Written by Atikh Rashid | Pune | Published: March 30, 2018 3:28 am Last September, current director Prakash Magdum told The Indian Express that NFAI had disposed of 28,400 reels in two tranches, in 1995 and in 2008. Nairs letter was apparently referring to the second lot.

In 2009, P K Nair, one of the founders of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), wrote to the Prime Ministers Office that 25,000 reels of rare archival footage at NFAI had been disposed because the staff “could not stand the foul smell emanating from the reels”.

Nair, who retired as NFAI director in 1991 but kept himself abreast of its work, said the disposed reels contained rare, national-award winning films “for which no negatives or duplicate material exists anywhere in the country to the best of my knowledge”.

The “foul smell” was the stench that emanates from acetate-base reels when they start decomposing under heat and humidity. It is called “vinegar syndrome”; the chemical released is acetic acid, or vinegar.

Last September, current director Prakash Magdum told The Indian Express that NFAI had disposed of 28,400 reels in two tranches, in 1995 and in 2008. Nairs letter was apparently referring to the second lot.

Read | At the Film Archive, 14,900 reels you cannot watch — ever

Vijay Jadhav, NFAI director when Nair wrote the letter, died in 2010. Nair died in 2016. But “vinegar syndrome” continues to ruin films at NFAI, some irretrievably, shows RTI replies to The Indian Express.

As part of the Film Collection Assessment Project, the first stage in the I&B Ministrys National Film Heritage Mission, NFAI is, among various things, gauging the extent of damage caused by vinegar syndrome. Data from 10 of the 19 storage vaults show that of 58,670 reels checked with acid detection strips until November 2017, only 17,052 were unaffected. Another 27,387 reels were in various stages of deterioration while 14,231 had reached irretrievable damage.

Damage & control

In the 1940s, acetate film base, often called safety base, emerged as an alternative to the highly inflammable nitrate film. Most of the surviving nitrate film collection was transferred on acetate. It soon became apparent that the safety base wasnt stable either. While not inflammatory, acetate film is prone to breaking down into simpler compounds — a process known as deacetylation — under high temperature and humidity. The acid released acts as a catalyst for further deacetylation, causing rapid deterioration of the affected film and even undamaged film nearby.

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In advanced stages of decay, the film shrinks, image layers gets delaminated from the base, and bubbles form on the surface. The reel becomes unsuitable for projection and, in most cases, even copying.

The best prevention is to store film under controlled temperature (2-4°C for colour, 12-14°C for B&W) and relative humidity (25-30% for colour, 50% for B&W). At NFAI, documents accessed by The Indian Express show, the air-conditioning systems and dehumidifiers break down frequently, sometimes taking four to six months to repair.

I P Mishra, executive engineer (electrical), Civil Construction Wing of AIR, which is in-charge of NFAI infrastructure and and its maintenance, told The Indian Express last September: “The AC systems [in the vaults] are run 24×7 which leads to wear and tear, resulting in breakdowns.” Spare parts for repair are difficult to procure, he said.

Documents show that between November 2014 and November 2017, AC systems and dehumidifiers in vaults 8, 9, 10, 11 were out of order for long periods. NFAI officials made requests for repair to the AIR wing. Data on film condition assessment accessed by The Indian Express show that the damage is the worst in vault No 8 where, out of 7,591 reels subjected to AD strip tests, only 53 were unaffected by vinegar syndrome. Of the rest, 2,688 were in various stages of deterioration while 4,850 reels had reached an acidity level that damages the reels permanently. These reels contain over 300 films including all nine double reels of Awaara, seven of eight reels of a print of Do Bigha Zameen, all eight reels of the release positive of Mother India, two prints of Kalia Mardan with five reels each, and three prints of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam.

NFAI director Magdum and OSD (NFHM) Santosh Ajmera did not respond to queries. Former director K S Sasidharan pointed to the maintenance system — while NFAI is custodian of the reels, maintenance in ideal conditions is with CCW (AIR).

“These people [CCW (AIR)] have no cinematic sensibilities. Although they are responsible for day-to-day upkeep of films vaults and other facilities, they are not given any orientation training in cinema and its heritage value in the context of history and culture. NFAI has no control over them,” said Sasidharan, director during 2002-2008.

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