The archivist put together the broken pieces of India’s first feature film and saved it and the country’s cinematic heritage from imminent oblivion and shame, writes Ragesh Dipu

A soft voice echoes through a dark corridor lined up with 100s of film cans stacked on top of each other, “Light of Asia: Reel  number 8, Kaliya Mardan: Reel number 6, Shiraz: Reel number 7, Blue Angel: Reel number 7, Our Daily Bread: Last reel, Queen Christina: Reel number 3, Sant Tukaram: Reel number 4, Barua Devdas: Reel number 3 and 6, Hunterwali: Reel number 9 and 10..”

This is a shot from The Celluloid Man, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary on India’s  first and most influential director of the National Film Archive of India, PK Nair. The shot is reflective enough of Nair’s work that had him collecting and then reflecting on the reel numbers as they were  stored in the archive. It is also reflective of how the life of Nair and the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) is inseparable and the same as compiling the history of Indian cinema.

On 17 June 1938, Agreement for the International Federation of Film Archives was signed by the four founder members, the Cinémathèque Française, Germany’s Reichsfilmarchiv, the British Film Institute, and the Museum of Modern Art Film Library, after which the filmmaking world started some serious efforts towards restoring and preserving its rich heritage of world cinema. The pioneer of film archiving was Henri Langlois, a man with intense passion for cinema who fought long and lonely battles with the French studios to save silent films in the 30s. Langlois identified those silent films as the true heritage of world cinema and along with friends like Georges Franju, he established Cinémathèque Française to recover, restore and screen those precious gems on a regular basis. During the Nazi occupation of France, Langlois and friends had risked their lives to protect the gems of French and world cinema by discreetly purchasing and keeping the highly flammable nitrate film prints and film stocks, which were on their fatal way to become the soles of the boots of German soldiers.

Recovering the lost gems of Indian cinema was no less and painstaking task for PK Nair than his French counterpart, Langlois. Paramesh Krishnan Nair, who was born and brought up in Thiruvananthapuram, a city which was thriving with art, culture and, most importantly, black and white motion pictures in the 40s, soon realised his call for movies at a young age and started chasing his dream to become a filmmaker soon after his graduation. The curious boy who ardently collected counterfoils of movie tickets soon set foot in city of dream sellers, Bombay as a young man. After a few failed attempts, PK Nair managed to have some hand on experience in the filmmaking process under the stalwarts like Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. But, as he ventured deep into the old Bombay fortress of the cinema industry, he had an epiphanic realisation that he was not cut out to be a filmmaker. A meeting with Jean Bhownagary of Films Division of India cleared the clouds of the ambivalent young man and PK Nair joined the Film and Television Institute of India as a research assistant in 1961.

Around the same time, major filmmaking nations around the world had recognised films as a capsule of memory, that encapsulating and traverse the particular cultural, political and social parameters into the hands of future generations. Film archives were set up in many parts of the world and sadly in India, one of the largest filmmaking nations by then, such archival efforts had been never heard of. The gems of the history of Indian cinema, like Raja Harishchandra, the first ever Indian feature film made by Dadasaheb Phalke in 1913,  was left to rest in peace in some unknown cellars awaiting destruction and complete oblivion. Original film prints of many pioneer movies were either turned into powder or were burnt and some other films were stripped of their silver and metamorphosed into ladies bangles and curios.  When PK Nair and his team started working under the newly formed National Film Archive of India, Pune in 1964, about 70 per cent of movies made before 1950 were lost forever.

Like elsewhere in the world, first Indian movies were made by businessmen and investors who found the new form of entertainment profitable and neither they bothered about preserving their work for the future nor they had the  expertise to keep the highly inflammable nitrate prints from burning into ashes. Even though the NFAI started as a body primarily to keep the award winning Indian movies every year, PK Nair started a crusade to locate, recover, restore and preserve all the Indian movies which had any kind of historic relevance associated with it. It was a painstaking and exhaustive task as many of the prints were buried under stacks of scraps in abandoned godowns or dusty and dark attics. After more than four years of hard work PK Nair managed to recover bits and pieces of India’s first feature film Raja Harishchandra directed by Phalke with the help of Phalke’s family. An another breakthrough came when he managed to recover Kaliya Mardan, Phalke’s 1919 film, during a similar adventurous reel hunting through the filmmaker’s premises. With the help of a handwritten book of Phalke he dug out during one of his visits to the Phalke house, PK Nair put together the broken pieces of India’s first feature film and saved it and the country’s cinematic heritage from imminent oblivion and shame.

Locating and recovering other Indian movies made in the 30s and 40s in various Indian languages were more herculean task than recovering Phalke’s films. PK Nair reached out into remote godowns, scrap bazaars, impermeable vaults of abandoned studios, ghostly attics, and even cow sheds scattered the length and breadth of the country. Muraliwala (1927), Sati Savitri (1927), some of the Prabhath film studio classics like Sant Tukaram, Sant Dnyaneshwar (1940), Sant Sakhu (1941), Bombay Talkies films like Jeevan Naiya (1936), Bandhan (1940), Kangan (1939), Achhut Kanya (1936), Kismet (1943), SS Vasan’s Chandralekha (1948), and Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948) are among some of the milestones of Indian cinema saved and restored by PK Nair. As a professional archivist, PK Nair believed and endorsed his French alter ego Henri Langlois’s vision, “Only when film archives of different countries will have established regular exchanges will one be finally able to know the true history of cinema,” and established and maintained an effective networking with other major archives around the world, a decisive move that brought “lost films” even from abroad into the NFAI repository. Movies like Kanjibhai Rathod’s silent film Sukanya Savitri (1922) were retrieved from Thailand with the help of Thai archive. The legend goes on so far that PK Nair, with a personal understanding with the foreign agencies and archives, used to make copies of precious classics that came for archival or film festival screenings to the FTII, only to strengthen the NFAI library day by day, and brick by brick. Even though the plausibility of this legend cannot be verified, FTII students and alumni still remember how Nair Saab had arranged the much awaited screenings of rare world movies during his tenure. By the time PK Nair stepped down from NFAI as the chairman in 1991, the archival collection hit nearly 12,000 titles.

PK Nair was never that stereotypical and stubborn librarian reluctant to give away books for readers. Recovering and restoring lost movies at one end with intense passion and immense energy, he had also planted the seeds of a healthy screening culture within NFAI. PK Nair was keen to make available the rare gems of Indian and world cinema he had salvaged and restored through various public screenings. What began as a haunting obsession of an 8 year old boy while sitting inside the tent cinema carpeted with white sand in his home town, Thiruvananthapuram, led him all the way to the heart of India and its arteries in search of the nation’s rich but lost cinematic heritage. For some, cinema is not just an audiovisual phenomenon that narcotically drowns all our worst fears and worries, but a capsule of memory in which the space and time corresponds to a particular person, time or place encapsulate the entire cultural, political, social, and most importantly, emotional values. PK Nair conceived the idea of cinema as such and executed the concept of archiving films as memories as the title of his collection of essays aptly implies, Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow.  

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