Archiving an archivist

Print edition : August 18, 2017
An anthology of P.K. Nair’s writings provides one a glimpse into the heart and mind of a diehard cinephile who was also an archivist, a chronicler and an astute and incisive critic.

IF at all anything remains of Indian cinema today in terms of negatives, prints, publicity materials, song books, bills or any other memorabilia, it is thanks to one man, P.K. Nair (1933-2016). He was the founder and former director of the National Film Archive of India, Pune, which he established from scratch by collecting films from all over India and the world. His was a life dedicated to cinema, a passion he pursued until his last breath, travelling all over the country scouting for old negatives and prints; pleading with producers, directors, distributors, their kith and kin; and convincing studios, laboratories and theatres about the need to salvage whatever they could of Indian cinema.

In his own words: “Nearly 70 per cent of the pre-1950s Indian cinema, especially of the nitrate era, has been lost forever.” This, in a country that prides itself on being one of the biggest film producers in the world, where, unlike elsewhere, national cinema has not only survived Hollywood but has overcome it. Throughout his life, Nair fought this utter lack of regard for film heritage or the refusal to consider film as heritage. But for him, one would not have seen Dadasaheb Phalke films or many other films of the silent era. For instance, though thousands of silent feature-length films were made in the south, only one film, Marthanda Varma, survives today, thanks to a legal dispute following its first screening in Thiruvananthapuram (also Nair’s hometown). Nair played a crucial role in rescuing and restoring it.

The passion for archiving is an indication of a certain relationship with the past, and in Nair’s case, an obsession with it. In Celluloid Man(2012), the documentary on him directed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, this is how Nair described his relationship with cinema: “Cinema started as a wonder and magic; that’s the way I felt during my childhood. Later, it became a kind of obsession and finally a passion. But now, looking back, I find cinema is very much part of me and my life. I understood the world and the people much better through my long journey with cinema… it has opened up my vision of life itself. So I consider and look at cinema as life itself.”

This anthology of P.K. Nair’s writings, Yesterday’s Films for Tomorrow, edited by Rajesh Devraj provides the reader a glimpse into the heart and mind of a diehard cinephile who was also an archivist, a chronicler and an astute and incisive critic. Splendidly produced with quality reproductions of archival pictures and poster images, the book contains five sections organised from different perspectives: as a moviegoer, a film archivist, a historian, a critic and a columnist. The first part contains an autobiographical account of Nair’s first encounters with cinema and his youthful romance with the movie world, which lured him to Bombay (now Mumbai) to become part of it.

The second part is about the challenges and importance of film preservation and archiving in India, including a chapter on 10 Indian film “treasures” that could never be found and archived. The film historian in him takes a panoramic look at various aspects of Indian cinema, presenting interesting observations and cryptic commentaries on the evolution of the medium in the Indian context. An interesting article in this section is on film posters that has iconic images to illustrate Nair’s observations on film publicity in India. The next section gathers some of his writings on themes such as Partition, the “Devdas syndrome” and songs, and on film-makers such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan and John Abraham. The last section presents Nair’s musings on general aspects of the film medium: its entertainment, education and enlightenment quotients; cellulose technology; and training for future film-makers (“I would rather make film-makers than films,” said Nair).

Lucid writing

What strikes the reader immediately is the lucid writing, which is precise and never compromises on clarity. Nair was not a professional historian, film theoretician or critic, and his writings were driven primarily by his passion for the medium, which included absolutely every little thing related to it. His astute observations inspired by years of viewing are peppered with anecdotes and personal memoirs. Dispassionate and untainted by preset theories, Nair’s writings cover topics without being bounded by disciplinary territories or ideological bondages. So, anyone interested in Indian cinema, whether a viewer, reviewer, scholar, critic or historian, will find something of interest here.

Listen to the sensuality Nair exudes while describing the hallmarks of the “traditional movie palace”: “…the illuminated hoardings and banners in front of the theatre, the huge entrance, the rows of marble steps, the sliding glass doors, the red-carpeted winding staircases leading to the spacious and chandeliered foyer, the air-conditioned auditorium with rows of push-back cushion seats, the decorative murals on the acoustically treated walls, the outsized wall-to-wall Cinemascope screen protected by an eye-catching velvet curtain, and last but not the least, the spotlessly clean and scented toilets” (page 20).

Here is the indomitable archivist in him speaking: “…‘lost’ films have turned up in the most unexpected places and the film archivist keeps hoping that the film he [throughout the book, Nair is unashamedly and innocently masculine!] is looking for will one day be found. He waits for miracles, and miracles do sometimes happen” (page 27).

As an archivist, he has several interesting and instructive lessons to offer his successors. For instance, one would think that digital technology has made archiving easier, but Nair calls for caution. For, digitising also involves “tampering with the original work” to make it look “flawless”, which Nair feels “poses several moral and ethical issues”. A flawless digital restoration that removed all the technical deficiencies and inconsistencies of the original “would be erasing a part of the film’s history as well”, which was unpardonable as far as Nair was concerned. According to him, before such “corrections” are made, the archive should be allowed to make a dupe negative or a positive copy of the original so that the future historian or scholar can get the feel of the unrestored original.

A film scholar or historian will be interested in Nair’s insightful observations about the early practices of censorship under the colonial regime: “[T]he British did not distinguish between violence in the context of valour and chivalry as depicted in a mythological by a character such as Bhim or Arjun and the sadistic violence in an American Western or crime thriller…. It is also strange that the British were unconcerned by onscreen displays of affection in the form of petting, hugging, caressing and above all, kissing—in fact, in the context of lovemaking, it was not objected to at all. The taboo regarding kissing in Indian film only developed later. Kissing scenes were commonplace in the 1920s and 1930s…. Kissing disappeared from the Indian screen not because of censorship, but a collective and self-imposed decision by the patriotic film community, which did not wish to imitate Western culture or submit to its onslaught” (page 89).


The book is peppered with anecdotes that would interest the film buff: for instance, though one may have heard of V. Shantaram’s Aadmi, how many people know that it was made in order to counter the overwhelming popularity of Devdas, which Shantaram thought projected a negative philosophy of life? Another one relates how Vyjayantimala refused to accept a supporting actress award for her role in Bimal Roy’s Devdas. She claimed hers was the main role.

Nair has made some intriguing remarks about what “reality” meant to Indian film-makers, which he thinks is “a different concept compared to the popular notions prevalent in the West. Photographic realism has never been the forte of the indigenous film-maker. He believed in the concept of ‘masked reality’ in its ultimate spiritual sense, Maya or illusion, as epitomised in the great epics. From this point of view, fiction and fantasy become more relevant in the Indian context than stark naked reality” (page 191). Nair argues that this was why post-Independence Indian film-makers found it difficult to fictionalise a fresh and shattering national tragedy like Partition. He extends the argument by saying that he considers this trait one of the legacies of Indian film-makers who had been “compelled to function under a colonial regime in the early days and later under a nationalist government with definite political agendas”. One may find both arguments to be gross generalisations, but they do make one think about the legacies of Indian cinema in different ways.

Nair was a staunch nationalist and an institution-builder in the public sector, and his opinions and ideas were, no doubt, shaped by Nehruvian legacies; this is a legacy of an undying commitment to public institutions and an unimpeachable love for common heritage and history, which are fast losing their hold in India today. This is another reason why this book and the legacy of someone like Nair need to be treasured and carried forward. The book is a collector’s item for every film lover.

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