India’s film archiver-in-chief no more

PK Nair, who added 12,000 films to the National Film Archives of India, dies in Pune at 82

March 05, 2016 11:08 am | Updated November 17, 2021 02:04 am IST - Pune:

A still from Celluloid Man featuring PK Nair

A still from Celluloid Man featuring PK Nair

P.K. Nair, India’s pre-eminent film archivist and scholar and the driving force behind the creation of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), died on Friday. He was 82.

Sources said he had been in a critical condition for a week and died after a cardiac arrest at 11 a.m. in a private hospital here.

Widely regarded as the custodian of the country’s celluloid heritage, Mr. Nair was instrumental in archiving several landmark Indian films and opening the floodgates to the treasures of world cinema to students at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).

Mr. Nair, a science graduate from the University of Kerala, was enraptured by cinema after watching K. Subrahmanyam’s Prahlada (1941) and Ananthasayanam (1942) in a tent theatre in Thiruvananthapuram.

Since then, battling family opposition, he resolved to carve out a career in films and came to Mumbai after his graduation. He soon realised that film research and studies were his metier rather than direction.

He joined the FTII as a research assistant in 1961 and essayed a key role in designing the Film Appreciation Course, along with eminent Film Professor Satish Bahadur and the legendary film art critic and biographer Marie Seton. He was appointed assistant curator at the NFAI in 1965 and continued to helm the course of the institute by building an extensive archive right from scratch.

His passion for collecting films, at a time when preserving and archiving were alien ideas in the world’s largest film-producing nation, resulted in shaping the NFAI into a formidable entity that it is today.

“It is deeply saddening. No one before him had shown any interest in preserving cinema. And it is more remarkable that he is single-handedly responsible for conserving India’s rich cinematic heritage. I only hope he has transmitted some of his passion to the younger generation,” eminent director Shyam Benegal told The Hindu .

Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra and Kaliya Mardan ; Bombay Talkies’ films such as Jeevan Naiya , Bandhan , Kangan , Achhut Kanya and Kismat ; S.S. Vasan’s Chandralekha and Uday Shankar’s Kalpana were some films rescued and preserved by Mr. Nair from among the 1,700-odd works produced during India’s silent film era.

Taking cinema to students

He was instrumental in introducing to film students the work of the masters of world cinema like Bresson, Bergman, Kurosawa, Andrej Wajda, Miklos Jansco, De Sica, Fellini and Antonioni.

“He was a man whose contribution is without parallel in the 100 years of Indian cinema. He was responsible for the creation of a culture in which students and historians could study and analyse great cinema. We are indebted to the great legacy he has left us,” director Govind Nihlani said. By the time Mr. Nair retired as NFAI Director in 1991, he had acquired 12,000 films for the archive, of which 8,000 were Indian.

Mr. Benegal reminisced about Mr. Nair’s tenacity and single-minded dedication as a film collector as he travelled the country, scouring for lost cinema reels in the oddest of places.

“He created this [the NFAI] archive on the basis of exchange of films and his extensive correspondence with eminent film curators all over the world — from the U.S., Europe and the former Soviet Union ... he gave them our films which their archives coveted and acquired what he thought our archive must possess,” Mr. Benegal said.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, film archivist and founder of the Film Heritage Foundation, who regarded Mr. Nair as his “guru”, chronicled the pioneering archivist’s life in the 2012 award-winning documentary Celluloid Man .

Sources close to Mr. Dungarpur said that he was shattered at Mr. Nair’s passing and was in mourning for the man he looked up to “as his father”.

Mr. Nair’s body will be kept at the NFAI from 8 a.m. on Saturday for the public to pay their homage. The cremation will take place later in the day.

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