Man with a tender heart

by AFA Archivist, Chew Tee Pao

The Asian Film Archive (AFA) has been preserving the prints of Rajendra Gour’s short films since 2006. This was when Gour offered to volunteer with the AFA and the existence of this early short filmmaker whose films had exhibited internationally in the 1960s came to light.  

Image still from Eyes (1967, dir. Rajendra Gour)

In 2010, Gour informed the AFA that the 16mm sole print of his original 20-minute short film Eyes (1968) was held in the library of the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), where he had graduated from in 1964. It is his third short film and the print was left behind with the FTII after it was screened in 1969. He requested AFA’s help to facilitate the transfer of the reel to preserve it in Singapore.  At this point, the AFA was already preserving the print of a four-and-a-half-minute version of Eyes (1967). My initial assumption was that the AFA copy was an earlier and truncated version of the print at FTII.

The 20-minute Eyes would remain mysterious and elusive in the ensuing decade. Numerous attempts to kickstart a conversation with FTII went cold and communication went unanswered. It felt like a hopeless situation as the years ticked by and it felt like there may be no chance of seeing this print ever.

In March 2020, exactly 10 years from the day Gour raised the existence of his film with AFA, he informed that his friend in Pune managed to retrieve the print from FTII. This was a month before the COVID-19 circuit breaker in Singapore and fortunately we received the print right before the lockdown began. The print looked as though it had never been taken out of the film can. The original metal can had the scribblings on the top label intact, even though rust had long set in.

A slip of paper stuck to the inside of the film can with Gour’s address when he was a young man.

The AFA team spent most of 2020 and through the height of the pandemic assessing the print and deciding on how best to digitise and restore the film. It was a challenge as the world was simultaneously going into lockdowns. Communication and monitoring the work with the film restoration laboratory became much more tedious and protracted.  Gour decided that the 20-minute film should be referred to as Sight and Desire (Eyes). With no reference or documentation to establish the new title other than Gour’s decision, much consultation and deliberation with him finally concluded this made sense as it would enable a clear distinction between the 20-minute and the shorter version of the film.

Image still from Sight and Desire (Eyes) (1968, dir. Rajendra Gour)

The digitisation and restoration of the over 50-year print at time of work, enabled us to view the film in detail. The results were illuminating. Sight and Desire was found to be an entirely different film in terms of style and execution from Eyes. A whimsical charm and sophistication set it apart from Gour’s other works, and yet there was a sense of familiarity in its experimentation. I could imagine a young exuberant Gour, a new migrant with ambitious hopes and dreams expressing his views about the world. As he settled down and grew his family, he turned his camera toward his family and the spaces they occupied.  

The practicalities of life led him to put aside filmmaking and the films were simply stored in his home, until he became with AFA in 2006.  Since then, Gour’s works have been screened and presented at numerous film festivals and archival conferences, opening doors to an untold history of short filmmaking in Singapore. Unfortunately, his first short film Mr. Tender Heart (1965) cannot be found and is considered lost.

I met Gour when I was an intern at AFA in 2009. He was retired by then and no longer making films but was always looking for ways to re-present his films in a better manner. I recall the occasions when he came to the archive with ideas on how to replace and improve the low-quality audio portions of his films with music and narration that he had newly sourced and recorded. With limited resources when he was younger, things never panned out the way he had hoped. Now he was willing to place his trust and confidence in AFA to care for his films. It was also at his persistence to find ways to bring his film back from FTII that has enabled Sight and Desire to be restored, preserved, and made accessible once again.

We are honoured to present all of Rajendra Gour’s surviving films: Eyes (1967), Sight and Desire (Eyes) (1968), Sunshine Singapore (1972), Labour of Love: The Housewife (1978) and My Child My Child (1979) at Singapore Shorts ’22. Now that these films are preserved and restored, generations of audiences to come too can dream and be inspired.

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