‘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.

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