National Film Archive of India director Prakash Magdum defends loss of Doordarshan footage, and other controversies

Abhishek Srivastava

Jul 15, 2019 11:51:05 IST

It was a Right To Information (RTI) query filed by a national newspaper a few years ago, asking for a summary of inventory available at National Film Archive of India (NFAI), which exposed the gaping holes at the premier institute in Pune.

The information that poured in was startling to say the least. The RTI revealed that 51,500 cans of film reels and 9,200 prints were not physically present at the NFAI. The RTI also revealed that as many as 4,992 cans holding 1,112 films were present in the vaults of NFAI despite not being listed in NFAI’s records. The data presented a grim a grim scenario and proved that nothing is right when it comes to preservation of films in India. But it seems things are improving at NFAI under Prakash Magdum, the current director and NFAI is slowly adopting a foolproof process for preservation of films. “We have undertaken the complete revamping of the storage system at NFAI. It includes new 24x7 air-conditioning system with back-up. The fire-fighting system has also been put in place. We have been in touch with some of the leading film archives of the world so as to adapt the best practices being followed,” says the director. 

 National Film Archive of India director Prakash Magdum defends loss of Doordarshan footage, and other controversies

National Films Archives of India. Reuters

According to a recent Mumbai tabloid report, footages of historical significance no more exists in the vaults of public broadcaster Doordarshan. While a joint interview of Marlon Brando and Satyajit Ray remains at top, another featuring stalwarts like Elia Kazan, Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray cannot be traced. This expose automatically shifts the spotlight on NFAI. A few years ago, Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) too had done an audit on the institution and had come with startling details. But Magdum believes that most of the things were not taken into account during the audit. “During 2011-13, pasting of the bar code stickers was done on film cans. This was done on the film cans which were technically clear in all respects. This activity was not done on all film cans. The report by CAG didn’t take into account this fact. Therefore, it was assumed that the tally in the register was not matching with film cans.” 

The RTI query had also revealed that reels of important film titles including Mother India, Mera Naam Joker, Bhuvan Shome and Kaagaz ke Phool, apart from international classics like Bicycle Thieves, Battleship Potemkin and Seven Samurai, now no more exist. Footage of historical value, including Richard Nixon’s visit to India in 1969, Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Paris, and Indian National Congress’ Karachi convention, too were missing. The RTI also revealed that more than 1,700 books and DVDs totaling 401 were missing from the library. But Magdum has a different view and reveals that most of the films by stalwarts like Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt are present in NFAI’s vaults. “Some of the titles are, in fact, multiple copies. Many of these titles have been digitised and restored by us.”

Most of the film material that come to NFAI is often not in good condition as film is a chemical material and for its preservation, a cool and dry atmosphere is required. In a tropical climate like India, where the awareness about film preservation is very low, the owners of the material often keep the content in conditions far from ideal. Once  such material comes under the roof of NFAI, the only effort is to preserve the same. NFAI strives to keep two copies of important films so that at least one copy is kept as a preservation copy. 

It is believed that the reels of Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra had caught fire a few years after it was made. The prints of the film had caught fire after they were being transported from one cinema tent to other on a bullock cart. It was then Phalke re-shot the film shot by shot and made a version which people see today. Alas NFAI, the premier body for storage and preservation of films, is still to come up with a foolproof method to stop such occurrences. As per a list posted on the site of Film Heritage Foundation, that was prepared by none other than PK Nair, ex-director of NFAI and the protagonist of National Award-winning documentary The Celluloid Man, films like Alam Ara (the first film to employ sound), Sairandhri (the first film to have been made in colour), Seeta (featuring Prithviraj Kapoor and Durga Khote), Zindagi (one of the highest grossing film of '40s with music by Pankaj Mullick), Savkari Pash (a film by Baburao Painter), and Mill (a film featuring a cameo by Premchand) exists no more and are gone forever. 

Storage at NFAI, Pune. Twitter

Storage at NFAI, Pune. Twitter

After the implementation of the National Film Heritage Mission or NFHM – a Rs 597 crore preservation and restoration program for selected films from across the country through digitisation by NFAI, things are looking slightly rosy. But the mission has encountered hiccups too. The print of Oridathu, a film by Malayalam filmmaker G Aravindan, remains missing. But thanks to the initiative, a print was traced in Japan but with Japanese subtitles.

After the fire that engulfed RK Studio in 2017, Randhir Kapoor took the wise decision to hand over the original and dupe negatives of the entire inventory of RK Studio to NFAI for future preservation. Upon receiving the material, it was revealed that reels of Aag, Biwi O Biwi and Heena required immediate attention and were in condition of atrophy. Out of the 35 films NFAI received from RK inventory, 12 negatives had turned ‘oily’ and ‘smelly’, and required chemical treatment. “We have already done the copying of many of the negatives in terms of release positive prints. In fact, we already had many of these film prints in good condition in our collection,” says Magdum. 

NFAI was set up in 1964 by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry with an aim to preserve and acquire cinematic heritage of India, and promote research that involve films. Its activity remained moribund till the time PK Nair took over. Nair did significant work for archival and preservation of film footage. It was during his predecessor KS Sasidharan’s tenure that a major fire broke out in a valve of the NFAI, which resulted in a major loss. Some 607 films and 5,097 reels were gutted in the fire including films of Dadasaheb Phalke and V Shantaram, and also films from the silent era. An investigation was conducted but the final report of the investigation was never made public. 

Finally, Magdum also has a solution to make the entire thing foolproof. “For a country like India, which produces the largest number of films and have at least five to six major film industries, we need to have a number of archives that can work in the field of film preservation. We always believing in cooperating and supporting as well as working with such institutions towards the cause of film preservation.”

Since the entire exercise of preservation of film is a costly affair, if only the government were to pump in more money, the status quo will exist despite the best efforts of NFAI.

Updated Date: Jul 15, 2019 11:51:05 IST