IN 2010, the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) got a Pune-based private firm to paste barcodes on every reel in its custody. In 2012, Cameo Digital Systems Pvt Ltd completed the project and submitted a set of reports to the NFAI along with a “summary of inventory”.
The Indian Express accessed these reports under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and came across two startling findings:
* 51,500 cans of film reels, and over 9,200 prints, “were not physically present” at the archives.
* 4,922 cans containing 1,112 film titles, which are not listed in the NFAI’s registers, were present in its vaults.
The reports include a “missing” list of hundreds of culturally and historically important titles, including celluloid prints of films by Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali, its sequel Aparajito, Charulata), Mehboob Khan (Mother India), Raj Kapoor (Mera Naam Joker, Awaara), Mrinal Sen (Bhuvan Shome), Guru Dutt (Kaagaz ke Phool) and several other giants of Indian cinema.
Prints of several international acquisitions were also missing, including films by Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves aka The Bicycle Thief), Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai), Roman Polanski (Knife in the Water) and Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds).
The list includes prints of over a hundred silent films from Indian and international cinema (Battleship Potemkin is one) and celluloid containing historic footage, including from the pre-Independence days.
They include prints of visits by foreign dignitaries and Indian leaders’ visits abroad in the first three decades after independence. Among the missing footage are those of Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Paris, the Indian National Congress’s Karachi congregation, and US President Richard Nixon’s address during his visit to India 1969.
On the other hand, films that were present in the NFAI’s vaults but not in its records included Mughal-e-Azam (2 reels), Bicycle Thieves, Pakeezah (8 reels), Aparajito (2 reels), Pather Panchali (4 reels), Meghe Dhaka Tara (1), The Great Dictator (13 reels), Ardh Satya (14 reels), Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (10 reels), and Hunterwali (1 reel), with a few of these also listed among those with prints missing.
An official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the NFAI had multiple copies of some of the missing films, and that the 51,500 missing cans may also include the 1,500 reels that were destroyed in a fire in 2003. The NFAI claims to have about 1.3 lakh film reels in its custody, containing 20,576 titles, which includes Indian as well as foreign films.
Contacted by The Indian Express, Prakash Magdum, director of NFAI, blamed poor record-keeping and shortage of staff for the “mismatch” in the Cameo reports. Magdum also confirmed that the institution had scrapped 28,401 reels in the past, in the first such admission by the NFAI.
One of the Cameo reports, submitted by the firm’s director Purab Gujar, describes how this mess was brought to light.
Titled ‘Go-live of the system in general and summary of inventory in specific’, the report states: “While doing the bar-coding exercise and creating data for the Libsys system we followed the below procedure: 1) Before commencing the bar-coding, we scanned all the ‘Physical Film Registers’ of NFAI and created a spreadsheet of all the entries. 2) During bar-coding, we made a separate record of all the films for which barcode pasting was carried out over the period of nine months. In this record, we mainly captured the accession numbers of each titles, the number of cans and the location of the title.”
The firm then compared the two databases to find that a chunk of films listed in the accession registers were not present at the NFAI storage facilities. Of the 9,283 missing titles, 1,439 were acquired by paying the cost of the print while 7,844 were loaned to the NFAI by various agencies, production houses or individuals, laboratories, as deposit or long-term loan for storage and preservation.
The sources of these prints include government agencies such as the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, External Affairs Ministry, Films Division, National Film Development Corporation; foreign missions in India like that of Germany, Australia, UK, Albania, and France; foreign film archives such as National Film Archive, London, Rumanian Film Archive, Russian Film Archive, Bulgarian Film Archive; and, film producers.
Among the films deposited by production houses were those made by Vinod Chopra Films (Lage Raho Munnabhai, Eklavya) and Wadia Movietone, Bombay (53 films, including Hunterwali ki Beti, Bambaiwali and Phauladi Mukka).
Asked about the Cameo findings, NFAI director Magdum said, “As per available records, 28,401 reels were disposed of in 1995 and 2008. The same has not been struck off the NFAI records. According to old staff at NFAI, similar disposal of films were carried out during the time of P K Nair (former director) for which no record is available. Further, there seems to be duplicate accession numbers given to similar titles for a large number of films (about 400) which underwent treatment during the 1980s.”
When it was pointed out that the number of films “physically not present at NFAI” was much higher than those disposed of, Magdum said that the counting by Cameo was in terms of cans whereas the records maintained at NFAI were in terms of reels. “This, I believe, is bound to show a mismatch in the final figures,” said Magdum.
When contacted, Cameo chief Gujar said, “The exercise was carried out several years ago. The true picture about the number of films present with NFAI will only emerge after an ongoing film assessment project is over.”
NFAI records accessed by The Indian Express also show that the situation at the institute’s library, which boasts of over 29,000 books on cinema, is not very different.
Stock verification reports reveal that 1,761 books have gone missing over the years. Of these, the loss of 1,509 books was discovered during a physical verification out in 2002. Another inspection, which ended in June 2017, revealed that 252 more books had gone missing.
One report states that a major chunk of the missing “books” was “ready reference resources” which “can’t be called books” and were “mistakenly registered” as such.
The records also include an audit report which states that the library had not carried out “physical verification” for 15 years in violation of General Financial Rules, according to which stock verification has to be done once in three years. Also missing from the NFAI are 401 DVDs.