Tribute: Legendary film archivist PK Nair (1933-2016)

The former director of the National Film Archive of India has died at 83.

Paramesh Krishnan Nair, the legendary director of the National Film Archive of India, whose efforts resulted in the preservation of hundreds of Indian classics, has died. Nair had been ailing for several weeks and had been hospitalised in Pune, where he lived. He was 83, and is survived by two sons and a daughter.

Nair was the first, and most well-known, director of the government-run archive that was set up in Pune in 1964. By the time the NFAI got running, a bulk of India’s film heritage, including all but a dozen of the 1,200 films made during the silent period from 1912 to 1931, had been lost to neglect and ignorance. Nair set about retrieving surviving prints, starting with the descendants of the man called the “Father of Indian Cinema.” In 1969, Nair travelled to Nashik to meet members of pioneering director Dhundiraj Govind Phalke and returned with the surviving reels of his 1917 film Kaliya Mardan.

Over the years, the NFAI built up a collection of Indian film classics that would otherwise have been lost. “His fantastic achievement was to build the collection that is at the heart of the archive,” said film scholar and author Suresh Chabria, who was the NFAI director from 1992 to 1998. “He fought a lot of odds to get films from the major industries in the east, south and west,” Chabria added. “And for students of the film institute in the 1970s and ’80s, he was a cult figure because he freely showed them films from the archive.”

The celluloid man

One of the best tributes to Nair is in filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary Celluloid Man, made in 2012. Celluloid Man pays handsome tribute not just to Nair’s efforts at the archive, but to his other unofficial accomplishment – building a culture of cinephilia among Film and Television Institute of India students, who would troop across to the NFAI campus for regular screenings of masterworks, sometimes at midnight. Among the several testimonies from such personalities as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Naseeruddin Shah, Nasreen Munni Kabir, Shaji N Karun, Santosh Sivan, Ketan Mehta and Girish Kasarvalli, one by renowned cinematographer and filmmaker Venu is illustrative. The avant-garde Malayalam filmmaker John Abraham walked into Nair’s film at around 3am and demanded a screening of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Mathew. Nair took the film out of the vault, summoned the projectionist, and watched the film with Abraham till the morning.

Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who was an FTII student in the mid-1970s, was loaned a precious NFAI print of Jean Luc-Godard’s French New Wave classic Breathless because he wanted to study the movie’s unique editing pattern. “I can never forget that moment when I had that print in my hand, 16mm print and I went into the editing room, 6 ‘o’ clock in the morning and figured out the cuts…PK Nair loved his prints, didn’t want anything happening to them but when he found a student who was inquisitive, who wanted to learn, he was forthcoming. He said, ‘Take the print and study,’” Chopra told Dungarpur.

Nair was deeply influenced by another legend – Henri Langlois, the co-founder of the Cinematheque Francaise archive in Paris and the International Federation of Film Archives. One of Langlois’s most well-documented ruses to swell the Cinematheque’s collection was to make “dupes”, or duplicates, of international classics that had been sent to Paris for special screenings. Apart from relying on gifts from archives around the world, Nair too made copies of prints that had been sent to India for festivals and embassy screenings, and it is thanks to this act of necessary piracy that the NFAI possesses, and scholars are able to partake of, an estimable collection of some of the world’s greatest filmmakers, including Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Godard and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Nair promoted film preservation long before it became fashionable, said filmmaker and writer Nasreen Munni Kabir. “He had a single-mindedness about preservation and archiving films that I had never encountered before,” Kabir said. “He was preserving the legacy of the country, not his own. He became the face of Indian cinema for the West, but did not use it for the advancement of his career.”

From Thiruvananthapuram to Pune

Dungarpur’s documentary provides a rare and intimate look into Nair’s formative years. He was born on April 6, 1933, and grew up in Thiruvananthapuram. He would obsessively watch films while squatting on the floor of the Sree Padmanabha tent cinema (the movie hall is now one of Thiruvananthapuram’s finest venues). Nair describes himself as an early archivist, storing ticket stubs and other film-related memorabilia.

Against the wishes of his family, Nair came to Mumbai in 1955 to work in the Hindi movie industry. He briefly assisted director Mehboob Khan on the production of Mother India, but realised that filmmaking wasn’t for him. On the advice of Jean Bhownagary, the head of Films Division, Nair joined the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune in 1961 as a research assistant to Satish Bahadur, the renowned professor of film appreciation at the FTII. When the archive was set up in 1964, Nair became a curator and later its first director, a position he held until he retired in 1991.

Celluloid Man reveals the personal costs of Nair’s dedication to cinema. He was wedded to his job, and would often spent most of his free time at his office or the NFAI auditorium, watching films and filling notebook after notebook with his observations. Ketan Mehta, an FTII alumnus, tells Dungarpur that he and a few other students once stole one of Nair’s diaries to find out what they contained. They were filled with minute observations on the quality of the prints and the contents of the films.

“Cinema opened up my vision of life itself... cinema is life itself,” Nair tells Dungarpur. The act of archiving extends to all kinds of films and not only the classics, he added. “From an archival point of view, a Satyajit Ray film is as important as a stunt film,” he says in Celluloid Man. “One can’t select a film based on its contemporary value.”

Dungarpur was among the FTII alumni whose cinematic tastes were indelibly shaped by Nair. Dungarpur enrolled at the institute in 1991, and soaked in the treasures of the NFAI at regular screenings. “There can be no one like him, he was my spiritual father and an inspiration for my foundation,” Dungarpur said. The filmmaker tried to involve Nair with his organisation, and while Nair blessed and supported the effort, he declined a formal position. “Every time I tried to give him a new home, he kept saying, don’t forget the NFAI,” Dungarpur said. “His heart was at the NFAI.”

Inspired by Nair as well as dejected by the indifferent quality of preservation at the NFAI, Dungarpur set up the Film Heritage Foundation in 2014. The foundation organised a workshop on film conservation in collaboration with the NFAI between February 25 and March 6 in Pune. At the first such event in Mumbai in 2015, Dungarpur commemorated Nair at the inaugural function.

After his retirement, Nair continued to be active in the spread of cinephilia. He helped set up the International Film Festival of Kerala in 1996 as well as the film society FILKA.

Nair also served as the IFFK director for a few years. “He could watch a film for ten minutes and know in which direction the film was going,” said Bina Paul, who was recruited by Nair into the Chalachitra Academy that organises IFFK and later served as the festival’s Artistic Director. “He really had the eye and a sense – he wasn’t as bothered about the narrative as he was about cinema,” added Paul, who is the director of the LV Prasad Film and TV Academy in Thiruvananthapuram. “You need to sharpen this skill as a festival director – you need to be able to watch a film, rather than just a story, and we learnt this from Mr Nair.”

Despite his diminished health, Nair was a regular at film festivals until very recently. He could be spotted in the front rows, an assistant in tow, raptly taking in the screen’s offerings. Although he had family in Thiruvananthapuram, he continued to live in Pune.

Nair’s desire to be involved with the NFAI even after his retirement ruffled some feathers. Officials chafed at his brusque manner and habit of pointing out their shortcomings in preserving prints at the right temperature conditions. Dungarpur faced delays in getting permissions to take Nair to the archive to shoot sequences that, when seen now, are particularly poignant. As Nair walks into the vaults, peers at the prints, picks up film cans, examines the labels, and accurately names the reel number for a particular iconic sequence, it is clear that he feels completely at home, as though he had never left.

PK Nair photographed at the NFAI in 1987. Photograph by Peter Chappell.
PK Nair photographed at the NFAI in 1987. Photograph by Peter Chappell.
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