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‘We should respect our film heritage much more’

It’s easy to appreciate why Suresh Chhabria, the acting registrar of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, describ...

January 11, 2003

It’s easy to appreciate why Suresh Chhabria, the acting registrar of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, describes the destroyal of 4,000 reels of nitrate prints at the institute on Wednesday as a ‘‘personal loss”. Chhabria, the former director of the National Film Archives of India and a professor of film appreciation for the last 17 years at the FTII, had lobbied for the construction of the new vaults to which these prints were to have been transferred two years ago. He told Sunanda Mehta that Wednesday’s incident underlines the need for preservation of archival matter both at the FTII and NFAI.

What has been lost in Wednesday’s fire?

It’s a huge loss. For me, it’s almost like a personal loss since I had been looking after these prints and seeing them here for so many years. Also, while we have been preserving the nitrate prints, they didn’t belong to the film institute or the archives but to the producers of the films. They had the copyright for the films, so we have actually lost their property.

Though it is true that most of the nitrate prints have been transferred to a safety base, we have to remember that the logic behind the preservation of these prints was that they could have led to a whole new generation of reprints as and when required.

Now this cannot happen. In fact, over the last few years, we realised that even our safety material on acetic is spoiling and thus need to be better protected. They seem to suffer from something called the vinegar syndrome if they’re not kept in the proper temperature. We need to upgrade the standard of preservation.

Even the original Eastmancolour colours prints belonging to the ’60s have now begun to fade and 20 years down the line the movies being made now will fall prey to the same syndrome.

So what is it that needs to be done?

This disaster could be our wake up call for the other precious material we have with us. We need to have our own restoration laboratory at the institute, where the prints from originals can be made with more care and in the best of conditions.

Right now, these prints are sent to labs in Mumbai where technicians treat them as just another set of reels, even if it’s a film belonging to the black and white era.

Some hope has also come in the form of digital restoration but the process is so expensive that even some of the most advanced studios abroad can’t afford it.

Upgradation of technology is needed if films have to be preserved properly. Unfortunately, the three main film making centres — Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata — have the worst climates, detrimental to the preservation of film reels. These reels, after they have run in the theatres, are kept at home in a refrigerator by the producer or in labs in a cool temperature, and left to their fate. Plus, we also need to preserve all the old ancillary film material like old posters, song booklets and movie stills.

You were instrumental in getting the new vaults commissioned. What happened?

I had lobbied for the new vaults in 1998 and I got the proposal through along with the Rs 50 lakh grant from the government that was required for their construction. They should have been ready to house the nitrate prints at least two years ago. As it now stands, though the civil work was completed, there was changes to be made in the air conditioning technology. This technology was to imported from abroad and that caused the delay.

What happens to the Rs 50 lakh vaults?

They would probably have to be redesigned and used for storing safety materials.

Is there more indifference in India towards preserving archival film material?

Well, film archives abroad too have been lost in fires over the years, but overall they have a better standard of preservation, mainly due to more availability of funds. We do need to change our attitude—it’s a known fact that film heritage is being threatened. We need to have much more respect for this heritage than what we probably have now.

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