Celluloid memories

An archivist’s writings on Indian cinema offer new insights

April 29, 2017 09:01 pm | Updated May 25, 2021 08:56 am IST

The late P.K. Nair who passed away in 2016 is a legend in film circles in India because of his efforts to build the National Film Archive, which was responsible for the creation of a whole generation of cinephiles in independent India. India owes him a ‘Film culture’ with a focus on film, not as mindless entertainment but as cultural history, because of the number of filmmakers who passed out of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), learning film history through the film archive. Nair was an archivist invaluable to a post-colonial society but he also expressed himself in writings on cinema, and Yesterday’s Films for Tomorrow edited by Rajesh Devraj for Film Heritage Foundation, collects most of them.

The book is in five parts corresponding to Nair as cinephile, as archivist, as film historian, as critic and columnist. In the introduction we learn a tragic fact about India’s first talkie Alam Ara (1931). When approaching its director Ardeshir Irani in 1966 he learned that the prints of the film had been destroyed to recover the small amount of silver in it! Nair suppressed the information in his writing but one sees how the makers of Indian cinema had a small view of their own efforts, which only someone like Nair, with a strong sense of the country’s cultural history, could value. Among the pieces he writes as an archivist is one titled ‘The Ten I Miss the Most’ in which he lists ten lost Indian films that he would have most valued in the archives he built. Considering the kind of films he ‘misses’ – like Bhakta Vidhur (1921), a nationalist tract in the guise of a mythological, Bilet Pherat (1921) a satire on Anglicised Indians, and Savkari Pash (1925) about money-lending, it is evident that Nair favoured a social purpose for cinema and saw it as playing a constructive national role.

As a critic P.K. Nair has some very insightful things to say and a particularly telling example is his description of John Abraham’s Malayalam films like Amma Ariyan (1986) as ‘masterworks of imperfection’. Nair contributed occasionally to newspapers and periodicals and in one piece he describes his response to friends who wondered why, with his exposure to world cinema, he did not get into filmmaking himself. Nair’s response was that he would ‘rather make filmmakers than films’.

The colour plates of movie stills and posters, some of which would do well as art in enlarged reproductions, make the book a collector’s piece.

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