Satyajit Ray, on my first trip to Kolkata, told me that a true study of Indian cinema should begin with the Prabhat Film Company classics, particularly Damle-Fattelal’s Sant Tukaram (1936), rather than with Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harischandra (1913). I had already seen both of them, courtesy of P.K. Nair, creator and curator of the National Film Archives (NFAI) at the Film and Television Institute (FTII) in Pune. Nair, who saved the second, also introduced me to the films of Guru Dutt, Ritwick Ghatak and K. Balachandar.
I first met P(aramesh) K(risen) Nair in 1975, shortly after I traveled overland to India for the first time, from Tunisia. I planned to stay here for six months. But Jagat Murari, then head of Indian film festivals, advised me to travel to meet Nair at the NFAI. He knew more about Indian cinema than anyone else. I knew something about cinema in North America, Europe, North Africa and West Asia.
Therefore, Nair and I, from the start, got along like brothers or two peas in a pod. I swear, if I had been a reel of film he would have placed me in a temperature-controlled locker and referred to me whenever he wanted to for the rest of my life. I showed him my copy of the underground comix Snatch by Robert Crumb, a provocative version of Crumb’s own Zap comix, and it immediately disappeared into the archive. It must still be there, or in his personal belongings somewhere. All in all, in his thirty years a NFAI, its collection of films, let alone memorabilia, grew to 12,000, with 8000 of them Indian. According to one professor, to Nair’s dismay, he would “beg, borrow or steal” to get a film that he wanted.
At NFAI, Nair had me translate French dialogue into English subtitles and para-dub Italian over a microphone. One evening, Nair held up a screening of a French documentary until I could arrive from a short Ganapati puja to translate it for a student audience. Another evening, while Nair was away, he let me program whatever films I wanted: I chose, among others, a documentary on the Hindi film composers Shankar-Jaikishan. I sat next to Nair as he previewed his newly acquired copy of Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer Day (1960), while Mahalia Jackson sang The Lord’s Prayer, a true spiritual experience.
“This must have been a big hit,” said Nair.
“No,” I answered. “It’s an art film. It only played specialty houses.” (In 2012, he told me that the print had probably deteriorated by then, as he doubted that the NFAI had taken care of it.)
Censored cuts in the archive
Then there were the reels of censor cuts deposited at the archive, shown by Nair late at night, drawing large audiences. But Indira Gandhi soon pronounced her Emergency. Caught between the two institutes’ heads, and unable to renew my somewhat dubious student visa, I began to travel around the rest of India, discovering many of its regional cinemas. True, I had seen many award-winning regional films at FTII, but now I was seeing films on their first release and reporting back to Nair on what was new. I discovered Gujarati mythological films, a Tamil version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Dara Singh Punjabi films etc.
There was only one official festival a year by the national government, moving each time to a different city, and I would always see Nair there. Once, in Bangalore there was a festival called ‘Nostalgia,’ borrowing all of its films through Nair from the NFAI. Through Nair also, directly or indirectly, I met the film scholars and historians Satish Bahadur, Theodore Bhaskaran, Amrit Gangar, Randor Guy, Chidananda Das Gupta and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur.
All in all, after another trip overland to Tunisia and back, in the 1970s I spent three years in India. When I had to return home in 1979 on family matters, Nair and I kept in contact first by those old blue airmail letter/envelopes (I remember quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger in one, “I’ll be back”), then by fax, and later by more efficient email and telephone. When he told me about Deepa Mehta’s lesbian drama Fire (1996) I said, “We have the same thing on TV. It’s called Ellen.”
“It’s part of globalisation,” Nair quipped.
When I returned to India in September 2011, after he had retired, we embraced and he told me that I could stay with him whenever I was in Pune. He would watch TV news on NDTV 24/7 in the evening, until I walked in the door, turning it off for our evening film discussions. Nair’s Konkani maid used to get mad because we often would not eat until midnight. One night I swear I heard her grumble, “Son of a b****,” but she couldn’t have said that because she couldn’t speak English (although she called me uncle.) Nair’s diabetes and his limp from being run down by a motorcycle had slowed him down, but he still saw some films at NFAI and the Pune International Film Festival (PIFF), and travelled abroad. We saw several films at the PIFF together.
After spending a year or two as Nair’s guest whenever I was in Pune, one film historian told me that he and Nair, during their evenings together, would each have a nightcap. So, my evenings with Nair became a little more animated, if shorter. We didn’t always agree, like Siskel and Ebert. He called one film that I liked “corny,” but liked my description of Juan Estelrich’s Spanish Bombay Goa Express (2014) on a travel writer who imagines a beautiful woman in his first-class train compartment. It was perhaps the last film we discussed.
Just after my first three years in India, when I was returning home in 1979, I stopped in Paris and discovered the Festival of Third World Cinema, as the developing nations were then called. I introduced myself to the head of the festival and he said, “There is someone in Paris right now from India, for a UNESCO conference, that you may know – a Mr. P.K. Nair.”
“He was my best friend in India,” I answered. Later I’d say that he was my best friend in the whole world.
“He’ll be here in about an hour.”
So, for two weeks I traveled with Nair around and near Paris to various film archives, translating to and from French while he made deals swapping films, including at the Cinémathèque Française. Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque Française, who I had met before going to India and whom Nair considered his guru, had passed away by then. In the balcony of an art cinema I translated the French subtitles in Dusan Makavejev’s sexy/political Sweet Movie (1974) to Nair – one film he knew he would never be able to see in India.
Langlois may have been Nair’s guru, as Nair perhaps was mine, but Nair was not acerbic, as was Langlois. In Dungarpur’s two-hour biographical film on Nair, Celluloid Man (2012), there is a clip of Langlois on a telephone, his French un-translated in subtitles, avoiding someone he didn’t want to speak to. “Mr. Langlois isn’t here right now. But if you call this evening, I’m sure he will be,” Langlois said. Nair would never have done that – he was too nice of a guy.
His favourite film moment
I am probably the last person to film Nair, with my GoPro. Over two settings in 2015 – a Mumbai hotel where we were guests for a screenwriting conference at Whistling Woods and in his flat – I asked him questions about his favorite moments in film, trying to keep his nightcap off-screen. His favorite moment in an Indian film was the bead of sweat that hangs from the nose of an oblivious ektara-player in S. Sukhdev’s documentary India ‘67 and in a foreign film, the torturing of a scorpion by children at the beginning of Henri-Georges Cluzot’s Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953) – a scene not in the NFAI’s print.
My tentative title for this 10-minute short is Celluloid Man Returns.
Nair was planning to shift back to Trivandrum the end of March this year, with all of his film memorabilia (DVDs, books, magazines, catalogs) and set up a trust so that anyone could have access to it. He didn’t want to give it to the NFAI in Pune because he thought (probably rightly so) that they would just dump it in a room somewhere. David Farris, an American I met in Bangalore, says the NFAI refused film director Shyam Benegal’s offer for all of his own original materials.
“May I work in that trust?” I’d asked Nair.
“Yes,” he’d responded.
Now, because he died before moving, there may not be a trust. Will his memorabilia go to Trivandrum, to the NFAI, or possibly to director Dungarpur? Will I ever see that Snatch or the copy of Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art (1974) that I gave him again?
My time with Nair in Paris seems the highpoint of my life. As Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (a play in which I played Vladimir) says to his friend after helping up the other two characters from the ground (I am now paraphrasing), “For that one moment we were needed,” justifying their existence. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do again than translate for Nair in Paris. If he wasn’t my guru, I told him several times he was my best friend in the whole world. Having known him, to me, more than justifies my existence.
Lyle Pearson is a filmmaker, film critic and historian.