A film archivist extraordinaire

I studied at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) between 1972-1975 which is when I got to know P.K. Nair saab very closely. We used to have a film archive screening every night. He would do that often to check a new print that would have arrived at the archives and all the students were invited to watch it.

Nair saab was a disciplined man and was committed to cinema in a unique way. Not many people have known the importance of cinema as he has. He was passionate about preservation of films. He was not limited by his role as a government employee. He would make an extra effort. He would travel to distant places to collect films if he heard about the availability of a rare print. He was a man of few words who worked studiously, morning till night. If a student had any doubts, needed any information about the content, politics or technical details about a film then Nair saab was always there. He had an excellent library, better than the one at FTII. He would permit access to his books if he realised that you were serious about it. He would screen a film again if the students asked for it. I will be perennially indebted to him for preserving my first film Ghatashraddha (1977). It was rotting in the cans in Mumbai. It was in 1984 that he went out of the way to rescue it, cleaned it and made a beautiful dupe of it.

I got an opportunity to observe him closely during my student days at the FTII. He single-handedly developed and nurtured the archives. In front of my eyes I saw him make the impossible possible. He was an extremely hardworking, dedicated and devoted man, working from 7-12 every day. He was an extremely quiet person never once bragging about what all he had been doing. We all got our energy from him. For all of us he will remain an inspiring institution.

My family was not very well-to-do and I remember approaching Nair saab for work to get some extra cash. He allowed me to clean films. I worked late at night. I would have cleaned some 70 odd Indian classics all thanks to him. I was able to run my fingers through them. And all credit for it would go to Nair saab. He couldn’t have given me money officially, I am sure it must have been out of his own pocket.

His legendary effort and passion for cinema should be recognised by the nation. He should be given the Padma Vibhushan or the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. We tried to make the government understand, we hope it does.

His passing away has really to hit me hard and I’ve been tearful through out the day. Though he wasn’t my teacher directly, he taught us a lot by showing us movies, exposing us to world cinema and discussing it with us. Whoever I am today, whatever I am, I owe it to him. I hope the Government of India acknowledges him and gives him his due recognition. I hope they will give him the Dadasaheb Phalke Award because this man singlehandedly resurrected Indian cinema. He means a lot to the teachers and students of cinema.

We were all very scared of him in the initial days in FTII. He was a very tough man to please. But when he figured out that we are passionate about cinema, he went out of his way to help us. I still remember he gave me the print of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. There are so many memories I have of him that my heart is very heavy, I want his family to know this man is one of the finest teachers of cinema who walked this planet.

As students you tend not to value a lot of things at the time but you realise its significance later. As argumentative students we even demanded our right to see original prints of certain films. He had then told us that, it’s not my job to screen films but preserve them. He had agreed to show us the ‘dupes’ because as we later understood, that every time a 35mm film is screened, it ages a bit. When I look back now at my early years a film student, I realise that it’s because of him that we got to watch things we wouldn’t have had access to -- had it not been from him. He used to source these from his contacts. Be it early Russian cinema and German expressionism of the 1930s and a bunch of East European films of the 60s and 70s. Or the 35 mm prints of five films of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.

He was far-sighted enough to see the importance of archiving and film preservation, which is something that as a nation we have just started to have awareness. He literally built the NFAI with his own hands. I remember we used to call it the archive hut because it was a hut where he used to live almost the whole day. He used to work tirelessly there. He was great friends with Henry Langlois, one of the greatest influencers in history of cinema and the founder of Cinematheque. It goes to show the kind of stature Nair sahib had in the international community. I don’t think he has a parallel anywhere in the world.

Mr Nair had a stern face but was a lovely person. He taught us film appreciation and film history at the FTII with a focus on film history. His stories about how he acquired some reel or film were as exciting if not more. I wanted to see Rififi whilst scripting Johnny Gaddar and he ensured that Icould watch it on the steenbeck at the archives. We had a project in the second year that focused on one filmmaker. I chose Hitchcock and I remember Mr Nair rattling off the names of the films I should study.

Talk about any classic scene in films and he would say it's in reel five or six after 90 feet. He was madly passionate about archiving our film history and that was his entire life. I hope we take inspiration from him and continue to expand the Indian film heritage.

The last time I met him was at the film appreciation course in Pune, where Badlapur was being screened. He was not keeping good health but he made it a point to attend the screening. He had his favourite aisle chair.... That's how I’ll always remember him.

When I started hanging out in and around FTII in 2005, I didn’t know how important he was. I used to see him as this old man on his wheelchair coming to watch movies with us almost every day. I was struck by the passion. He was quiet and a sort of saintly figure to me. Later, I learnt how legendary he is in the film circles. It’s incredible how updated he was about screenings and in one of my life’s dream come true, he came to watch a screening of my first film Killa at FTII. I didn’t even call him, but he knew about it. Just imagine the passion of a man who has been quietly working in the shadows for the preservation of Indian cinema and its seeds he has sown that will nurture the future generation of film students.

Filmmaker Girish Kasarvalli

Filmmaker Jahnu Barua

Vidhu Vinod Chopra, filmmaker, FTII graduate

Anil Mehta, cinematographer and director, went to FTII

Sriram Raghavan, filmmaker, FTII graduate

Avinash Arun, filmmaker, FTII graduate

Govind Nihalani, filmmaker

He will always be remembered as one of the major figures of Indian film history because he did so much to preserve not only the legacy of Hindi cinema but of all our regional cinema as well. He saved so many old films, because of him films from the past have been discovered. I was not a student of FTII, I studied cinematography at S J Polytechnic, Bangalore. But if any student needed help for research of a rare film, he would always be of great help. His contribution in that respect is truly unique and remarkable.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 2:07:49 AM |

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