True archivist of cinema

Print edition : May 31, 2013

P.K. Nair carried an encyclopaedic filmic reference in his head and could recall at will which film and which reel in it contained a particular song or important dialogue or sequence.

A still from the film 'Celluloid Man'.

Director Shivendra Singh with P.K. Nair.

AN eight, nine, ten-year-old boy is already falling in love, with cinema. His father frowns on the baneful influence of the silver screen and so he must wait until the household is asleep to sneak out and sprint the fifteen-minute stretch to the movie tent in Thiruvananthapuram to catch the latter half or less of the night show. The cheapest ticket provides the most luxurious setting of a seating, on the bare white sand carted in from Shankumugham beach and evened out across the floor. The white sand, routinely used in rituals and on auspicious occasions, becomes the metaphor of the earthy beginnings of a lifelong affair that shifts from a sense of “wonder and magic” into an “obsession”, and then into an enduring “passion”.

But does the boy get to see the early parts of the films he misses in these nightly escapades? Yes, as, and perhaps more legit, matinee shows on weekends. One cannot help wondering whether this habit of reverse, staggered and repeat viewing of a film in his very early formative years did not endow him with a different, modular, reel-by-reel awareness of the medium.

As the boy grows older he has again to dodge his father’s plans for him to study engineering and move to Mumbai in 1955 hoping to find work as an assistant to any one of the legendary directors, Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt or Raj Kapoor. He manages to contact Mehboob Khan who was then shooting Mother India and who already had six or seven assistants, and could only allow him to stick around, without any payment, keeping dope sheets. The famous cinematographer of the film and of the times, Faredoon Irani, too was virtually inaccessible and our young protagonist, his exposure limited to layers of assistants, is hardly able to really cut his teeth in this very hierarchised industry. As he and some friends then dabble with scripting for a film, it probably begins to dawn on him that making a film does not excite him as much as a made film.

Around this time he meets Rammohan, the famous animator of later years, in the Films Division, who advises him to apply for a position in the new Film Institute—eventually set up in 1960 on the site of the Prabhat Studios in Pune. Four years later, the National Film Archive formally comes into being on the same location and becomes, over the years, synonymous with the name of the young assistant curator who builds it up, as Shyam Benegal puts it, “brick by brick” and, one might add, film can by film can, rising to the position of its director and, beyond, to that of the master archivist of cinema in India, comparable, in peer appraisal (even if as a quieter and more unassuming version), to the formidable collector of cinema and co-founder of the Cinematheque in Paris, Henri Langlois.

Unlikely protagonist

P.K. Nair, or Nair Saab as he is called by succeeding generations of film-makers, cinematographers and other technicians from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and outside, is a very unlikely candidate for the lead role of a film; and a very reluctant one, to boot. As the director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur wearily admits at the very beginning of his adventurous biopic of an icon he is obviously in awe of, it took him eleven visits to Nair over a year before he could persuade him to feature in it. But the adventure pays off and Celluloid Man emerges as a long—all of 155 minutes—unblinking—but no less fascinating for it—Nair gaze.

For all that there is little Nair himself does, or can do because of his difficulty in walking, except hobble with the help of a crutch on locations germane to his occupation and preoccupation with cinema, in his native Thiruvananthapuram, or his home-is-where-the-heart-is Pune, or Nasik where he scooped a Dadasaheb Phalke film; or across and through dank cobweb ridden rooms or corridors on the precincts of the Film Institute with film cans piled on the floors or stacked on a long line of shelves, pausing to examine a can here, a strip of film there; or seated alone amidst rows of empty seats in a preview or commercial theatre, viewing a sequence unspool on the screen… through it all recollecting, recounting in simple terms the simple pleasures of his life, all of which have to do with his love for and acquisitions of films. It is the others—some of the country’s best engaged with the art and the craft of cinema—who construct his image with the building blocks of their first-person experiences and interactions with him, their mostly real and occasionally apocryphal anecdotes surrounding him, their own sense of personal transformation through the films he led them through, and their evocation of a subculture of camp following, intellectual insouciance, and debate or drunken disagreement, all of it revolving around the treasure trove of films that Nair Saab put at their disposal. At the end of it Nair’s virtual and construed, rather than his physical and palpable, presence dominates the screen and our minds.

Shivendra Singh accomplishes this impact by marshalling his vast and varied material in a grand sweep and herding all of it forward, at once particularly and comprehensively, so that no interesting facet or detail is left behind and the Nair saga takes shape before our eyes with a degree of nuance and credible complexity. It is not a predetermined linear narrative—it cannot be that; it flits from idea to idea and person to person, all of which cohere in the underlying persona that the director seems to extract from the footage, rather than conjure up as a romantic portrait. This can be tough going and risky because he is letting the diverse shot stuff—impressionistic accounts, inconclusive threads—determine the structure and pace of the work. But it works, and in the few instances that the effort shows it is because there is no attempt to hide it.

Early in the film, the Polish director and producer Krzysztof Zanussi compares cinema to a butterfly with a short life, which dazzles briefly and then vanishes. Archivists like Nair are those who preserve the butterfly for long after. Zanussi puts his finger on the temporal essence of archiving. In terms of its currency, whether at the box office, or in the festival circuit, or to a niche viewership, a film has an expiry date; as an archival entity it almost certainly does not. It has relevance, even an immediacy, which has nothing to do with its period setting. Such presence of the past comes alive in one track of the film which fields the raconteurs—illustrious alumni of the Film Institute whose minds and creative energies were vivified by Nair’s archives. The other track, featuring for a good part Nair in sombrely lit settings, bears the tone and tenor of loss and perdition, as the materiality of celluloid yields to digital pixellation. The tension between the two tracks adds to the viewer’s engagement with the work.

The categories of memory, nostalgia and archiving jostle with one another for our attention. There is a standard portrait of the archivist that emerges from many remembrances: one in the darkened auditorium while a film is being screened making continuous notes about it with a pen and a pen torch—“a little light and a man with a pen making notes about the film”, as film-maker Saeed Mirza puts it. Girish Kasaravalli remembers taking to note-taking in the Nair fashion and Ketan Mehta about some of them sneaking into his room to check what the notes said and discovering that they were meticulous entries including such detail as at what point the emulsion of the film stock wears thin.

There is then the widely shared memory of the Nair who carried an encyclopaedic filmic reference in his head. He could recall at will which film and which reel in it contained a particular song or important dialogue or sequence and would reel off, on the phone to the projectionist, the reel numbers across different films in their screening order for an evening’s session, leaving those witnessing this remarkable feat of memory awestruck. Where the memories turn into nostalgia they become more subjective and to that extent less verifiable.

Where the nostalgia of the one does not match the memory of the other, Shivendra Singh just lets it be without attempting to smoothen it over. Film-maker K. Hariharan remembers the enfant terrible of the Indian new wave, Ritwik Ghatak (who detested Ingmar Bergman, loved Alexander Dovzhenko and held that Satyajit Ray had made only one-and-a-half films: Pather Panchali and the first half of Aparajito), kicking up a shindy with Nair about screening Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide because it was based on puppetry and did not qualify as legitimate cinema. Nair, however, does not believe this happened and thinks Hariharan must be imagining it. The director’s openness in letting that contradiction stay unresolved does not, however, detract from the credibility of other memory bites, or of the film as a whole. After all, as Oliver Sacks, citing the psychologist Donald Spence, points out in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, there is “historical truth” and there is “narrative truth”, the latter being vulnerable to honest confusion, compounded by time, of hearsay with personal knowledge, so much so that you believe you remember something as directly experienced by you when in fact it was borrowed from, or planted in you by, another person. Such paradoxes, if anything, provide the interpretative and contemplative spaces that enrich a film on an archivist and archiving.

The combination of narrative and historical truth is what makes Celluloid Man tick. We travel with Nair to Nasik to revisit his trip there in 1969 in search of any footage available from the silent era films of Phalke. Nair remembers that first visit in a “paper taxi” (that is, taxi that carried the first morning edition of the daily Kesari,published from Pune, to Nasik) so that should he find anything he could bring it back in the vehicle that would normally return empty. Miraculously he finds a wooden box in Phalke’s house with rolls of film and piecing them together with the help of notes also left behind in the box by the director, reassemble them into Kaliyamardan, the only complete Phalke film now available.

Arrival of sound

We are with him on the historical location of Raja Harishchandra. We hear him remember how he went about doggedly collecting anything and everything he could lay his hands on from the silent era of 1912 to 1931; and yet from over 1,200 films made in that period only 10 or 12 could be traced and archived. We listen on in dismay as he tells us about his attempt to procure the first Indian talkie, Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara, only to learn from Irani’s son that he had sold three reels of the film for the value of the silver that could be extracted from them. In one of the docu-feature’s riveting asides, dancer Sitara Devi recalls the shift in the experience of viewing cinema as movies transited from silence to sound. For the viewers used to mouthing together in a subdued murmur the captions that conveyed each dialogue of a silent film, the arrival of sound was nothing short of devastating.

Nair then takes us through his pursuit of the productions of the big studios of the sound era—Bombay Talkies, Modern Theatres of Salem, Pancholi Studios of Lahore, New Theatres in Calcutta, Gemini Studios in Madras; his acquisition of the body of work of the mainstream and parallel Indian cinema in different languages and of world cinema until he had built up a collection of 12,000 titles, 8,000 of them Indian, by the time he retired. In this collection drive, the reputation of the film or the film-maker made little difference to him. “From an archival point of view”, he says, “a Satyajit Ray film is as important as a John Cawas-Nadia stunt film.” His single-minded nose-to-the-grindstone approach to the serious task of building the archives and making it an organic part of the learning experience at the FTII in Pune quickly won him the admiration and respect of successive batches and generations of students. It took the industry and film fraternity outside longer to recognise his pioneering work; and much of it may still not be aware of what he meant, or means, to cinema in India. But from those who know the praise is fulsome. The veteran Sri Lankan director Lester James Peres calls him the “custodian of Indian cinema”. Lyricist Gulzar sees him as no less than Dadasaheb Phalke in his own right. For Balu Mahendra he is a father figure. Shyam Benegal and Mrinal Sen equate him with Langlois. The list of those he touched and who recall it memorably goes on: Kumar Shahani, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Naseeruddin Shah, Jahnu Barua, Mahesh Bhatt, Kamal Haasan, Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu, Rajkumar Hirani, Shabana Azmi, Jaya Bachchan, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Kundan Shah.…

Shivendra Singh does not allow such growing adulation to make his protagonist appear sanctimonious. In a defining, and perhaps defiant, moment of the film he forces the issue on the matter of a rumour delightfully shared by Nair acolytes: that he would, like Langlois who had the same reputation, go to any extent, including pirating a copy, to procure a film he badly needed for the archive. As Nair is seated alone amidst rows of empty seats in a long shot of the interior of a cinema hall, a question is suddenly sprung to him by a voice off the frame. Does he steal films? Nair does not, or pretends he does not, hear the question. It is repeated, but again does not elicit a response and the shot is cut. We do not know what then transpired off screen. But the next shot has him closer and includes the clapboard; and Nair begins his response saying “stealing” is not a nice word to use. He then goes on to admit how, when he had the Argentinean film The Hour of the Furnaces at the archives for a festival, he kept it for an extra day or two to make a dupe copy, and did not put it on record that he had done so. “I think,” he concludes stoically, “a true archivist should have the immunity to overcome all these legal problems.”