Paramesh Krishnan Nair, the founder and former director of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), is remembered as a figure moving around in the darkened theatres of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).
Always at hand at all the screenings, scribbling diligently in a notepad with a tiny flashlight, looping film reels, and watching films. On other days, he could be spotted inside the vaults, inspecting and cataloguing, making sure the temperature and humidity was just right, trying to ship more foreign films for students at the institute, or teaching. “He would never come to a film without a torch and notepad,” says National Award-winning Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli, who was a student at FTII when Nair was the director.
Nair, the grand old man of film archiving in India, was not only responsible for the existence of exhaustive archives in India, his contribution in preserving exquisite films such as Raja Harishchandra (1913), Achhut Kanya (1936) and Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948) is significant. He also preserved over 8,000 Indian films including works of legendary filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, V Shantaram, apart from acquiring and preserving prints of almost 12,000 films by a variety of international stalwarts such as Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Krzysztof Zanussi and Vittorio De. He passed away at Pune’s Sahyadri Hospital on Friday morning after a cardiac arrest. He was 82.
In an interview to this reporter at Delhi’s JNU, where a documentary on him was being screened, Nair had rued the problems of films not being considered an integral element of the nation’s cultural heritage. “When it was about Sangeet Natak Akademi and Lalit Kala Akademi, they had a distinct identity. But films were considered a bastard art compared to other art forms, and that is why the government was apprehensive about creating any film organisation,” said Nair, talking about Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s attitude towards films.
But Nair made sure that he did his bit for cinema. “His work was invaluable. If not for him, the National Film Archive would never have been so rich; the films he rescued helped every student that has ever passed through FTII,” adds Kasravalli.
Born in 1933 in Thiruvananthapuram, Nair began his stint at the NFAI in 1965 as assistant curator and by 1982, he had been promoted to director. By 1991, when he retired, Nair had collected over 12,000 films, of which 4,000 were foreign language films. He continued his involvement with the institution as Chairperson of Aashay Film Club, post his retirement, in 1997.
“He was a special go-to man if anyone at FTII wanted to watch a particular film. Things were not digital back then. And if Nair sir saw that a student was interested, he would go out of his way to screen the rarest film as many times,” says Vidhu Vinod Chopra in The Celluloid Man, filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary which was a tribute to Nair.
Nair appreciated the film, but was brutally honest while talking about it. “It’s too long and could have used better extracts from various films,” he had said.