specific and artistic purpose in mind, so that the end product does justice to the original film and to the original filmmaker”, said Riti Kumar, student of feature film screenplay writing at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.