"I Wish To See Those B&W Images Again & Again"- The Time P.K. Nair Opened Up On A Lifetime Spent Saving India's Cinematic Heritage!

By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on March 05, 2016

"A few days before, he had been rushed to the hospital and his son, Bikash, sent me a message saying that when he was in the ICU, unconscious, he was murmuring 'where is the screen?', perhaps imagining himself in a projection room watching a film", writes filmmaker-archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur in his article remembering the life and time of P. K. Nair. That was how much he loved cinema.

P. K. Nair, India's legendary archivist, the man to whom we owe a significant part of our film legacy, has passed away. What he has left behind, is the precious heritage of Indian cinema that he saved from fading into oblivion, the wonderful institution that is NFAI and a generation of students and filmmakers whom he inspired.

He played a key role in archiving and restoring lost gems of Indian cinema and had been associated with the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) since well before its inception. By the time he retired as the director of NFAI, Nair had acquired 12,000 films for the Archive,8,000 of which are Indian.

The journey started in early 50's once he discovered his passion for cinema. The young Nair traveled to Mumbai from a small town in Kerala in search of his dreams. After working in the industry and learning the craft, he started working at the FTII, as he realized that the academic setup was more suited to his persona. However, archiving was his real calling. Nair went on to become the founder-director of the National Archive and made the tremendously tough task of film archiving his life's mission.

Indians are, by nature mythological people who've lacked a historical perspective, which is quite visible in the lack of efforts to conserve our heritage. This was also true for our film heritage. According to statistics, there were around 1700-1800 films made in India during the silent era of cinema. Unfortunately, out of those, we have been able to restore only 9-10 films, some of which are incomplete. If it wasn't for Nair, we would've lost the entire heritage of silent cinema.

He went lengths to retrieve films, traveled to the far corners of the country, convinced people against selling of the nitrate reels for money, collected film reels from cow sheds. Dadasaheb Phalke's films Raja Harishchandra (1913), Kaliya Mardan (1919) Franz Osten's Achhut Kanya (1936), S. S. Vasan's Chandralekha  and Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948) are some significant gems that Nair restored and archived. The life and work of this unsung hero has been captured in the documentary Celluloid Man by his disciple and the founder of Film Heritage Foundation, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur.

Generations of FTII students graduated under his guidance. He would always try to get more and better films for the students to watch. Naseeruddin Shah said recently at an inauguration function of the Film Preservation and Restoration Workshop organised by Film Heritage Foundation, "There would be so many films screening at FTII. Some we loved, some we couldn't sit through. We'd move in and out of the theaters, but there was always this man in the corner, with a small torch, taking notes diligently. He used to be there every single day. That man was P. K. Nair.  I can’t thank Nair Saab enough because he has inspired a generation of youngsters to follow him in his footsteps."

We had an opportunity to meet P. K. Nair couple months back. When we talked to him sitting in the living room of his small, dimly lit apartment in the lush, tranquil neighborhood of the Film Institute, we could feel his passion reflected in his words, his body language. As he talked passionately about cinema, we got the feeling of standing in the shade of a wise, age old Banyan tree, who has seen it all through the years. He was unwell, having been discharged from the hospital only a couple of days back. But when he started talking about his one and only love, the mission of his life- cinema, he forgot everything else. His eyes lit up as he talked about the good old days at the NFAI and shared anecdotes one after the other including how he retrieved films from cow sheds.

The biggest smile spread across his face as he talked fondly of the old black and white classics he dearly loved and a sad note resonated in his voice along with deep nostalgia as he told us how much he missed putting a 35mm film in the Steenbeck table, pausing it at particular frames and looking into the minute details of it. You could tell just by looking at him speak how dearly and genuinely he loved cinema!

He didn't simply love cinema, he dedicated his entire life to cinema. We owe this heritage of films that we boast about to this one man, who dedicated his life to the noble, no matter how thankless, pursuit of film archiving. While we put up the video of the interview in sometime, we've compiled excerpts from the interview for you.

On How He Fell In Love With Cinema

Since the first film I saw, back in 1940, sitting on the floor in a tent cinema in Trivandrum- an old Tamil mythological film- I started loving cinema. Because that was a real wonder for a boy like me, watching moving images flash on the screen and the characters from Puranas appearing on the screen. That was quite an experience for me. And then I kept on watching films. After a few years I really fell in love with cinema. Actually the first 10 years or so was a growing period; trying to understand, come to grips with the medium. Later by 1950 or so, I found out that cinema was not merely for entertainment and much more, to tell about life, about places and about people, people not only of your country, but of different races. Lot of ideas are inherent in cinema, that was something I found out a decade later.

And that made me more involved with cinema as a medium. The real films which provoked me as a viewer, were The Bicycle Thieves of Vittorio De Sica and Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, films like that you know! These films had an impact on my psyche.

I used to watch every film that used to come to my town. In those days that was only the Tamil films. And then the Hindi films, most of them were from Bollywood. So I used to be a very ardent film-goer. Watching at least 2 to 3 films per day. That's how I grew up and slowly over the years it all evolved. There was something of an archivist in me, I didn't notice at that time. I started collecting things, like the synopsis of the films, and even the publicity material like photographs and pamphlets and things like that. I had a private collection of mine. And then there were lots of film magazines that I would read, like Screen. This was between 1945 to 55, it was my growing up period. When I understood cinema as a medium. I was at Trivandrum at that time. I decided that this is what I wanted to choose as my profession.

On Coming To Bombay & The Times Of Struggle

I thought I must train myself to become a filmmaker. And with that intention, because I was very much influenced by the filmmakers in Bombay like Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor of course, I came down to Bombay. With the intention of working with filmmakers and tried to learn the gadgets of filmmaking. I was prepared to work for free, without any payment as I wanted to learn. I went to Mehboob Khan looking for a place in his unit. But I found out that he had already got six assistants. There wasn't a place for me. But I was allowed to be on the set as an observer. He advised me to be with his assistant who was making a comedy, as there was more space there. Anyhow, I got accepted to work in the Mehboob Studios. The cameraman's assistant was a Keralite, so I could talk to him. I established a kind of rapport with him. I was impressed with Mehboob's shot takings. He would take a shot from the top angle and then immediately  come down to below the belt angle. He was a very strict disciplinarian.

When they were not shooting I would got to other studios. Bimal Roy was working on Devdas at that time, starring Dilip Kumar and Suchitra Sen. Raj Kapoor had finished Jaagte Raho, that was the time when I went to RK Studios. People like Kedar Sharma, these were the directors who really influenced me. I could get in touch with many filmmakers, cameramen, technicians, editors. Bimal Roy also said that he didn't have any space in his unit. But he referred me to Hrishi da (Hrishikesh Mukherjee), who had just completed a film called Musaafir. Hrishi da was very helpful to me. He'd take me in his car and he would discuss the script of his next film Anaari with me. He was planning the film with Raj Kapoor and Nutan in it. At that time apart from working on his script, he was also editing other films. He used to edit non-Hindi films at his setup in Worli, like the Bengali film Ganga. There were lot of other independent films under his care. So I used to be associated with all of his work.

And whenever I'd get time, I used to peep into this adjacent room, where they used to screen the film societies' films. They used to gather in a small room to watch films, sitting on the floor. There were some film societies, Bombay Film Society and Anandam Film Society. So I used to see a lot of films screened by Anandam. It wasn't a problem to get into the theater, they'd allow me to sit and watch the films.  There I got introduced to the film society audience. They were a new audience at that time. They were looking for new kind of cinema- like they were looking for different kinds of films from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and from other countries. The kind of films which were never seen in India. Here I was exposed to that kind of cinema. This was around 56-57. In 59-60, I got into some odd jobs to support my stay in Mumbai, but I kept watching films. One of the films I absolutely loved at that time was North by Northwest, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

On Coming To FTII

There was this great man called John Bhavnagri, who was the officer on special duty (at Films Division). He had come from UNESCO. He was trying to revive the Film Division at that time. I met him and told him about my background and that I had tried to work in the industry but it was very difficult. After hearing about my background for some time, he told me, 'See Mr. Nair, your place isn't here, your place is in Pune. We're starting a film institute in a couple of months. Seeing your background, you have an academic mind, so you will be more suited in an academic setup than in the industry.

So I went to the FTII (Film & Television Institute of India) for a job & in March 1961, after being interviewed by Gajanan Jahagirdar, the principal and the controller of production, Mr. Ranade, I joined FTII as a research assistant. Then the academic activities at the institute started. I was asked to build the institute's library. I also had to get the syllabus from other institutes, as it was in a very initial stage. So I used to correspond with various film institutes. We got a lot of material from France and several university setups from USA.  So we looked at the syllabi, compared and created a syllabus for the institute. Initially the started with refresher course for film technicians who were working in the industry. This was the pilot project and a 6 week program was conducted. The full time courses were delayed due to the Panshet flood that occurred in Poona. So the campus of the institute was used as a shelter for the affected. Finally, the courses started in August. There were 4 full time courses at FTII initially- film direction, script writing, editing and sound recording & engineering.  After 2 years, the course in acting was added.

The Inception Of NFAI

I was doing the research work at FTII. In 1963, Satish Bahadur joined FTII as the professor for film appreciation. But even before that I had been asked  to do the initial groundwork of setting up the archives. So I was connected with the Archive before the beginning.

In 1964, officially I was selected as the Assistant to Director of NFAI (National Film Archive of India). Professor Bahadur was looking after the Archive in general and I was assisting him. We did a lot of the groundwork of the constitution of the Archive. We had a lot of correspondence with foreign archives.

The National Awards had started in the year 1954. At that time there was a rule that the films that had won the awards were to be given to the government. So they had prints of all these films, which were kept with the censor board. We were asked to take over this collection. These films were the initial collection of the NFAI, which was about 120 films.

When we corresponded with different archives, we were told that we shouldn't only keep the award winning films. That's only a small section of films. We should keep all the films that are made in the country. That was a big question at that time because we' were producing around 700 films even at that time annually. Later it went up to 900 plus. So later when I took over charge,  I was looking for old films available.

PK Nair

PK Nair at the NFAI in 1987. Photograph by Peter Chappell. (Photo Courtesy: Scroll.in)

There were also a lot of reports in the press of Phalke's films getting destroyed. There was a lot of criticism. I was keen on retrieving those films. I got into touch with Phalke's family. Whatever reels they could give me, I collected from them. From one of his sons we collected one reel and from his daughter we collected another reel of Raja Harishchandra, his first film. Out of the total four reels, we could only find the first and the last reel. Till date, we have only 50% of the film. There are other films of him that we were able to retrieve, though incomplete- like Shri Krishna Janma, Kaliya Mardan and Bhakt Prahlad. Kaliya Mardan was a great discovery. I went all the way to Nasik to collect the film. One of the sons said that he had a few reels in the attic in his family house. So I took a taxi and went in the morning, collected the reels and came back in the evening the next day.

They were nitrate films. In those days, Sodium Nitrate was the material used in films and it's highly inflammable so it needed careful handling.

1965 onward, the collection went on. I was then searching for the great films of all these famous studios like Bombay Talkies, Wadia Borthers, Sohrab Modi's films, Calcutta New Theaters. B M Sircar of Calcutta New Theaters was very obliging. Whatever material he had he let us take it over. But they were not the negatives, they were duplicates. Because the negatives were destroyed in a fire in their studio in 39. It was a continuous process of collection.

On The Lost Heritage Of Films

While searching for the old films we found out that there were around 1700-1800 silent films that were made. Unfortunately, out of that we have been able to restore only 9-10 films, and some of them are incomplete. Of that, 3 films we got from the British archives, like Throw of Dice, which were co-productions with Germany & Britain. Anyhow, I'd say we made a modest beginning.

Then later in 67-68 NFAI became the member of the international body FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives). It's the world organization, which coordinates the work of the archives all over the world. NFAI was among the earliest members of FIAF. At that time there were only 50-60 members, but now there are more than 200 members of FIAF.

The idea of archive was slowly growing. It took time to convince people that we need to preserve.

And then in between the digital technology came. Earlier we were concerned about preserving the celluloid films. But by the late 70's or 80's, we would collect in the film form, but we could use the digital technology to duplicate films for viewing. Instead of running the film, you could run the digital copy. That was used mainly for study purposes.

On The Difference Between Preserving In Film & Preserving In Digital Format

Even today, all over the world, there's talk going on about whether to preserve cinema on film or in digital format.

The digital technology has a longer duration. But one never knows how long it will last. Technically, it'll last longer than the film. The quality of the image on digital is never the same as the cellulose image. On celluloid you get an optical image, that'll be different.

If you have a film in film format, you shouldn't digitize the film and throw away the film. You should preserve it in the celluloid form. A film made in celluloid shouldn't be digitized for archiving purpose. Yes, you can digitize it for study purpose or other purposes. Anyhow, whatever material we have on film, we have it on both film & in digital.

The digital technology is very useful. You can copy the film in a DVD and take it with you any time. So the use of the film becomes easier and wider. But the tonal quality of the b&w image is different on film and in digital. So there are advantages as well as disadvantages.

On Finding Rare Gems By Perseverance & Sheer Luck

Many films we found by sheer luck. A film we retrieved from a cow shed in Calcutta. We couldn't copy it as the damage was too much. Sometimes the old films get really hard as stone. They're all stuck together and if you try to open and separate them they'll break and come off like mica. Anyhow, we could salvage some of it, we could copy only one reel. It was Kedar Sharma's 1940 film Chitralekha.

It is a tremendous task to salvage the films that have been damaged beyond repair. But now digital technology is very useful.

We make a huge number of films in India. Some 1000 odd feature films every year from all over the country. Especially the production in the South is very great. And nobody knows how the films are kept. So many of the films are destroyed. Maximum life of a cellulose film is about 10 years. If it survives beyond that it's a wonder. There are two or three Prabhat films of 1930's which have survived, but that's a real wonder. We shouldn't take it for granted.

On Being A Part Of The Film Heritage Foundation & The Present Situation Of Archiving

I am a part of the Film Heritage Foundation, which is founded by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. We are working on a list of 100 films to restore on a priority basis. Even that is very difficult to achieve. Restoration takes time, costs money, sometimes needs international collaborations for the technical know how. So we can only restore 5-10 films a year maximum with international cooperation. It takes at least 2-3 months to restore a film if all the material is there. When the original cellulose material isn't there, it can take even longer.

Indian films are available not just in India, but everywhere in the world. Every country takes care of their own heritage. So if France has an Indian film and  French film, their priority would be the French film. It's obvious. It's our job to retrieve Indian cinema from all over the world.

So, we should try to collect as many films and funds for the restoration. And not even that, funds can be made available.

In India, film isn't considered a part of our heritage. That mentality should be changed. Then only we can find money for archiving. However, also in a country where there's no proper drinking water, no electricity, the priority can't be given to cinema.

On The Skill Set That An Archivist Should  Possess

First of all, you must love cinema! Secondly, you also need to be able to decide. Suppose you have two films, both of equal importance, how do you decide which one to take up first? That's a big question.

Perhaps use your personal likes or dislikes.  If I get two films from 1943, I have to make a choice, I can't help it. Mostly, it happens that you can't decide. Maybe you can just flip a coin. Then you shouldn't waste time in deciding. Just take up any film. As a lover of cinema, you can't just wait and waste time.

Time is extremely important. Even right now, as we talk, films are being destroyed out there. Who's responsible? And that's the situation all over the country and not just in India, but the entire world.


A still from Celluloid Man

On Film Festivals

1975 onward, film festivals started creating an attitude towards cinema. Now every state in India has their won film festival. There should be more film festivals. Film festivals now have become more organised, more selective. You have festivals dedicated to documentaries,, short films, fiction; then there are theme-based festivals, like a film festival of films on the Buddhist philosophy.

Some festivals come up and you have never heard of the theme or the concept. Films can really open up your ideas, they can enlarge your world view. Your understanding of life. Of people.

On His Favorite Film & Filmmakers

There are so many. Films from the 30's and the 40's I loved. It all seems lost in the oblivion. But when I try to recollect, I remember watching Metropolis, Last Love. I still like the films from the 20's and 30's. I don't know why.

There are so many filmmakers I love. There's Billy Wilder, who wasn't from the US, he was from Austria. Oh, I cannot pick one film or filmmaker.

Among Indian filmmakers, I like the work of Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor of course. Guru Dutt is one filmmaker whom I consider to be a great international figure. He understood the importance of cinema both as an art form and as a commercial exercise. His cinema was both for the masses and the classes.

There are old films, not entire films maybe, but sections of films that I consider as great cinema. Like there's another film called Gopinath, a Tamil film that's another one of my favorites. It was made by Mahesh Kaul, Mani Kaul's uncle. Partly made in Calcutta, partly in Bombay.

I don't really like new films. I watched a few Indian films at Jio MAMI film festival last year. But the films aren't saying anything new. They should try to say something new.

On What He Misses Most About His Work

What do I miss? I miss putting the film on the Steenbeck table. Pausing at particular frames, looking at the details, the minute details of it. And going back and forwarding it. There are so many old Indian films; nobody has found out the greatness of these films, because nobody has looked at them in minor details. So I wish I had time to sit in front of the Steenbeck table again and put the film in it. The 35mm cellulose, not the digital one. I never liked to watch a digital film. The image quality is incomparable.

I wish to see those black and white images again and again. Now my eyesight is slightly dim, so I cannot see the image correctly. So, I can't watch films in theaters. But I guess you have to stop at a certain point.


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