Jottings from the celluloid man

Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow inadvertently charts out the history of Indian cinema while chronicling the life of film archivist P.K. Nair

April 06, 2017 01:02 am | Updated 08:41 am IST

Mumbai 04/04/2017:(L)  Indian filmmaker, producer, film archivist and restorer Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and film screenwriter and researcher Rajesh Devraj during an interview at Tardeo on Monday.Photo : Fariha Farooqui

Mumbai 04/04/2017:(L) Indian filmmaker, producer, film archivist and restorer Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and film screenwriter and researcher Rajesh Devraj during an interview at Tardeo on Monday.Photo : Fariha Farooqui

The archival laboratory of Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) in Tardeo is cleaved with rows of lockers, each compact with stories waiting to burst open. In a corner of the well-lit, sanitised, humidity-controlled room, is a drawer labelled, “P.K. Nair”. It contains archivist, film scholar and founder of the National Film Archive of India, P.K. Nair’s emails, published articles, scribbled notes, photographs and diaries. Everything put together, the material retells and retraces the entire history of Indian cinema. It took two immensely passionate cinephiles, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and Rajesh Devraj, to slide it open and pour it all out in a book for the world to read.

Untimely death

Showing us one of Nair’s emails in print, Dungarpur, the founder of FHF, informs us that he had discussed with him the possibility of collating his writings in a book. Unfortunately before he could bring his plan to fruition, Nair passed away in March last year. “Although we had some knowledge that he had written in his life, the extent of how much he had written, we got to know only after his death,” recalls Dungarpur. After the archivist’s demise, his family sent the FHF his writings. An overwhelmed Dungarpur called up Rajesh Devraj — who had edited the foundation’s first book, From Darkness Into Light: Perspectives on Film Preservation and Restoration — to collaborate on their second book, one that would not just archive Nair’s life but also constructs the history of Indian cinema, as seen through his eyes.

Titled Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow , the book compiles Nair’s writings in one volume. “The first step was to put the material together,” shares Devraj. Most of Nair’s writings were acquired in digital form and the rest was found in film journals, books and personal diaries.

“Getting the diaries was quite a story,” recounts Dungarpur. While directing Celluloid Man (2012), a documentary on Nair’s life, Dungarpur interacted with Bala Nair, an ex-student of the archivist and documentary filmmaker. In the ’70s, as a student, Bala visited Nair’s house and discovered a stack of diaries. After dinner, Bala politely asked Nair if he could take two of his diaries as keepsake. The archivist agreed. Soon after Nair’s demise, Bala passed away. “But I remembered those diaries and I spoke to his wife, Prabha. She told me before [Bala] had passed away he said, ‘Give these two diaries to Shivendra’,” shares Dungarpur.

In the book, Devraj uses the two diaries, dated 1957 and 1968, to draw out an evocative introduction to Nair. “In the ’57 one, you see the person who has come from Trivandrum and is watching films obsessively and noting down every little thing, from trailers to ads. It’s an incredible window into movies in that time,” says Devraj. Jottings in Nair’s spidery handwriting from the diaries have also made their way into the book’s elegant design.

Sifting through the surfeit of documents was a mammoth task. Devraj noticed that the archivist had often written in obscure film journals and publications, some that had even shut shop. “We had to do a bit of detective job there,” informs Devraj. Owing to Nair’s passion and obsession with cinema history and appreciation, Devraj observed a variation of the same writing across several publications. “My feeling is that he never turned down a request to write,” he jests. Till the ’90s, Nair primarily wrote on the archives and his work. It’s later that he delved into commentary on cinema.

In order to streamline the documents and eliminate replication, Devraj broke the material down into sections, each discovering a unique facet of Nair’s prolific writing. He thematically divided the book into ‘The Moviegoer’, The Archivist’, ‘The Film Historian’, ‘The Film Critic’ and ‘The Columnist’.

Nair’s unknown side

According to Devraj and Dungarpur, Nair is celebrated as an archivist but seldom noticed for his efforts in building a narrative for Indian cinema and its evolution. ‘The Film Historian’ section, sheds light on Nair’s efforts in that regard. ‘The Archivist’ is a section that looks at his writings for film societies and journals. “It’s more like him at a film appreciation class,” grins Dungarpur. As a columnist, Naik wrote on topics like changing technology, the shift from reel to digital and the dominance of Bollywood in Indian cinema.

Amidst these avatars, the most fascinating exploration has been of Nair as a moviegoer. Dungarpur says that the archivist never spoke about his personal life, even after knowing him for several years. “I’ve mentioned it in my introduction that don’t bother about where or when he was born, because the day he was born was the day he saw his first film,” says Devraj.

The book’s structure in place, now came the onerous task of fact checking. Alongside Nair’s writings, which spanned four decades, film history was being constructed. “Even opinions evolved, so maybe in his works he’s treating a film in a particular way but scholarship has gone further,” says Devraj, who used footnotes to make corrections. Tracing movies that Nair vaguely described also posed as a challenge. “He says in the 1940s he saw a Mahatma Gandhi documentary, so which one could it be?,” says Devraj.

For posterity

To establish creative control over the book, Dungarpur chose to self-publish it under the FHF. Filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra pitched in to meet the cost as a tribute to the archivist. “Because of Nair, several filmmakers were exposed to cinema. He had given Vinod a copy of Godard’s Breathless (1960) to see how the cuts happen,” shares Dungarpur.

While Nair has influenced the lives of several filmmakers, the book is aimed at all movie lovers. FTII graduates fondly recall Nair and his film appreciation classes, and for Devraj this book is his oral teachings in a print format. “It’s also written in a simple manner. Naseeruddin [Shah] read it in a day,” quips Dungarpur.

Proudly holding the final copy in his hand, Devraj explains the front cover. “It’s from Sohrab Modi’s film Khoon Ka Khoon . It’s one of the films Nair saab misses the most [from a list of 10 missing films, ‘The Ten I Miss Most’],” he informs. “It was given to us by Sohrab Modi’s nephew Roosi Modi,” adds Dungarpur. Tracing the film still gently with his fingers, Devraj admires the imagery. It mirrors the contours of the set in the background against the visible corrosion of the still.

It’s much like Nair’s legacy: one that continues to evolve and find new meaning with time.

Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow is available for Rs 495 in bookstores and on

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