In September last year, The Indian Express published a series of reports on the state of affairs at the city-based National Film Archive of India (NFAI). Among other things, the articles mentioned the findings of a report that claimed as many as 51,500 film reels, which were on accession records of the Archive, were not present in its vaults. Last week, another report in the newspaper revealed that as per the ongoing ‘condition assessment project’ at the organisation, a large number of celluloid film reels stored at NFAI have reached critical level of decomposition due to failure to maintain ideal storage conditions inside its vaults.
K S Sasidharan, who worked with NFAI for over two decades, serving at its director for five years before retiring in 2008, spoke to Atikh Rashid on these issues, and more.
What would you say about the issues afflicting the NFAI as brought out in the reports in The Indian Express?
I have been reading them. See, NFAI has always had administrative and accountability issues. Can you imagine that even after 53 years of its existence, NFAI doesn’t even have an ‘organisational manual’ which lays down rules and procedures for smooth functioning. During my tenure as NFAI director, a draft for the manual was prepared. When it was placed before the Advisory Committee of NFAI for approval, a prominent member raised some silly objections that led to scuttling the project. P K Nair, who was on the committee, volunteered to prepare the manual but it never materialised.
In absence of such a document which lays down rules and procedures, officers can go on doing things the way they like. Any senior functionary will find it convenient not to have one because it brings restrictions on his authority to indulge in unlawful practices.
What about the more than 51,500 missing film reels? Officials say these could be the reels that were disposed of in 1995 and 2008. But records show only 28,400 were disposed then.
51,500 is too big a number to be entirely accounted for through disposals. When I was at NFAI (Pune headquarters), the disposal happened only once, in 1995. Although I was deputy director at that time, I was not involved in the whole process of disposal of films. The job was assigned to the then Film Preservation Officer by the Director.
Is it possible that these prints went out of NFAI and never returned?
I am not in a position to comment on this. Another explanation could be that the projection of number of films acquired by NFAI was not factual in the first place. This is entirely possible because the method to arrive at the total number of films with NFAI was flawed.
The numbers published in the Annual Report of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), which were in turn provided by NFAI, were deemed to be factual numbers. Successive directors relied on those figures and kept updating them by adding the number of films acquired by them during their time. For example, if the annual report for previous year says NFAI had 12,000 films and I acquired 800 more during the current year, while sending the annual report for that year I would send 12,800 as total number of films held by the Archive without physically verifying it.
It also became a number game. So every director focuses on acquiring more films and letting the Ministry know it. Now, from what you have reported, it’s obvious that those projections in the annual reports were fictitious. It’s a human tendency, the darker side gets darker while the brighter side gets projected out of all proportions.
Why wasn’t an audit of inventory done even once in the last 53 years, including during your tenure?
In government, you go by precedence which was that you needed to only add fresh arrivals to the figure supplied to the ministry the previous year. This is where the mistake crept in. Also, conducting a stock verification was very difficult. There wasn’t enough staff. There was no established mechanism. All the factors contributed to the confusion.
We published pictures of about 14,900 film reels dumped in gunny bags in halls at NFAI Phase II premise.
I don’t know what films those are… the best thing would be to segregate the material worth preserving in the Archive and to discard the junk. There has to be a mechanism for disposal of films that have deteriorated irretrievably. I don’t think NFAI has such a mechanism even today. This is where the relevance of a manual comes in.
About 17,000 film reels packed in gunny bags and boxes were sent to a private warehouse 40 km away from NFAI’s campus in February-March 2016. Prakash Magdum, director of NFAI, said that this wasn’t unprecedented and such shifting to private facilities had happened during P K Nair’s time as well.
It must have happened, but it never happened during my tenure. Also, if you are saying the reels deteriorated then why would you spend public money on transport and storage at a private warehouse? It should have been avoided at any cost.
We also found out and reported that prints of nine important films from the black and white era are locked inside a lab (now dysfunctional) in Mumbai, which was sealed in 2010 over a legal dispute.
I can tell you that it’s squarely the responsibility of the Film Preservation Wing to monitor the movement of the films at the Archive, whether they are going out for copying or being sent out for screenings. It’s the bona-fide duty of the Film Preservation Officer to ensure that the material is back at the Archive within the stipulated time. The time window used to be maximum two to three weeks.
In case of the nine films mentioned, very important material and copyright issues are involved too. If the material is not back with the Archive within time, you should smell a rat and adopt legal measures to retrieve the archival property.
You were NFAI director when the unfortunate incident of fire in the nitrate vault took place in 2003. You had to face a lot of criticism for loss of cinematic heritage. How do you see it now?
There was a departmental inquiry and it was found that the fire had started because of rough handling of the air conditioning system installed there, leading to a spark that caused the fire. The nature of nitrate films is such that once it catches fire, you won’t be able to douse it even if you bring all the fire tenders in the world till the last bit of the film is burnt out.
More importantly, I will tell you how things work at NFAI. Construction and maintenance of storage facilities is done by the Civil Construction Wing (CCW) of All India Radio. These are the people who have no cinematic sensibilities. Although they are responsible for day-to-day upkeep of film vaults and other facilities, they are not given any orientation training in cinema and its heritage value in the context of history and culture, to sensitise them adequately. Also, NFAI has no control over them. It’s still a problem.