‘Vinegar syndrome’ ruining film treasure at National Film Archive, reveals data from film assessment project

NFAI fails to maintain the desired temperature and humidity within its vaults, causing rapid film decomposition; AC units break down frequently and remain unattended for prolonged periods, documents show.

Air-conditioners and dehumidifiers installed inside the vaults often break down and remain in disrepair for months.


IN February 2009, P K Nair, the film archivist who is credited with setting up Pune-based National Film Archive of India (NFAI), wrote a letter to the Prime Minister’s Office, complaining that “25,000 reels of rare archival footage” at NFAI had been disposed of because the staff “could not stand the foul smell emanating from the reels”.

Nair, who retired as director of NFAI in 1991 but continued to keep an eye over the institution, said the reels disposed of contained “some 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’ mentioned in his letter is the stench that emanates from acetate base film reels once they start decomposing after being exposed to heat and humidity. Preservationists call this ‘vinegar syndrome’ since the chemical released by films while decomposing is ‘acetic acid’, known commonly as vinegar.

In September last year, present NFAI director Prakash Magdum had told The Indian Express that the institution had disposed of a total of 28,400 reels in two tranches — in 1995 and in 2008. Nair, it seems, was referring to the second instance in his letter to the PMO.

Vijay Jadhav, director of NFAI when Nair made the complaint, passed away in 2010. Nair died in 2016. But the ‘vinegar syndrome’ continues to ruin the treasure of films stored at NFAI.

Information obtained by The Indian Express shows that a majority of the film reels stored at NFAI was affected by the ‘vinegar syndrome’ and a considerable number of them had been damaged irretrievably.

As part of the ‘Film Collection Assessment Project’, which is the first stage in the National Film Heritage Mission (NFHM) launched by I&B Ministry, NFAI is, among other things, gauging the extent of damage caused by ‘vinegar syndrome’ to its collection. While the project is ongoing, data from 10 of the 19 storage vaults shows that of the 58,670 reels checked with acid detection strips by the end of November 2017, only 17,052 had remained unaffected by the syndrome. A total of 27,387 reels were in various stages of vinegarisation – from mildly affected, to rapidly decomposing – and 14,231 had reached the stage where the film gets irretrievably damaged due to decomposition.

A Preservationist’s Nightmare

In 1940s, acetate film base, often called safety base, emerged as an answer to the ephemerality of highly-inflammable nitrate film which was the only available film base till then. Use of cellulose nitrate for photographic film was slowly phased out, with filmmakers relying more and more on ‘triacetate cellulose’ base. In fact, a majority of surviving nitrate film collection was transferred on acetate film, hoping that it will be secured for the future. Sadly, it soon became apparent that the safety base wasn’t stable either. While it was not inflammatory, the acetate film has the tendency of ‘deacetylation’ — breaking down into simpler compounds — when exposed to high temperature and humidity. The acid, thus, released then acts as catalyst for further deacetylation, causing rapid deterioration of the affected film and even infecting the un-damaged acetate films stored nearby.

In advanced stages of decay due to vinegarisation, the film shrinks, the image layers gets delaminated from the base, the film may become brittle, crystal deposits and bubbles are formed on the surface of the film. The film reel is, thus, rendered unsuitable to be projected, or, in most cases, even copied.

NFAI’s struggles with heat and humidity

The best way to avoid and check ‘vinegar syndrome’ is to store the film under controlled temperature (around 2 to 4 degree celsius for colour, 12-14 degrees for B&W) and relative humidity (25-30 per cent for colour films, 50 per cent for B&W). Lower temperatures and drier conditions slow the decomposition process and the films stored in right conditions may last for several centuries.

The systems installed to control temperature and humidity at NFAI, and their upkeep, are grossly unsatisfactory, documents obtained by The Indian Express show. Not only the air conditioning systems and dehumidifiers break down frequently but, more alarmingly, it sometimes takes four to six months to repair them.

I P Mishra, Executive Engineer (Electrical) Civil Construction Wing of All India Radio which is in-charge of setting up and maintaining infrastructure at NFAI, while speaking to The Indian Express in September last year, had blamed the continuous operation of the AC systems inside the vaults for frequents breakdowns. He said that since the spare parts needed for repair are difficult to procure, the repair work gets delayed.

“The air conditioning system run 24 X 7 which leads to wear and tear, resulting in breakdowns and need of maintenance,” Mishra had said.

Documents show that between November 2014 and November 2017, air-conditioning systems and dehumidifiers in Vault No 8, Vault No 9, Vault no.10 and Vault No.11 remained out of order for a prolonged period of time. Despite requests for repair by NFAI officials, the Civil Construction Wing (All India Radio) remained unresponsive sometimes for months.

The Result

The film condition assessment data accessed by The Indian Express shows that the shoddy upkeep at NFAI has taken a toll on the films, especially in vaults where temperature and humidity control devices remained dysfunctional.

The situation was worst in Vault No 8 where, of the total 7,591 reels on which AD strip tests were performed (of 8,067 reels stored in that vault), only 53 were unaffected by vinegarisation. Around 2,688 reels were in various stages of deterioration while as many as 4,850 reels had reached an acidity level of pH value less than 4 which damages the reels permanently. These reels contain over 300 films, including all nine double reels of Awaara, seven out of eight reels of a print of Do Bigha Zameen, all eight reels of release positive of Mother India, two prints of Kalia Mardan containing five reels each, and three prints of Sahab Bibi aur Ghulam.

Similar was the case in Vault No.11 and others (see box).

NFAI Director Prakash Magdum and Official on Special Duty (NFHM) Santosh Ajmera did not respond to queries despite multiple attempts to contact him. Former director K S Sasidharan pointed to peculiar maintenance system at NFAI which may be working to the detriment of the film heritage. While NFAI is custodian of the reels stored in the vaults, the responsibility of maintaining the vaults in ideal conditions of temperature and humidity is with CCW (AIR), whose officials do not have any training or understanding of film preservation.

“These people 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. Also, NFAI has no control over them,” said Sasidharan who served as director between 2002 and 2008.

College of Agriculture campus lost 119 acres to govt projects in three decades

Information obtained by The Indian Express using Right To Information shows that the state government and municipal corporations have been turning to the college demanding land for various projects and walking away with big chunks despite protests from the institute authorities.

Recently the state government handed over 28.44 acres from the campus to the Maha Metro Rail Corporation Ltd for building a maintenance depot.


One of the biggest green spaces in the heart of the city — the College of Agriculture campus — has shrunk by 119.72 acres in the last three and half decades, according to data obtained by The Indian Express under the Right To Information (RTI) Act. (One acre equals 43,560 sqft). The lost green space has been used variously for widening roads, building subways and offices, agriculture-related schemes and, most recently, for building a maintenance depot for the Pune Metro.

The College of Agriculture was set up in 1879 as a department linked to the College of Science (now the College of Engineering, Pune) and, later in 1907, became a separate institute. Back then, the campus sprawled over 150 acres.

In later years, as activities expanded, the campus grew to 569.91 acres — this included land at the college’s Shivajinagar campus, farms in the Ganeshkhind area, the dairy department in Khadki and research plots in Manjari on Solapur Road. Data shows since the eighties, the college has relinquished land for various projects of the state government, the Centre and the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) but was rarely given land in compensation by government agencies.

The lush green college campus is not only popular with students who come here to study but is also a popular destination for nature lovers. The old stone college building is one of the most beautiful edifices in the city and the location for many a film shoots.

The beautiful main building constructed by British in early 20th century is a popular destination for film shoots.

Documents show the college received no land in return for a 35,000-sqft land it gave for construction of a subway on the Pune-Mumbai Highway, a 12,670-sqft land for the widening of Mula Road, a 1,23,202-sqft land for further expansion of the road, a 52,267-sqft land for widening of the Pune-Mumbai Highway, a 25,220-sqft land for the widening of University Road, a 1,549-sqft land for shifting the Mhasoba Mandir following the construction of a flyover on University Road and a 26,900-sqft land for a pumping station.

In December 2000, the college gave 8.46 acres to Sakhar Sankul, the office of the sugar commissioner, but received no land in compensation. Besides, the college gave 30.66 hectares for setting up the Directorate of Floriculture, which comes under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). In the most recent instance, the college provided land for a maintenance depot of the Pune Metro, work on which started last year. The state government handed over 28.44 acres from the main campus of the college to the Maha Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) although the move was opposed by the college authorities.

Communications sent by the college authorities to the Maha Metro as well as the state government, obtained under the RTI Act, show that the college argued if the land was handed over to the Maha Metro, it would hamper expansion plans of the college as well as affect its current academic and research activities.

Work has commenced on the land plot handed over to Maha Metro for maintenance depot (Arul Horizon)

“Agricultural education involves experimental learning modules, which require practicals on the fields. Also, availability of land is one of the criteria for grant of funds by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research. If we lose a major chunk of land, then these prospects will take a beating. shrinking of the area will affect the agricultural education model in the entire state,” states another communication sent to the principal secretary (agriculture) on March 24 last year.

The institute’s administration had also pointed out that a whopping 6,133 trees, part of the genetically pure mother plant orchards, would be felled to clear the land for the project. The state government, however, went ahead with the land acquisition, asking the Maha Metro to transplant the orchards elsewhere on the campus.