Fire at FTII

Print edition : January 31, 2003

The FTII campus as the fire raged on January 8. - AP

ON January 8, a massive fire ravaged a storage vault at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, destroying 1,700 nitrate-based film prints dating back to the silent era. Many of the films were produced by the Prabhat Studios, the Wadia Movietone, the Bombay Talkies and the New Theatre. The original prints of some 250 films were lost. These included several original reels of films made by Dada Saheb Phalke and V. Shantaram.

One of the greatest losses is the original print of Phalke's Raja Harishchandra (1913), considered the first Indian film. Other landmark films of the pre-1950s genre that were lost in the fire are Aadmi, Aage Badho, Amar Jyoti, Amiri, Azad, Bombay Wali and Bapu ki Amar Kahani. Among the silent films, Kaliamardhan, Bhakt Prahalad, Tukaram, Lanka Dahan and Setu Bandhan were destroyed. Foreign films such as Battleship Potemkin and Nanook of the North also were gutted.

Fortunately for the FTII, the fire gutted only the vault. The premises once housed the famous Prabhat Studios. The main studio, which the Prabhat company built, is just across the road from the vault. It is still used for shooting.

The cause of the fire is not known. All film prints in the pre-1950 era were made on nitrate base. As nitrate is a highly inflammable substance, even a small spark from an airconditioner could have set off the fire, said Prem Mathiani, Director of the FTII. "It was an accident waiting to happen. The films should have been moved to a vault ideally designed for the purpose a long time ago. Because they survived all these years people were complacent,'' he added.

The vault where the films were stored was built by Prabhat Studios in the 1950s, using whatever technology was available at that time to store nitrate films. When the Government of India acquired Prabhat Studios in 1959 to house the FTII and the National Film Archives of India (NFAI), the vault became its responsibility. The vault belonged to the NFAI, which is situated less than 200 metres from the institute. Both bodies had been pushing the government for many years to construct a new vault. Eventually, in 1998, the government built a vault as per international standards fixed for archiving nitrate films. But a debate over the correct type of airconditioning resulted in a two-year bureaucratic delay in shifting the films, Mathiani told Frontline. The airconditioning issue was resolved last year, and the films were scheduled to be moved in the next two months, he said.

Typical of government functioning, the blame game over the fire has begun. The FTII criticises the NFAI for not shifting the films. The NFAI blames the Central Public Works Department's (CPWD) civil construction wing for the delay in completing the new vault. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting - under whose purview the FTII and the NFAI fall - virtually devalues the loss by stating that copies or safety base films were made for almost 95 per cent of the films lost. "Therefore, the loss is not as bad as it is made out to be. There are copies,'' said Mathiani. The Ministry has, however, sought a detailed report from the FTII, the NFAI and the CPWD.

Charred remains of films outside the vault.-ANUPAMA KATAKAM

"Even though we have made safety base films on acetate, it does not take away the fact that we have lost precious originals painstakingly collected over 40 years,'' says Suresh Chabbria, Registrar of the FTII. Chabbria, who is an ex-Director of the NFAI, and his predecessor, P.K. Nair, were almost wholly responsible for putting together the collection. "Copies from copies will be poor,'' Chabbria said. Several films destroyed in the fire were first-generation prints, so copies from those would be of good quality.

NFAI Director K. Shashidaran, however, said incidents of fires breaking out in nitrate film storage vaults had occurred all over the world, in London, Paris or Munich. "Even developed countries with their advanced technology have not been able to look after nitrate films, so how much better can we do?'' Shashidaran asked.

Petty power struggles are not uncommon within the FTII and the NFAI. As both are inter-dependent institutions, their officers and professors work at both places at some point in their careers. According to a student, ego clashes are behind almost every major issue the institutions face - such as the one on syllabi change at the FTII (Frontline, May 11, 2001).

Anupama Katakam
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