Far Away and Long Ago | An ode to Prasad Film Laboratories

In the era of analogue filmmaking, the late LV Prasad’s studio went out of the way to help impecunious filmmakers with a desire to excel 

Prasad Film Laboratories in Madras (there was no talk then of Chennai), thirty years ago, was a premier institution in the country. Not only did it process motion picture film negative, sound negative, picture positive and sound positive of a high quality – certainly the best in India – but it also had facilities for doing a complete feature film of international quality in house. There were clean, well-equipped editing rooms with properly maintained 35MM and 16MM German Steinbeck editing machines, excellent sound and music recording studios with dubbing facilities and people on hand to cut negatives. The colour grading could be very sensitive if the director of a particular film was willing to slog with the grader. The staff in every department was truly professional and helpful. But, those were the days of analogue filmmaking and the medium was chemical-mechanical. LV Prasad, a kind, helpful and dynamic man owned the company and ran it with pride, care and humility. Prasad’s was easily the most efficiently run film outfit in India.

One may well ask if this is a plug for old LVP and his studio? The answer is yes and no. The story is connected with a 16MM, Eastman colour film called B C Sanyal. It was directed by yours truly and produced by Sameera Jain who was also the editor. It ran to 54 minutes and was [reluctantly] produced by Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi. Everything concerned with the image and sound was done at Prasad’s, without its involvement, one would have been completely lost. It was, after all, a film about an artist, and the colour was expected to be rendered on screen as accurately as possible as in the painting. The people in the laboratory ensured that maximum colour fidelity was achieved.

The 35MM Debrie reduction printer for the sound track developed the minutest of problems, at first undetectable. One of the mirrors in the printer was out of alignment by micro-millimeters, thus distorting ever so slightly the voice, sound effects and music

There were problems right down the line. The rupees four lakh forty thousand budget allotted by Lalit Kala Akademy was inadequate. We had to put in an additional ten thousand out of our own pockets to get a print out of the laboratory. The money was slow in coming but the accounts department chose to look the other way as the administrative team, headed by Ramesh Prasad, a prince among men, bent backwards to help a pair of impecunious filmmakers with a desire to excel in their hearts. Prasad had done this before in 1973 for Mani Kaul’s, no-budget, exquisitely shot Duvidha, an unusual ghost story adapted by writer Vijay Dan Deta from a Rajasthani folk tale.

LV Prasad knew that it was his business to make money albeit honestly, from his film production company and laboratories. But having struggled upwards in the film world heroically, first as an actor and then director, he realised that it was his dharma to recognise merit, especially in those without resources, in the film world and help them. Our film on Sanyal was unusual in approach and technique.

Right from the first, single-light rush print, it became apparent that Anoop Jotwani, even with rudimentary camera equipment at his disposal – he had an Éclair NPR with an Angenieux Zoom lens and a tripod with an unreliable head – was making lovely images. When the first finely graded, 16MM, optical married print came out of the laboratory, Sri Punneyan, master technician, called LVP and said, “European print saar!’’ in appreciation of the glow in Jotwani’s photography.

There was, of course, a problem with the sound. The 35MM Debrie reduction printer for the sound track developed the minutest of problems, at first undetectable. One of the mirrors in the printer was out of alignment by micro-millimeters, thus distorting ever so slightly the voice, sound effects and music. We were deeply disappointed. Doubly so because we did not have the money to strike another print. Old LVP heard of it and asked the people in the laboratory to find a solution to our problem. He even held up all proceedings until the job was done. At that point, two blockbusters, one directed by Pankuj Parasher, then riding high in the commercial Hindi cinema of Bombay, and, the other an international production, A Perfect Murder, a thriller set in Bombay, photographed by the great Walter Lassally and charmingly directed by Zafar Hai, a highly regarded ad filmmaker, were being processed in the laboratory!

Everything was amicably sorted out soon enough and Prasad Film Laboratory gave us a free, very nice looking 16MM colour print of B C Sanyal. Jotwani’s photography, especially his accurately captured colours from Sanyal’s paintings, and interiors and exteriors, helped in no small measure by the processing at Prasad’s, was appreciated a lot.

LV Prasad is gone, but his legacy lives on. Film production in India and in the rest of the world has gone digital, a medium with its own aesthetic and technical challenges. Prasad Productions, Chennai, too has changed with the times and continues to rise to the occasion whenever a filmmaker of merit comes along.

State of the Nation | When numbers don’t tell the real story 
Far Away and Long Ago | Partition through an extraordinary lens
Jhelum Review | Hugging for sedition
Editor’s Pick More