PK Nair: A progressive archivist who rescued Indian cinema's past

A simple man who single-handedly fought against the extermination of Indian cinematic memory, PK Nair and his contribution to Indian cinema remains undervalued and ignored. On his first death anniversary, we remember the archivist who saved the greatest gems of cinematic history.

Shriram Iyengar

In Martin Scorcese's Hugo (2011), it is the discovery of a lost film that rescues a genius filmmaker from anonymity and depression. In a country that has never sought to expend efforts to take care of its heritage, PK Nair was an exception. 

Beginning his career in 1972 as a librarian at the Film and Television Institute of India (Pune), Nair progressed with a single-minded obsession of rescuing and restoring some of the greatest gems of Indian cinematic history. If not for him, Indian cinema would no longer have access to its first film, Dadasaheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra (1913). 

A still from Raja Harischandra (1913)

In his own words, Nair was a keen observer of cinema. He says in an interview with Nasreen Munni Kabir, "In Bicycle Thieves, the son tries to hold his father's hand at the end of the film, and even now when I think of that scene, it touches me... Cinema has its great moments. Sometimes the whole film is not very exciting, but these details are. I try to judge a filmmaker to see if he has this kind of imagination. These touches only come from the director. " 

A man whose fascination with cinema began with the early Tamil mythologicals and animation films, it was his desire to create a library of National Award winning films that led to the creation of the National Film Archives of India. As of today, the archives works to restore, duplicate, and protect Indian films from eternal anonymity. 

Nair once said of his job, "Film is a part of our cultural heritage. A film which is watched by several people becomes a part of our heritage. Whatever films you watch, popular or classical, has an impact on your mind. It impacts one’s behavior too. At times we can trace the roots of certain social phenomenon to cinema. To study those phenomenons we need to have those films. That makes archiving important."

It was this dedication that influenced Shivendra Singh Dungarpur to start the Film Heritage Foundation. From 1964, the time he started protecting and compiling films till 1991, when he retired, Nair had managed to archive almost 12,000 films of great heritage value. The astounding number only feels meagre when compared to the number of films that are lost today. In an industry that makes 4 films a week, which amounts to 208 films a year, it is a minor quantity. 

Don't let the numbers fool you though, archiving combines three difficult elements of research, detective work, and recovery of the films. Most archives work on the instinct of filmmakers to preserve their own films. The demise of the studio industry in the late 1960s led to a great number of classic films from Indian cinema's early age being consigned to anonymity. One cannot imagine the work, research, and persuasion it might have taken to convince filmmakers, or families, to part with these films for the archive. 

In an age when 'censors' are turning totalitarian, governments are turning a deaf ear, and the masses are clamouring about 'upholding of culture', the archive stands as a silent testimony of the radical changes in the past that ushered the way for progress today. If it were not for an Awara (1955), a Light of Asia (1925), or Acchyut Kanya (1936), Indian cinema would have been a different world. 

To say Nair was simply an archivist would be gross injustice. The man was a lover of cinema. During his time at the FTII, he was instrumental in introducing weekly shows to film students. He brought in the greatest in world cinema, from Fellini to Godard, to students in Pune. As filmmaker Jahnu Barua says, "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 his way to rescue it, cleaned it and made a beautiful dupe of it." 

His understanding of Indian cinema, and its place in the world set him apart from an ordinary collector. Nair, a cinephile, loved the political, social consequences of cinema. In 1980, he collaborated with UNESCO and marked out 21 rare and dying Indian films that needed to be traced and protected for their cultural value. In 2014, just two years before his death, the National Film Archives managed to locate one of them, Bilwamangal aka Bhakta Surdas (1919). Before its discovery, Nair had said about the 'Missing 21' that 'Even if one or two reels turn up, it would be a great thing. I would put it up as a revelation.' 

It takes a rare kind of love of cinema that pushes a septuagenarian into frenzies on the discovery of an old reel. It is a joy few, but the truly cinema obsessed, will understand. PK Nair was not just an archivist, he was the vanguard of a generation that knew the value of having a heritage.