P K Nair, India’s foremost film archivist and scholar passed away after a prolonged illness in Pune on Friday, leaving behind countless distraught friends, former students and film historians throughout the world. He was 82. Nair was only recently the subject of an eponymous documentary on him, called “Celluloid Man” which documented his passion and his efforts in saving countless bits of old film for posterity.
This profile of him, written around the time Celluloid Man was made in 2012, sums up his life and his phenomenal efforts in trying to salvage cinematic history in the face of obstacles, not the least of them being a lack of support from officialdom:
For those who have a little knowledge, understanding and appreciation about the posterity value of cultural objects, PK Nair is a man they can envy. He stands on top of the pyramid of the cinema of the country which produces the largest number of films in the world. He is the first and till now, perhaps the only film archivist the country has produced. If anthropologist Igor Kopytoff’s theory of studying the commodity as a ‘cultural and cognitive process’ is applied to cinema, the understanding would become that much simpler. In other words, let us say that Nair never considered each piece of cinema as just a product having use-value and exchange-value, but as a marker of society, of the Indian people, of the economy. His understanding of cinema is as value-loaded history which when studied genealogically, can be decoded to be able to access a variety of meanings.
Born and brought up in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, on 6th April 1933, he graduated in Science but did not pursue any regular career because he was fascinated by films and wanted to become a filmmaker. This put almost his entire family against him but he went to Bombay determined to become a filmmaker. He interacted with some of pillars of the Bombay film industry ranging from Mehboob Khan to Bimal Roy to Hrishikesh Mukherjee but finally decided to take to research and academics. This brought him to Pune. “I was present when the FTII was inaugurated in 1960 and it was like a new window opening to aspiring filmmakers who could learn the techniques of the art and science of filmmaking here.”
Joined the FTII
On the advise of Jean Bhownagary of the Films Division, Bombay, Nair reached Pune and joined the FTII as research assistant in 1961. Initially, his structuring of the Film Appreciation Course along with Satish Bahadur and Marie Seaton later evolved into a full-fledged residential course which is still on at the NFAI. “I believe film education has two strands – one is training the filmmaker and the other is training the audience and both are equally important. The audience that has grown up within a different kind of cinema viewership needs to be educated in a wider and deeper appreciation of different kinds of films made in different places at different times in different genres by different makers. The filmmaker and the audience must be on the same wave length because if there is a gap between transmission and reception it can create problems,” he said recently in a seminar on Film Education in Kerala.
Beginning his journey as assistant curator at the National Film Archive of India in 1965, a year after it was founded, Nair built up a veritable archive of films by travelling the length and breadth of the country to fetch whatever film reels he could lay in hands on in whatever form. He got three reels of Dadasaheb Phalke’s Kalia Mardan from his son in Nashik in 1969. The reels were almost ruined and were not in chronological sequence but he brought them back and with the help of a notebook Phalke kept, the reels were placed in sequence and some semblance or order was restored. He travelled to Bombay and met Ardeshir Irani, maker of the first Indian talking film Alam Ara and asked for the few reels from Irani’s son fetched from under a cot in their house. He met who he considers his mentor in the art and science of archiving, namely Henri Langlois once. “Langlois told me that the films you collect are like your children and you must take care of them like a parent takes care of his/her children. I am deeply grateful to him for whatever I have done in the field of archiving cinema.” Langlois went to great lengths to protect the wealth of French cinema in particular from decay. Thus, it would not be wrong to call Nair the Langlois of Indian cinema.
He did the initial spadework to found the Film Archive which was initially a separate wing of the Film Institute. But when he corresponded with the curators and directors of established film archives across the world, he was advised to establish an independent and separate archive for films. He was promoted to become the first director of the Archive in 1982 and he retired a decade later. He laid the spadework, built up a formidable library of films, encouraged students of the FTII to watch films at any time of day and protected the Archive perhaps more than he protected his own children who he hardly saw or interacted with during his working life. At the time of his retirement, he had collected over 12000 films of which 8000 and Indian and the rest come from different parts of the world.
Though he had a slightly forbidding personality for the students to approach him freely, he opened the doors and windows for whoever among them was willing to watch milestones of Indian cinema like the works of Dadasaheb Phalke, Minerva Movietone, New Theatres, Bombay Talkies, Gemini Studios, V Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and AVM productions through the turning point films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen among others. Celebrity filmmakers who walked through the FTII to get their graduation degrees looked upon him as the ‘Cinema God’ who welcomed them to watch the films of Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Andrej Wajda, Miklos Jansco, Krysztof Zanussi, Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and others.
“We wanted to improve the standard of Indian films,” says Nair when asked what motivated the setting up of the NFAI. “An award for excellence in cinema was first introduced. Then the Children’s Film Society was constituted and provision for funding off-beat films was made practical. It was also decided that award-winning films would be kept in a library. This was the beginning of the National Film Archive of India. Film is a part of our culture. It has to be preserved beyond the days of its commercial viability. The films of old days help us understand the mind-set and cultural disposition of the people of those times,” he adds.
His initiation into films began in the early 1940s when he happened to watch his first film, a mythological by K Subrahmanyam on a bed of white sand in a tent theatre like it used to be in those days. Films that left a deep impression are Vigilante’s Return, Cecil De Mille’s Unconquered, Blue Earrings and The Lost Weekend. Noted Polish filmmaker Krysztof Zanussi says that for him, Nair is a symbol of memory of cinema while late Sri Lankan filmmaker Lester James Peries says that Nair is not only an archivist but also a historian. He is the custodian of Indian cinema because he has preserved the memory of Indian cinema as a form of art.
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Celluloid Man (2012), makes one feel that perhaps, the long wait for a documentary on PK Nair was extremely well-deserved for viewers of the film, for film historians and archivists and for filmmakers across the world.
This profile had appeared in the blog upperstall.com