K P. Nair is the pioneer in the preservation of films in India. He ran the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in Pune practically single-handedly since its inception in 1964 until his retirement in 1991. The NFAI contributed immensely towards exposing would be film-makers enrolled at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) next door to the riches of world cinema and, indeed, whole new cultures that would have been beyond their ken.

Over the years famous and not so famous graduates of FTII have acknowledged their eternal gratitude to Nair Saab for having given so generously of himself towards their cinematic and indeed cultural education. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, an FTII alumni has paid tribute to P K Nair in Celluloid Man, a documentary film that is over two hours long and filled with information about the making of the NFAI and the man who worked day and night to make it what it is.

Quite early in the documentary Nair is seen coming through a doorway lit with a single shaft of light. He hobbles in, old, stick in hand, and takes the stairs. His entry brings a lump to one’s throat for two reasons: first because of his gallant gesture, and second, because his entry reminds anyone familiar with old Hindi cinema of forgotten master-director Suresh Sinha surreptitiously coming into the empty studio floor at the beginning of Guru Dutt’s haunting black-and-white cinemascope film, Kagaz Ke Phool.

The director establishes the sum and substance of his film in this one shot. Cinema is, after all about memory and of course its nature. Nair enters his old office at the NFAI; it has changed infinitely for the worse. The room is full of dust and cobwebs. Cans and magazines are dumped any old how. It is now a place beyond caring. He speaks of the past with equanimity, struggling to keep the pain and hurt out of his voice.

Many friends, film-makers, old students appear in the film to express their gratitude over the years to a man who in his own unobtrusive way opened the doors of perception for them through the cinema. Nair Saab made it possible for them to arrive at a better and perhaps a more mature understanding of the world outside through a magical medium like the cinema.

Naseeruddin Shah, one of the finest actors in Hindi, indeed Indian cinema, says with refreshing frankness that years ago when he had arrived at FTII from Delhi, where he had just completed his course at the National School of Drama, he hadn’t been exposed to anything other than films from Hollywood or Hindi films from Bombay.

He had, though, seen films like Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Ingmar Bergman’s Silence, in an obligatory film appreciation course. But he was unable to sink his teeth in them. It was only after his arrival in Pune at the FTII for a six-month acting course that he was able slowly to understand what cinema was about and he felt it was P. K. Nair who was responsible for this transformation.

Nair had understood from the outset that it was cinema’s past that needed to be preserved rather than contemporary films, unless they were outstanding and could throw some light on their time 50 or more years afterwards. He went in search of Raja Harishchandra, the first Indian feature film made in 1913 by Dada Saheb Phalke. Though he searched high and low Nair found nothing but a few production stills. On hearing about the film pioneer’s family in Nashik, he took an overnight (news) paper taxi which carried the morning Marathi daily printed the night before in Pune to Nashik.

Enquiries revealed that long deceased silent cinema master’s family indeed lived in the city. Shivendra Singh Dungapur films an old Nair walking with slow, painful dignity, stopping to point out a new facade to a house where Phalke lived. He meets Mandakini, the master’s daughter, now an old woman, walking like him with a stick.

Yes, it is the same Mandakini who played the infant Krishna in Kaliya Mardan in 1919. There are scenes of her grappling with the deadly serpent sent to destroy the little Krishna. She is so convincing in the close shots, so is the snake!

Nair’s own life has been spent in the service of cinema. Old student Balu Mahendra, famous cinematographer and Tamil film director says, ‘He has been so much in love with the cinema.'

To digress for a moment, I remember a conversation with Nair Saab on Kaliya Mardan. The archivist had said, “The serpent looks real and not like it is made of rubber.” Come to think of it Phalke, with minimum means, was able to create special effects that still impress. Paresh Mokashe’s moving, witty tribute, Harishchandra Chi Factory, captures the spirit of the man and his art.

In a conversation with Phalke’s grandson Prabhakar in Nashik, Nair tells him that there was no complete print available of Kaliya Mardan, the cans that Mandakini gave him had bits and pieces of film. It was reassembled painstakingly at NFAI, thanks to a notebook with detailed notes on the film left by Phalke himself.

How Nair got hold of a mutilated print of the film and made it whole again is reminiscent of the special effects from cinema’s beginnings, haunting and magical, all the more so because they were done mechanically, in the camera or on improvised but highly effective optical printers. Phalke in his time was as adept and poetic as the Frenchman Melies, a magician turned film-maker.

Vidhu Vinod Chopra, former FTII student and now successful producer-director of commercial Hindi films, remembers that Nair Saab went out of his way to help a student if he found him to be genuinely interested. While making his diploma film, Murder at Monkey Hill, Chopra had some difficulty making invisible cuts within scenes.

He was given a 16mm print of Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless, on request, so that he could study it slowly by running it back and forth on the Steenbeck editing machine. Sure enough, Chopra realised how Godard cut on motion to deceive the eye! Stories abound concerning the passionate old film archivist who lives only for cinema.

Nair’s own life has been spent in the service of cinema. Old student Balu Mahendra, famous cinematographer and Tamil film director says, “He has been so much in love with the cinema.’’

However, there is a tinge of regret in his middle-aged daughter, Beena’s voice, when she talks of the past on camera. She remembers her father being absent from home more often than not. On the rare occasion he was home she and her two brothers would be craving his attention, but in a decorous way. There is a scene, poignant because it is done quietly, of the 80-year-old Nair going through the family album talking almost to himself of his late wife whom cancer carried away, his son, and his daughter who looked after him when he returned to Kerala for a while after retirement from his job in Pune.

Nair stayed on for three more years, until 1994. He was much in demand as a film festival organiser in Kerala. He played a pivotal role to play in the first three Thiruvananthapuram International Film Festivals but Pune was in his blood and he returned. He is still there now, in 2013.

PKN is a very friendly and charming man when he wants to be. His obsession with the cinema only comes through to those who communicate their love for it to him. He has always maintained that cinema was a part of life and that one must treat cinema, particularly its preservation, as one would one’s children. 

The director drenches his film with images of films, both national and international, through its 118-year history. It is indeed a pleasure to be able to identify often fleeting images on the screen. There can be no prizes for identifying the now iconic image of a train entering a platform in the semi-rural France of 1894, captured by the Lumiere Brothers.

In this one-shot film a living moment from the century is brought back to us now. Cinema’s uniqueness in being a source of memory and an instrument in depicting it is vividly brought home by this example.

Hiralal Bhatt, forgotten director of silent films, is represented through a very short scene from A Father’s Love (1929) in the documentary. The Wadia Brothers and the endearing duo of Fearless Nadia and John Cowas are represented in crisp scenes from the Hunterwali series, a most enjoyable bunch of stunt films in Hindustani, mainly from the 1930s. There is Chabi Biswas, drunkenly ranting on about the glory of his feudal ancestors from Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece, Jalsa Ghar. There is, regrettably, no scene from any Indian comedy in Dungarpur’s film.

Nair, in very recent times, is seen watching the famous scene from Ritwik Ghatak’s immortal film, Meghe Dhaka Tara, in which the heroine Neeta dying of tuberculosis cries out to her brother in despair, “Dada, I want to live.’’ This is a scene that overwhelms most students, past and present, from the FTII.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur is no exception. It is no doubt his idea to have Nair, who was also Ghatak’s friend, see this film on the Steenbeck editing console. Bringing in Ghatak, who after all was vice-principal for a turbulent but extremely fruitful 18 months from 1963 to early 1965, into any film associated with the FTII or NFAI is considered natural, more so if it is on P. K. Nair who had always been a good friend of Ghatak’s and a staunch admirer as well.

PKN is a very friendly and charming man when he wants to be. His obsession with the cinema only comes through to those who communicate their love for it to him. He has always maintained that cinema was a part of life and that one must treat cinema, particularly its preservation, as one would one’s children.

What he meant was that the love for cinema was as important as a parent’s love for children. His love of cinema, according to his detractors, often exceeded his love for his own children.

Nair got a B.SC in 1953 while still in Kerala. The obsession with films started in childhood; he would collect anything from cinema tickets to weighing machine tickets that had photos of Indian and Hollywood stars on the reverse. His father wanted him to be an engineer. He went to Bombay and tried to become a film-maker. He tried to work with Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. He soon realised that his calling lay in the academic side of film-making.

Mehboob Khan told him in the course of making Mother India that he had six or seven assistants and would not be able to employ him. Nair could, if he wished, work as an unpaid observer. 1961 found him at the newly established film institute in Poona, now Pune. In the Film Appreciation class he assisted the US-returned Satish Bahadur and Marie Seton, English biographer of the master of silent cinema from the Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein. He began rapidly to learn the varied nuances of cinema.

The National Film Archive was established in 1964 and a year later he was appointed Assistant Curator. He plunged into his work and helped build the archive from scratch over the next 15 years. In 1982 he was appointed Director of NFAI. He didn’t look back.

He was often compared with Henri Langlois who co-founded the Cinemathique Frances along with Georges Franju who left to pursue a distinguished career in documentary and fiction films. Langlois then teamed up with Mary, widow of the great art director of French cinema, Lazar Meerson. Langlois then married Mary, and together they ran the finest film archive in the world.

Nair Saab, as he came to be known, built an astonishing film archive with 12,000 works in the vaults. He studied every aspect of film preservation, including temperature control for prints and various kinds of negatives. As long as he was there international norms were maintained at the NFAI.

After his retirement, a slothful attitude overtook the archive staff. He tried to set things right from outside, but nobody was bothered. When he protested too vociferously, the new administration banned him from entering NFAI. Not until the shooting of Dungarpur’s film was he allowed in.

Cinema, to labour the point, is about memory and so is Celluloid Man. Nair’s life and cinema are inextricably linked by destiny. Gulzar, durable lyricist and director of mainstream Hindi films remembers seeing Robert Mulligan’s Summer of 42 with Nair Saab, and is quick to point out that both of them were past the age where they could have enjoyed the film as much as the young would have, possibly feeling the pain and bewilderment of the teenaged boy at first being granted sexual favours by a lonely soldier’s wife who is soon to become a widow, and then withdrawing upon hearing about her husband’s death on the battlefield.

He was probably trying to say that the young, living in the moment, are rarely if ever aware of the irony of fate.

The archivist’s evangelical zeal took him all over the country with but one goal, to popularise good cinema. An arecanut farmer from Karnataka remembers seeing Satyajit Ray’s epoch-making Pather Panchali in a 16 MM projection in his village, thanks to Nair. One understands the emotive power of the cinema when the good man says on camera how the sad lot of the Brahmin family from Nishchindipur, Bengal, had stayed with him.

U R Annanthamurthy, leading fiction writer and Kannada intellectual, is quick to point out how Nair and Professor Satish Bahadur worked in tandem to further the cause of film appreciation in the country, and not just in the FTII.

Nair’s encyclopaedic grasp of world cinema and his perfect recall of the most obscure of films, and Bahadur’s analytical, though never over-intellectualised approach to cinema, made for a terrific combination. Together they travelled across India for a long time, bringing memorable cinema within the reach of a large cross-section of people.

Dungarpur’s film has a very large number of interviews, some of them quite informative. Narahari Rao, veteran Film Society activist from Bengaluru (Bangalore) still shudders at the memory of the tongue-lashing he received from Nair when a particular print from NFAI was badly handled by local projectionists.

He was lectured by Nair on how a print should be handled before, during and after a projection, that the sprockets had better not be torn, the bobbins for each reel be in place, and leaders, at the beginning and at end of a reel, should never be removed or damaged. Narahari Rao and his colleagues learnt this basic lesson well and enjoyed a long and cordial relationship with P K Nair.

Comparisons with Henri Langlois are by no means far-fetched. Like the Frenchman, Nair too has gone several extra miles to get a film print. Ninety-one-year-old Mrinal Sen tells a story about Langlois in Celluloid Man, where he, over the telephone, bullied Sen, then at the Venice Film Festival with his film Bhuvan Shome, to come over immediately after the closing, to Paris for a screening.

Sen could not ignore Langlois’s “imperial” command and ended up by letting him make a good, unauthorised print of Bhuvan Shome. Nair Saab’s methods were quieter, smoother. When Jahanu Barua, ex-FTII graduate and distinguished director came to Pune to screen his award-winning film, Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai nearly 25 years ago, he was asked how many prints he had of his film. Barua said there were two. Nair Saab promptly asked him to leave behind one.

It was his straightforward but gentle methods that persuaded many people to donate prints. Basu Chatterjee, veteran Hindi film comedy director, recalls on camera a bit of jiggery-pokery he had indulged in, when he deposited with NFAI a print of Jean Renoir’s The River, that was with Hindi film lyricist and producer, Amit Khanna. Chatterjee was paid ₹21,000 for his efforts, which he did not share with Khanna. How Khanna got hold of an (old) print of Renoir’s masterpiece is not narrated.

In 2003, a fire broke out at NFAI destroying 4,000 precious films, including, Alam Ara, India’s first Talkie, produced in 1931. It is very likely that very many of the lost films were Nitrate-based and hence highly inflammable.

Nair felt it was gross negligence that led to this tragic loss of cinematic heritage. He thought proper temperature control had not been maintained. A temperature of 12° C to 13° C was considered ideal for positives or film prints.

There is a moving scene in Celluloid Man of an old Prabhat Studio film vault—FTII is located on the premises of the Prabhat Studios which the government of India acquired in 1961—with Nair Saab’s voice-over where he says that he accidentally discovered that the old Prabhat vault was surprisingly cool because it had two walls and the space in between the two was filled with pebbles. He goes on to laud the wisdom and native intelligence of those designers who could improvise creatively on existing technology to achieve their end.

The Film Archive was initially located in the Film Institute before shifting to Law College. The desire to preserve on film moments of fleeting time that encapsulate the aspirations of the human race and the behaviour of nature and all that constitutes it, is to put it mildly, a huge ask. And yet the most unlikely candidates have done just that.

Nair Saab’s knowledge of cinema is as wide as it is deep. He understands like Langlois that cinema is not exclusively the preserve of the intellectual. Often it is to the contrary. One remembers his response to a query whether anything beautiful and enduring will come out of contemporary Indian cinema.

He said, “Yes but it will not come from the All India (commercial Hindi) cinema but from regional cinema.” 

He can see through sham immediately. Travelling with him to Mussoorie in a taxi years ago to conduct a film appreciation course at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy, he asked whether I had seen Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen, which had just come out.

Receiving a reply in the affirmative, he asked for an opinion. He was told that it was bad, and coming from Vijay Anand’s nephew, doubly bad!

“Had he worked with his (master craftsman) uncle, Shekhar would have at least learnt some technique!”

Nair Saab said Celluloid Man is full of flourishes like clever visual and aural montages. It is also full of interviews, many of them unnecessary.

He does not need a certificate to validate his achievements. He has devoted his whole life to a medium of expression which even now is regarded as ephemeral. Its outcome, in the opinion of a vast majority, must be first and foremost commercial. There are some sad, even despairing scenes of silver being extracted from old film prints.

One of the men on the job remarks that one can only extract silver from cine film reels. The celluloid can be used to make bangles. A distributor says nobody earlier thought of preserving films. Once a film had its run—hopefully successful—prints were destroyed for the silver and to make bangles.

Two images stay in the mind: The first of Nair’s daughter making dosai in the  Tiruvananathapuram house while he potters about on the terrace, and the other, of him in the foreground reciting the same dialogue from Citizen Kane, playing on a screen behind him, and in which Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane) tells his former guardian, true he has never run a newspaper before but has a few ideas he would like to try out and see how they work.

In these two short scenes the great film archivist’s life can seen for its ordinariness and its uniqueness.