The era of film processing labs (Comment: B Town)

Updated on : Mar 24,2019   10:40 am

Film processing lab. That was the heart and soul of filmmaking not too long ago. You shot a film, sent the negatives to the lab and they processed and printed the film positives for you. It took days to watch the outcome of your efforts. Today, you shoot a scene and are immediately able to see what you have shot. In fact, you are even able to watch on a small monitor attached to the camera what you are shooting or thereafter as it is all played back on your smart phone, digital camera or your monitor! Not so in those days.

But, processing your negative and printing hundreds of release prints was not all that these processing labs did! They, in fact, were the heart of the filmmaking business. In most cases, they made the production of a film possible. That, of course, also helped their own cause, that of seeing the completion of a film.

Film processing labs worked as the facilitators for film production in many ways. The competition was high as Mumbai had numerous such labs with the labs from the South offering either the better quality output or a better credit line. There was also one curious reason for a few Hindi filmmakers to opt for a South lab and that was to safeguard the secrecy of what was being made. For, producers in those days often screened their films even in incomplete stages for prospective distributor as all such labs had their own mini preview theatres. And, who better than these mini theatre projectionists and the sundry other staff to leak the prospects of the film!

Being facilitator meant that the lab acted in many ways to help a producer in various aspects besides processing of a film. The main one was to extend credit till the completion of a film of all charges. That is to say, the processing and printing charges were billed but not collected till the film was complete and that was a great relief to a producer.

There were a number of film processing laboratories in Mumbai. The prominent ones being Filmcentre, Bombay Lab, Ramnord Lab. The Filmcentre, was the dominant player. As many as 80 per cent of films did business here. Its clientele counted in the 'Who's Who' of the industry. The chances were, if you did not find an active film producer shooting or at his office, he would be at the Filmcentre! On a working day, the compound of the lab was like a mela.

The other popular lab, the Ramnord, had its list of loyal producers, also elite. Chetan Anand, Manoj Kumar, Prakash Mehra are the few who come to mind. The third, The Bombay Film Lab, was controlled by the family of the Wadias, an old name in the film business. It had smaller Hindi producers besides many regional filmmakers as its clients.

Film processing labs did a few important things. The primary one being assuring the return of the investment of those who financed a film. Besides this, they also assured that an actor got his dues when the film released.

To this end, a lab issued something called a Lab Letter. Like all other businesses in India, the film business also trusted a piece of paper. That is to say, if a producer borrowed a small amount, all he signed was a promissory note which was not guaranteed by any legal authority or the lab. But, it was working fine.

For the financiers and actors, a producer transferred his liability till the release of his film to the lab. The producer issued a Lab Letter which was endorsed by the lab assuring that the lab would not deliver the release prints unless the Lab Letter holder's money was recovered. The idea was to borrow as little as possible while a film was in production since the contribution from the distributors who bought your film totalled only 40 per cent of their commitment. The rest was paid against the delivery of the publicity material and remaining against the delivery of prints.

A lab letter was issued against a circuit. While the financiers and actors were assured of their payment against the three prime circuits, Bombay Circuit (Bombay City suburbs, Entire Gujarat, part of Karnataka as well as Goa), Delhi UP Circuit and Eastern Circuit (West Bengal, Bihar, Nepal, Odisha, and the six small north-eastern states). The smaller debtors, like the suppliers, had to be happy with other circuits like East Punjab, Central Provinces, Rajasthan etc (film distribution circuits were divided on the basis of British Era provinces).

These lab letters were not really backed by any law but were sacrosanct. The lab would not deliver the release prints for the circuit it was issued against unless the debtor was paid and gave a no objection letter!

While, Ramnord Lab and Bombay Lab carried on their business merrily, why was Filmcentre the top favourite? That is because, this lab was better at complying with its producers' needs. They encouraged some staffers who worked on the side-lines to help producers tie up with financers as well as distributors. This was besides extending the credit line till the film's release.

But, one fine day, things changed in the business of film processing labs. Adlabs, a small, hole in a wall, lab entered the business. Its main business was to process ad films which were shot mostly on 16mm format. The lab processed these films and had a machine to blow up these 16mm negatives into 35 mm positives for the ad films to be screened.

The entry of Adlabs coincided with the mushrooming of NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) financed cinema. (That was not the digital era and even ad films had to be shot on film.)

This must have been a golden period in the life of this government backed 'better' cinema movement. Because, the era gave us some memorable films like "Aakrosh", "Chakra", "Masoom", "Mirch Masala", "Salaam Bombay", "Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro", "Gandhi", "Ardha Satya", and some more including regional language films. All these films were shot in 16mm and the release prints were blown up to 35 mm. Since such films had a very, very limited release, the job was too small for bigger labs. Adlabs was the place for the job. Thus, from ad films, Adlabs had made a backdoor entry into sort of mainstream Hindi cinema.

Having established itself as a lab which means business and quality and a no nonsense business-like dealings, Adlabs soon graduated to taking on other big labs as it established its new, full-fledged 35mm facility in a Mumbai suburb. Traffic and loyalties moved from Filmcentre and other labs to Adlabs. Which went on to establishing even a bigger lab at the Film City in Goregaon, Mumbai where you shot your film, handed over the negatives and, next day, could watch what you shot the day before. Along with Film City, the Maharashtra government studios/locations venue and the lab inside the campus, one could actually walk in with a camera and leave eventually with completed film prints.

The irony of the rise of Adlabs was that, it bought its first 16mm processing machine from the very happening Filmcentre. The machine was committed at Rs 50,000 but seeing the ambition and urgency of the buyers, FC doubled the price to Rs One lakh. Manmohan Shetty had a backer in one Vasanji Mamania, and both the men, determined that they were, agreed to extend the amount. Manmohan Shetty was earning his living as a canvasser for the Basant Lab which specialised in processing ad films. And, like many like him, had a dream to own his business. The lab was later taken over by Anil Ambani's Reliance group.

Adlabs ruled for a time till digital took over. Every happy story has have an end. Now, we are into the Digital Era. The film industry leader, Amit Khanna, had predicted as long ago as 1988 in an article in a trade paper that a day will come when films will be beamed to cinema halls from a satellite or from other digital media. His vision was not taken seriously at that time. But, that is exactly what is happening now. We have UFO, the leading digital cinema system, catering to nearly 6,000 screens. The other players are Qube, PXD, K Sera Sera etc. Digital Cinema Package (DCP) has come in the place of release film positives prints. The projection system has changed from spools to digital 2K and 4K projection formats.

@The Box Office

*Last Friday saw the release of as many as six films in "Photograph", "Milan Talkies", "Mere Pyare Prime Minister", "Risknamaaa", "Hamid" and "Sharmaji Ki Lag Gai". None could draw the audience and failed miserably.

*"Badla", a thriller, maintained pace during its second week and went on to add a healthy Rs 27.50 crore to take its two week tally to Rs 63.50 crore.

*"Luka Chuppi" has collected Rs 9.50 crore in its third week, which is excellent considering the cast of the film and its budget. The film's total for three weeks stands at a little over Rs 80 crore.

*"Total Dhamaal" has collected about Rs 6 crore in its fourth week taking its four week total to Rs 146 crore. As the film seems to be coming close to its theatrical run, it should manage to reach a total of Rs 150 crore.

(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst)

--IANS

mirani/am/ksk