National Film Archives: Reeling under a bad Press?

National Film Archives: Reeling under a bad Press?

The officials at NFAI are understandably peeved when the press takes pot shots at them,  and ask why  the spotlight hasn’t been pointing at  the good stuff that’s been happening.

Following reports that a large quantity of film reels had gone missing from the vaults of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), institute director Prakash Magdum  said recently that the vaults were being assessed, and a ‘clear picture would emerge’ once the audit was finished in November.

He also said that the institute has multiple reels of most of the classics that are reportedly missing.

He told the media that the institute has been following the best international archival practices and cutting-edge film preservation technology in recent times.

“All reels at the NFAI are being preserved in temperature-controlled conditions in 19 storage vaults. Every reel is at present being taken out and being RFID-tagged. The stock-taking assessment, which started in March, will definitively clear up things once the audit is completed in November,” Mr. Magdum said.

A report, based on an RTI query, in an English daily said that missing reels included hundreds of celluloid prints of Indian classics like Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy’, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome.

It said that several international acquisitions like Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Andrzej Wajda Ashes and Diamonds were also missing.

These films were part of more than 28,000 reels which were disposed of on two occasions by the NFAI, in 1995 and in 2008.

Mr. Magdum, however, said the NFAI had multiple copies of the aforementioned titles. “There are concrete reasons as to why the reels were disposed of in the first place. In the instance of classics, either they were in an advanced state of deterioration or else multiple copies were occupying premium space. For instance, we have 10 reels of Battleship Potemkin. We have to decide on how many to retain keeping in mind our ever-growing space requirements,” he said.

A top NFAI official has indicated that  the films disposed of had “no heritage value” whatsoever. “The process of reel disposal is sensitive and can often cause misunderstandings of an alarmist nature. Most of the disposed of material contained a lot of Bollywood pot-boilers. It is unfortunate that lack of resources, which contributed to poor record-keeping in the past, is obscuring our present world-class efforts at film preservation,” the official lamented.

Shoddy record-keeping

In 2010, the NFAI had asked a firm called  Cameo Digital Systems to carry out a barcoding exercise on every reel in its vaults.Two years later, the firm completed the project and submitted a summary of the inventory, which brought to light slipshod record-keeping processes at the NFAI. It pointed out that more than 51,000 cans of film reels and over 9,200 prints “were not physically present” at the archives.

One of the chief reasons for this fiasco was shoddy record-keeping and a severe staff crunch, things which the NFAI has only gradually started to remedy in the last couple of years, Mr. Magdum said.

“The disposal [in 1995 and 2008] was not reflected in the NFAI registers, but was captured in Cameo’s “missing” inventory report. Likewise, similar disposal exercises were undertaken during the tenure of past NFAI directors, for which no record is available. Another problem is that duplicate accession numbers have been given to similar titles for a large number of films,” he said.

Mr. Magdum said besides RFID tracking, the NFAI has introduced a number of world-class international practices in collaboration with experts from around the world, as part of the National Film Heritage Mission.

“We are in the process of adopting FIAF moving image cataloguing guidelines and software recommended by FIAF, the world body of film archives. This will take care of compiling the database of films, books and documentation at the NFAI,” Mr. Magdum said.

The institute is also collaborating with experts from Italy’s Il Imagina Ritrovata, who are providing advice in assessing the condition of film reels and negatives.

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