Look Back in Wonder

The early days of Indian cinema come alive in this edited compilation of notes from legendary archivist PK Nair’s diaries

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published:April 22, 2017 1:59 am

Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow
PK Nair
Film Heritage Foundation
263 pages
` 495

Indian cinema has had practically no serious chroniclers. That sad fact has been in play for a long time, periodically brought out for an airing by sundry committees and well-meaning panels, but never adequately addressed, and then buried again till the next time.

The one man who almost single-handedly fought this general disinterest and apathy was PK Nair. Nair sa’ab, as he was known to generations of filmmakers in India and around the world, was a one-man army, who fell in love with cinema at a young age, and became an enthusiast, chronicler and preservator, all rolled into one.

The book calls him a “collector, a cinephile, a historian, an archivist, an evangelist, a teacher and a student of cinema.” For anyone else, it may sound like hyperbole. For Nair, the multiple descriptors were a complete fit.

A 2012 film made on his life and times — Celluloid Man by Shivendra Dungarpur — was an eye-opener, even for those who knew of his zeal to document, obsessively, every single detail of every single film he could lay his hands on while he was heading the National Film Archive of India (NFAI).

Nair passed away in 2016. He was a familiar presence at film festivals, even when he was wheelchair-bound, in his final years. Even a few moments with him could make a difference in the way you viewed a certain film, because he could layer it with so much detail.

That love of minutiae is evident in Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow, which is an edited compilation of Nair’s notes, culled from his diaries and files, as well as from articles which contained his thoughts on the films he was engaged with, at the time.

It is a beautifully produced edition, and as I’ve rifled through it, my knowledge of the beginnings of Indian cinema, especially in the days before Independence, and of the origins of Tamil and Malayalam cinema, has grown. It is one thing to read about these developments in dry academic tomes; it is quite another to see them through the eyes of a passionate lover of film who lived through those times.

And for someone who came across as such a venerable, if slightly dour and formidable, repository of film history, it comes as a surprise to know that Nair was a huge fan of mainstream meister Mehboob (he calls himself an “ardent admirer”), in whose films he noticed a “certain slickness and technical polish” comparable to the best of Hollywood.

Nair even showed up in Bombay in the mid-50s to learn filmmaking from Mehboob. It was the time when the mega successful producer and director was planning Mother India: we get a dryly humourous account of how Rajendra Kumar who was “desperately trying to impress Mehboob with his Dilip Kumar look”, made it into the iconic movie, and how Sunil Dutt got the most important role of his life.

There’s also a lovely anecdote about how Nargis totally immersed herself in her iconic role, “smearing her face and body with muddy water… for one of the post-flood scenes”. And how she “begged Kanhaiyalal’s pardon for the force with which she beats him, and how he stumbles through the fields, and runs for his life”. Nair’s observation was acute, and his clear, precise writing, unburdened by unnecessary flourishes, takes us right to the scene as it was being shot: what better view of film history can you get?

His brief account of the chapter called ‘Lost Films’ makes for poignant reading. So many films, especially from the silent era, had gone missing or been destroyed (the nitrate that was used for film at the time was highly flammable, and was prone to catching fire: the quantum of our cinematic heritage we’ve lost to fire is nothing short of tragic).

Interestingly, too, he displays a conservatism in his writing which is quite striking: was there a puritanical streak in him which may have excluded certain films from his purview? That’s a question worth mulling, and investigating for those with wherewithal, and interest.

Meanwhile, there’s a great deal of joy to be had from this volume, edited by Rajesh Devraj, himself a no mean delver into and recorder of film history. And, a round of applause for Vidhu Vinod Chopra, whose financial support made the book possible. It should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in cinema.

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