WHEN I joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, in 1991, PK Nair was about retire as the Director of National Film Archive of India (NFAI). Every time I went to watch a screening at the FTII auditorium, he would be seated in a particular chair with a small torch and diary. The NFAI did not have its auditorium then and films from its archives were screened at the the FTII auditorium. As we watched the movies, he would keep taking notes about its lighting, condition of the print, scenes and other details. He never distinguished between films — he watched films in every language and even student diploma films with equal intensity as a passionate archivist.
I did not realise the influence that Nairsaab’s deep dedication to preservation and conservation of cinema had on me till in 2010 when I went to Cinema Ritrovato — a festival dedicated to the rediscovery of rare and little-known films with a focus on movies from the silent era. The experience of this festival, made me understand Nairsaab’s passion for archiving better.
That is when I thought of documenting the work he is doing. The Celluloid Man, a documentary directed by me, was released three years later.
Nairsaab was not only the Founder and former Director of NFAI, he also created a generation of filmmakers by exposing them to the best of cinema from across the world. During his three-decade-long tenure at NFAI, he collected films from various parts of India as well as abroad, almost single-handedly. This required constant follow-ups, meetings with producers and distributors, approaching foreign embassies and even frequent visits to Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar.
It is because of him that so many old India films could be saved. He shared a wonderful relationship with prominent filmmakers such as JBH Wadia, Sohrab Modi and SS Vasan. He went great lengths to collect materials related to Alam Ara, India’s first talkie, which is lost now, from its director Ardeshir Irani. In 1970, Uday Shankar personally gave him the print of Kalpana (1948), which was later restored and showcased at international festivals.
I derive the idea of archiving, on which my Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) is based, from him. On February 25, the second edition of FHF’s Film Preservation and Restoration Workshop India 2016 was inaugurated. Nairsaab was very excited about it. However, he could not be present due to ill health. We dedicated the workshop to him. He was also the architect of film archive of Bangladesh, apart from helping in the conservation of a number of Sri Lankan films.
At a time when the only way to know about world cinema was to watch screenings at film festivals, Nairsaab introduced FTII students to the masters of international cinema and their works. In The Celluloid Man, director-producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra recalls telling Nairsaab that he wanted to study a shot in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Nairsaab took out the can containing the films that had the particular shot.
It’s film reels, not VHS, that break down the shots and help one study them. Nairsaab was aware of this and emphasised on preserving them. He knew what each can of films at NFAI contained. So involved was he with his job that he often neglected his family.
In spite of his remarkable work in film conservation and archiving, Nairsaab has not been honoured with any of the Padma awards. Though people from different quarters demanded that he should be given the Dadasaheb Phalke award, the government never paid attention to it.
Ironically, we would have lost whatever remains of Phalke’s films had it not been for Nairsaab’s efforts. He found Phalke’s Kaliya Mardan (1919) in pieces. Luckily, he also found Phalke’s diary and joined it together and joined the reels of Kaliya Mardan following Phalke’s notes.