Making the Cut

How a septuagenarian American man keeps classic Indian films alive

tommydan55, a YouTube channel with almost eighty thousand subscribers, mostly has Hindi and Urdu films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
31 March, 2022

A YouTube channel with almost eighty thousand subscribers, tommydan55, is particularly popular among connoisseurs of Indian films. Thomas Daniel, a 74-year-old living in Hawaii, owns it, along with a couple of other channels, all dedicated to classic cinema of the Indian subcontinent. There are mostly Hindi and Urdu films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s on his channel, but Bengali films have recently appeared as well. Daniel does not speak any of these languages. He told me he has south-Indian films too, but the subtitles are so poor that there is nothing he can do with them. “Apparently, a working understanding of English isn’t a requirement before becoming a subtitler for the Indian media companies,” he wrote in an email.

Daniel, who developed an interest in film restoration while approaching retirement as a commercial fisherman, procures these films from varied sources and restores them to bring them as close as possible to their original print. “Tommydan55, perhaps simply as a cinephile, has contributed significantly to Indian film studies, building an archive that is in many ways more valuable and certainly more accessible than the few actual repositories of this cinema history,” Corey Creekmur, the director of the University of Iowa’s Institute for Cinema and Culture, told me.

Daniel has no connection with India beyond two visits in his youth, in the 1970s. About fifteen years ago, he watched Guru Dutt’s 1962 classic, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, and he was hooked. “I didn’t know who anyone was,” he told me. “It was Meena Kumari all the way. She’s a force of nature. I only later learned about Guru Dutt.” The film, he said, “has one of my top three favourite dances, the one with Minoo Mumtaz together with the astonishing cinematography by VK Murthy. I didn’t know who he was either, but one can’t help but be very impressed by his use of light and dark, and keeping the support dancers in the shadows much of the time.” He added, “The production values are top notch, the story is coherent (not always true for Indian films). And it’s a heavy drama, which I like.”

Another reason for choosing these films was their relatively shorter period under copyright—about sixty years from publishing for India, and fifty years for Pakistan. “Copyright laws for both countries are understandable and clear,” Daniel said. “US copyright law is a swamp and copyright length is long.”