On Preserving the Past— With Mr. SMM Ausaja

3

On the 14th of June, Monday, the Mass Communication students of the second-year batch had the invaluable opportunity to attend a Q&A session with Mr SMM Ausaja, the Senior Vice President of Osianama, and owner of India’s largest private cinema memorabilia archive.

Mr. SMM Ausaja started writing about cinema in 1989, and more than 30 years later, is still going strong. He began in Lucknow, where he reviewed the latest films for Lucknow City Magazine, and went on to write columns on cinema in various journals like G-magazine, Movie, tehelka.com, Screen, etc. Throughout his career, Mr Ausaja worked in TV software production with companies like Plus Channel and Gemini Studios, and also directed documentaries on Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, among other stars. His first book, Bollywood in Posters, was released in 2009 and rated a bestseller by India Today. Alongside his career, Mr. Ausaja has been diligently compiling his archive of cinema memorabilia, which today is large enough to comprise a bank of more than 3,00,000 images, once digitized.

From the very beginning of the session, Mr. Ausaja’s passion for cinema was evident. He took the students through the types of memorabilia, expanding what most had previously thought consisted of just posters and merchandise, to lobby cards, glass slides, journals, booklets, film magazines, and more. In his frank and methodical manner, he spoke to the students about why preserving memorabilia is so important, and referring to the very few surviving films we have from the silent era, he said— “memorabilia is the only aspect which can give future generations knowledge (about the film) besides the film. Unfortunately, a lot of films are lost.”

Mr. Ausaja then spoke about how acquiring film memorabilia has gotten only harder with time. Most older collectors with substantial material have passed away by now and old theatres have been shut down or demolished, so one requires a spirit of discovery to be able to become a collector these days— the only way to acquire items now is to find old distribution godowns, theatre godowns, or to exchange with other collectors. He also let the students in on the trick to identifying fake posters, citing the booklet of the film as the key. “In one small booklet, you are getting the poster, the songs, the credits and the synopsis. So for a collector, this is very, very precious.”

Mr. Ausaja showed the students some of his collection, and recounted a few of his favourite items, including the original booklet for India’s first talkie film, Alam Ara, letters in Satyajit Ray’s handwriting, and his poster of the movie The Guide. When asked what he loves most about being a film archivist, he responds saying that it’s the joy of discovery. It’s the love for cinema that keeps him going, he says, and credits the late Feroze Rangoonwala for having transformed him from a Bachchan fanboy to a film historian. Mr Ausaja hopes that even with current film culture being focused very much on the here and now, the youth of today are able to draw from the past and look back on the culture embedded in films in our history.

Shruti Menon
(Batch 2022)