The word ‘manthan’ literally means churning, and other meanings may be deep contemplation, churning of facts, analysis aimed at a solution or conclusion. This film was released in 1976, and its original celluloid print was almost beyond redemption. However, the film was available on YouTube for cinema lovers who would make do with the blurred print.

‘Manthan’ was recently restored by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Film Heritage Foundation. The film, starring Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Amrish Puri and Girish Karnad, had a special screening at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, and was re-released in theaters across India.

In a recent interview Dungarpur explained the process of restoring ‘Manthan’. He said that the original camera negative was severely damaged, had fungus and green mold growing on it, and its sound negative didn’t survive the test of time.

Dungarpur, a filmmaker himself, said, “Shyam Benegal was one of the very first filmmakers to donate to us his entire archival material — photographs, lobby cards, scripts, and the 35 mm prints when we started the foundation.

“So, since then we have been thinking about restoring this film but there were technical challenges with the print or the negative. One of the biggest challenges was that this film was produced by 5,00,000 farmers.

“How are you going to get permission to actually speak to the farmers after almost 48 years? But I must say, the Gujarat Milk Federation, which we now call Amul, was very supportive. Benegal wrote a letter to them that the film needs to be restored and they came forward.”

The sound negative was not available. The film was shot on different stocks – Gevacolor, Eastman and Kodak and the negative was printed onto Orwo. “Govind was very unhappy with the final print because he said what he had shot never came out,” Dungarpur said. The sound was previously digitised from a 35 mm print donated to the FHF in 2014 by Benegal.

“The prints were not complete, because first we had to match many, many copies to get what was the original edit of Shyam, identical. And also this film was dubbed. So there were problems of sync.

“It’s been one and a half years of a crazy journey. Matching the original camera negative with prints and with other materials which we could get from different places,” Dungarpur said.

After a year-long restoration of the ‘Manthan’ print, the film was screened under the Cannes Classics selection, which was created 20 years ago to showcase classics, restored prints and documentaries. After the Cannes screening, the restored film was released across India.

“No Indian film restored from ruins has ever received a countrywide release in 100 theaters in 50 cities,” said a proud Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, filmmaker and founder of Film Heritage Foundation.

‘Manthan’ was the fourth restored Indian film screened in Cannes Classics in the last three years, a rare achievement for the country’s efforts in preserving its rich cinematic heritage. The film, made 48 years ago, was financed by 500,000 farmers.

Each of whom contributed Rs.2.00 to the making of it, inspired by the groundbreaking milk cooperative movement by Dr Verghese Kurien. Dr. Kurien led 'Operation Flood' to transform India from a milk-deficient country to one of the world's biggest milk producers. He is credited for creating the billion-dollar brand Amul.

The film traces a small set of poor farmers of Kheda district in Gujarat who had the vision and foresight to act in a way that was good for the society and not for the self alone. Under leaders like local social worker Tribhovandas Patel, who took up the cause of the farmers, and led the formation of Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers' Union.

Soon the pattern was repeated in each district of Gujarat. This in turn led to the formation of Amul, a dairy cooperative in Anand, Gujarat in 1946. It which is today, jointly owned by some 2.6 million milk producers in Gujarat.

The story and script were written jointly by the noted playwright Vijay Tendulkar and Shyam Benegal. The film won two National Film Awards in 1977: for best feature film in Hindi and for best screenplay for Tendulkar. It was also India's official entry to the 1976 Academy Awards in the best foreign language film category.

Manthan is an original and authentic film which is sans glamour, romance, song-dance numbers, and sticks to a story that is as real as it is convincing. It opens with Dr. Rao (Girish Karnad) alighting from a train at a deserted station in Kheda district to begin a programme to instil in the villagers involved in dairy farming the concept and ideal of building a milk cooperative.

As a cooperative they can sell their milk produce directly to the city dairy, its price being determined mainly based on the purity of the milk which can be measured. Dr. Rao is a vet and refuses to board an overcrowded, horse-drawn carriage as his city-bred snobbery does not seem to have left him.

But he soon gets deeply involved in the problems of the local farmers when he finds them not only steeped in poverty but also victimised by the casteist schisms in the village.

The farmers are burdened under loans taken from the Panchayat head to buy cows, and the milk buying exploiter Mishraji (Amrish Puri) cheats them out of their just dues in the price of the milk they sell to him.

The film is dotted with sharply etched out characters who have invested their roles with the colour of raw reality though they all come from the city and also from Bollywood. One of them is Bindu (Smita Patil) who is a gutsy single mother handling her cow, and her own baby alone as her husband has left them.

She does not trust Dr. Rao because they are used to being cheated and exploited by city people. Later, Bindu’s husband returns and to ‘avenge’ his wife’s friendship with Dr. Rao, poisons the only milch cow she owns, and had bought it on credit from the Panchayat head.

Smita Patil’s performance carries the tremor of her fiery spirit. She has simmering anger at her condition, and also tiny bits of hope that arrive like the first rays of the sun when the milk cooperative takes shape.

Bhola (Naseeruddin Shah) is brilliant in his role. He rebels against both Mishraji and the Panchayat head (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), both arrogant and full of their power over the poor, as well as Dr. Rao and his team because he is of low caste and an illegitimate child born of his mother who was seduced by a city-bred visitor many years ago.

The story goes that Shah did not take a bath or change his clothes during the entire span of shooting because he had to look dirty and raw.

‘Manthan’ presents a collage of village life set against the backdrop of Sanganva village in Rajkot district of Gujarat which spans a colourful range of characters. There are the urban and rural, rich and poor, high-caste and low-caste, the powerful and the weak, and last but never the least, the exploiter and the exploited.

There are grey shades in all the characters including that of Dr. Rao. He has a strange attraction towards Bindu who feels the same, but nothing happens as nothing can happen.

‘Manthan’ has a definite agenda of creating a platform for the significance of building a milk cooperative in a remote village of Gujarat, that is designed to reach the masses of exploited peasants and milk men. At the same time, the film is never judgmental about any of the characters but shows them as they are, blending the good with the bad.

The illiterate Bindu and Bhola slowly metamorphosize from disbelief in the motives of Dr. Rao, to conviction in his intentions to give them a fair and unexploited life.

The sole song number is, ‘maro gaam katha paarey’. The lyrics were penned by the singer Preeti Sagar’s younger sister, and the music composed by the brilliant Vanraj Bhatia. The song evolves into the soul and the spirit of the film and has been immortalised over time. Preeti Sagar bagged the Filmfare Award for Best Female Singer for this song in 1978.

Thank you Shyam Benegal and team and also Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and his crew for restoring back to life a classic film like ‘Manthan’, that functions like the “churning” of Hindi cinema at a time when India was passing through one of its most politically turbulent times – the Emergency.