14 years after fire destroyed hundreds of films, lessons not yet learnt

Fourteen years since, the firefighting system at none of NFAI’s 27 vaults is functional. A decision to change the old firefighting system, installed in 1994, was taken in 2008; work started in 2015 and is still on.

January 2003 fire in nitrate vaults of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) on the FTII campus.


ON January 8, 2003, fire broke out in a nitrate vault of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) on the Film and Television Institute of India campus. In an hour and a half, all reels in the vault were reduced to ashes. Going by a statement by then MoS (I&B) Ravi Shankar Prasad in Rajya Sabha that February, NFAI lost 607 films in 5,097 reels in the fire. These included a number of pre-1950 films, including silent films from the early era of the Indian film industry, some of these by Dadasaheb Phalke and V Shantaram. NFAI asserted that most of the films destroyed had already been copied on acetate base, also called safety base since it’s less inflammable, hence the loss wasn’t as “grim as it was made out to be”. In addition to these classics, 544 reels that stored war footage in Italian, English, German and Russian were unique prints, not copied on any medium, and therefore lost from NFAI’s collection.

A high-level inquiry followed, seeking to fix responsibility and assess the safety system and suggest measures to avoid any repeat. Although the report of the inquiry was never made public, various media (including The Indian Express) reported, based on source-based information, that the committee blamed “sparks emanating from a faulty air-conditioner” in the nitrate vault and recommended that the material be transferred to freshly built vaults on NFAI’s Kothrud campus.

Fourteen years since, the firefighting system at none of NFAI’s 27 vaults is functional. A decision to change the old firefighting system, installed in 1994, was taken in 2008; work started in 2015 and is still on. The air-conditioning systems, too, break down frequently and sometimes take months for repair, according to those responsible for maintaining these systems. A picture published by Maharashtra Times in April shows pedestal fans being used to maintain the temperature in a vault, apparently due to the failure of air-conditioning.

The Principal Director Audit, Mumbai, conducted an inspection of NFAI between December 2013 and April 2015. As per its report, accessed by The Indian Express under the Right To Information Act, NFAI didn’t have enough firefighting provisions and “loss of this property (films and non-filimc material) can’t be ruled out in case of incident of fire”.”

“The films and other filmic materal acquired by NFAI were stored in temperature controlled film vaults. It’s very inflammable articles. However, during visit, of this premises it was found that there was not sufficient provision for firefighting system and not proper backup provision of valuable articles (Films). Due to non-availability of sufficient firefighting system in the premises loss of this property can not be ruled out in case of fire…,” the report states in part II(A), paragraph 2.

As per the report, when the audit team pointed this out to the NFAI administration, it was told the new firefighting system would be installed at the earliest with the work already taken up under the 12th Plan allocation for ‘upgradation of infrastructure’. “… In reply, the department accepted the fact and stated that the existing firefighting equipment installed in the film vaults is very old and is due for replacement… The work has been entrusted to CCW (E), All India Radio and same would be completed as early as possible. [The officials] further stated that regarding backup of filmic materials, guidelines from the competent authority will be obtained and action in this regard will be intimated to audit,” reads the report.

With firefighting and alarm systems yet to become functional, eight nitrate vaults and 16 safety base vaults at phase II and three underground vaults at phase I of NFAI continue to operate under the threat of fire. Asked about this, NFAI director Prakash Magdum said the work is in the “last stage of completion” and will be over within a month. “NFAI had the fire alarm system in place since 1994 along with Halon Gas fire fighting system. Eventually, Halon Gas system needed replacement with modern fire fighting system. The work is being undertaken by Civil Construction Wing (CCW) of AIR. For the first time, we are taking steps to install carbon dioxide flooding system which will be much more effective. The work at phase II is in last stage of completion and will be over within a month. This will ensure the safety of film collection including Nitrate and safety base vaults at NFAI,” said Magdum.

I B Mishra, executive engineer with CCW (Electrical), AIR, said the reason for the delay in completing work was that although the project was slated to start in 2008, funds were released only in August 2014. “The work could only start in the beginning of 2015 after release of funds. Also, since this is a very complex and specialised job with lots of designing involved, it’s progressing slowly. Nevertheless, we have in the testing phase for safety base vaults at Phase I and will commission them in one or two months. Following this we will move to other vaults,” Mishra said.

He said the air-conditioning system breaks down often because it’s operated day and night due to specific needs of NFAI. “Air Conditioning equipment were installed in 2007-08 in Phase II and aren’t very old. However, they are run 24×7 which leads to wear and tear resulting in breakdowns and need of maintenance,” Mishra said.

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