As the news of India’s ‘Celluloid Man’ bidding adieu to the world came in, those memories of twenty years ago came back as fresh as yesterday. A tribute to PK Nair.
A cold winter morning of 1996 in Gargi College of Delhi University, tucked away in the tree-lined South Delhi lane. In the college auditorium about a 100-odd young film enthusiasts are listening in rapt attention as the salt-and-pepper-haired film archivist and scholar PK Nair flags off the intensive Cinema Appreciation Workshop with the words, “What you see in film is what the director wants you to see”. As his lecture unfolds the reality of “point of view”, the audience knows their own point of view towards films and their vision towards appreciating, understanding and analyzing the craft of cinema is set to change forever.
For the next 10 days, each day from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, the students would find themselves taken on the most thrilling journey of discovering, unraveling and interpreting the layers of meaning hidden within the most iconic films of the world – the celebration of pure humanism in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, the subjectivity of truth in Akira Kurosawa’s Roshomon, the innocence of a father-and-son’s struggle to trace their stolen bicycle in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, the self-destructive journey of Zampano in Frederico Fellini’s La Strada, to name a few. From the imposing high angle shots of Ivan The Terrible to the near-perfect picturisation of Jaane kya tune kahi in Pyaasa, from the use of off-screen sounds in Shyam Benegal’s Junoon to the use of jump cuts in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, PK Nair handheld the mesmerized students through the most engrossing and enriching understanding of cinema.
He was passionate about cinema and he transferred that passion on to his students. Those 10 days we talked cinema, ate cinema, drank cinema and dreamt cinema. ‘And now on this final day, I want you to watch a film, just as a film. Enjoy it as a film is meant to be. It is one of the best films ever made,’ were his words before the reels of Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara started to roll. PK Nair wanted to make his students understand how cinema impacts the mind and the heart needless to say, not one person in that class could remain unaffected from Ghatak’s classic.
As the news of India’s ‘Celluloid Man’ bidding adieu to the world came in, those memories of twenty years ago came back as fresh as yesterday. A simple, unassuming man, soft-spoken and rather grim, PK Nair was not the kind you could just walk up to and kick off a conversation. As Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, the founder-director of Film Heritage Foundation maker of the National-award-winning documentary on PK Nair, The Celluloid Man, was quoted as saying in The Times of India, “I remember Nair saab from the ’90s when I was a student at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), as a strict disciplinarian, a man of few words who you couldn’t imagine befriending, sitting in a theatre watching film after film, jotting down details in a diary with the help of a small torch. It was an almost Hitchcockian image. Starting out as a librarian and a researcher at the Institute he went on to become the founder-director of the NFAI and the only man who knew which can held which scene or song of a film.”
As the first government-appointed head of the National Film Archives of India (NFAI), Pune, PK Nair (Paramesh Krishnan Nair) was one of the pioneers of film preservation in India. Says, SMM Ausaja, well-known film historian, archivist and collector, “Film archiving started late in India when most of our silent films and much of the 1940s and even 50s cinema was gone. PK Nair spearheaded the only institution, which since the mid-1960s had taken up the cudgels of film preservation. There was no other institution doing that.”
PK Nair had dedicated his life to preservation of films and building the collection of films at the NFAI, was instrumental in archiving several landmark Indian films like Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra and Kaliya Mardan, Bombay Talkies films such as Jeevan Naiya, Bandhan, Kangan, Achhut Kanya and Kismet, S.S. Vasan’s Chandralekha and Uday Shankar’s Kalpana. Despite the perennial paucity of funds and other limitations, Nair tried everything within his means to protect our rich legacy of cinema from annihilation.
For instance, many films, including path-breaking movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s have been destroyed to extract silver from nitrate films, leaving them white and barren as nitrate film base has higher silver content than other film bases. Even classic films were sold by their producers and distributors for silver.
One of the most famous films to have met this tragic fate is the Ardeshir Irani-directed Alam Ara / The Ornament of the World (1931), India’s first talkie. In Dungarpur’s Celluloid Man, which sketched Nair’s yeoman contribution to NFAI since 1964, Nair recounted the incident when he had approached Ardeshir Irani to persuade him to archive Alam Ara. Irani had agreed asking him to take away the few cans lying in his office. Later Irani’s son Sapurji had confessed to Nair that he had sold the film for silver long ago without his father’s knowledge. All that remained of Alam Ara were a few empty cans and the dilapidated Jyoti Studio where it had been shot, a mute testimony to a lost legacy.
Thanks to P K Nair’s dedicated and steadfast work through his 27-year-long career with the NFAI, building up the archives “can by can”, NFAI could build up a sizeable archive of films, largely donated to them, as the institution does not buy or acquire films. Interestingly, some films have found their way to NFAI by default rather than by design, with the Indian Railways playing an unwitting archivist. According to Dungarpur, “Often, after a film had had its run at the box office, producers found themselves with several prints in hand. Not knowing what to do with them, they put them onto trains with no destination marked on them. They knew that if the prints were unclaimed, it would be the Indian Railways’ legal responsibility to deal with them. This is how thousands of cans have found their way to the NFAI, courtesy of the railways.” Nair welcomed them all.
By the time Nair retired in 1991, NFAI had 12,000 films in its collection, out of which 8,000 were in Indian languages, the majority being black and white.
My interactions with PK Nair were during the years I was the honorary Secretary of the Vintage Hindi Music Lovers Association in Bangalore in eighties.
The President of the association, Mr. M. Bhaktavatsala, was a very renowned name in South Indian films. He had initially requested Nair to lend us film prints from his reputed National Film Archives of India (NFAI) in Pune for screening during our monthly meetings. Badami House auditorium was made available to us courtesy Mr. Sarvottam Badami, a film director of repute. We thus had rare and unseen films screened at our meetings each month for many years.
In a few months after the first film had been received by us, Nair came visiting us in Bangalore. After that each time Nair visited Bangalore, our executive group met him with pleasure. During these meetings, he shared tons of information with us. While we were truly impressed with the knowledge he had on cinema, we were totally floored by his dedication to the cause and his humility. He was miles away from what one would say, was the impression of a typical government officer of those times. I can easily say that he changed forever our very basic way of viewing cinema, its appreciation and all relevant features. I have personally gained tremendously from my interactions with him. He had even asked me to join him in Pune to do some documentation projects, which could not happen.
Single handed, Nair rendered the yeoman service to the Indian Cinema that is unparalleled and movie lovers for years to come would remain indebted to him. He was one who among all the chaos stood strong for the cause of film preservation, documentation, heritage valuation and storage. The world of today’s organized film preservation and archiving owes its roots to this one man.
Celluloid Man – the National award-winning documentary by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur (trailer)
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Films strip pic courtesy: Pixabay
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