The other day, I walked into the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan branch, and I was startled by the growing collection of vintage Hindi films. I’m not talking about hundreds or thousands here – maybe little more than a dozen, actually. But it is still surprising, considering that vintage Hindi films used to be virtually nonexistent at this library in prior years, and it was difficult just a couple of years ago even to find films from the peak of the Golden Age. In the Bollywood DVD stores of Jackson Heights that I used to frequent, it wasn’t that uncommon to find movies from the early ’50s, but even at the largest of those places, pre-partition films were scarce. But at the NYPL the other day, there were actually more than a few available, going back to the 1930s.
I should add that I am not talking about the heavily guarded and strictly controlled research center of the Library for the Performing arts, which was praised at Minai’s blog last spring. I am talking about the regular Midtown branch, where you can easily check out a whole bunch of films with a one-week deadline, take them home, and then renew them a number of times later via phone or computer, without even having to make an extra trip.
Some people have said, well, the library is a wonderful source for things, etc., but it has not been so wonderful for these things during most of the time that I’ve been looking for them, and I am delighted at the recent change.
There might be some reasons why this is happening that have nothing to do with the NYPL. For one thing, whatever problems we might have with Shemaroo – i.e., with the technical quality of their DVDs (which actually isn’t all that bad, relatively speaking) or their unwelcome crackdowns on YouTube – they deserve praise for putting out so many new DVDs of very old films in their Vintage Black & White Classics series. I would say that this was the source of the majority of vintage films that I saw at the NYPL (possibly by far). Additionally, we can still count on Friends to continue releasing vintage movies. (Their reputation for quality is a little lower, and deservedly so. But if you can get a Friends DVD to play all the way through, you’ve overcome the first hurdle, and it might turn out to be quite enjoyable.)
I think that Indian DVD companies also became more aware of the global interest in older Hindi movies during 2013, when there was an explosion of articles and events observing Bollywood’s centennial. And that has been one very positive recent change in the world of Indian DVD sales – where we really needed positive changes, too.
To give you some idea of what you can find at this Mid-Manhattan library, within five minutes I spotted: Aag, Aurat (1940), Dil Ki Rani (with Raj Kapoor and Madhubala), Prithvi Vallabh, Afsana (1951), Lal Haveli (two copies), Pukar, Sheesh Mahal, Tansen (with K.L. Saigal and Khursheed), Sister aka Behen (1941), Roti (1942), Ratan (1944), and Humayun (that epic history film starring a 15- or 16-year-old Nargis). And I should add that all of these had English subtitles. (I also saw Dard on the shelf, but it didn’t have English subtitles – which is actually unusual for a Hndi DVD being circulated in New York).
I took home a few of these, and within the next few weeks, I am planning to take home more. (Although I have already viewed and reviewed some of them, thanks to some Bollywood DVD stores and that Tommydan YouTube channel that I’m always referring to…)
And by the way, I have started watching Tansen, which I am enjoying very much. (Wow, what voices! They are soothing enough to pacify a raging elephant!)
Hopefully, my discovery of this NYPL treasure trove will mean more reviews here in the future (though I won’t promise, of course). But for now, I had to write this post to give credit where it is very much due. Thank you, New York Public Library!