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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

The Celluloid Man: PK Nair & the future of our cinematic past

A still from Celluloid Man

t one point in Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's affecting documentary — released on 3rd May to coincide with the centenary of Indian cinema — the octogenarian PK Nair stands in front of one of those old-fashioned weighing machines that you could find at every Indian railway station even until a decade ago. He inserts a coin into the slot, and receives in return the little rectangular piece of cardboard with his weight printed on one side, and a grainy B&W image of Aishwarya Rai on the other. Nair smiles, a smile of pure pleasure. He inserts a fresh coin, and the machine releases another card. As new cards (and actresses) tumble out of the machine, a voiceover has Nair reminiscing about collecting these cards as a boy. He collected cinema ticket stubs, too, he confesses happily. It's one of the moments of Celluloid Man that illuminate just how well-suited India's premier film archivist was to the job that consumed him for 30 years.

Paramesh Krishnan Nair, better known as PK Nair, is the man responsible for founding and managing the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). Having joined the Film and Television Institute in Pune as a Research Assistant in 1961, he did much of the spade work for an autonomous NFAI, which began in 1964. From 1965, when he was appointed Assistant Curator, till 1991, when he retired after nearly a decade as its Director, Nair acquired 12,000 films — 8000 Indian, the rest foreign. The numbers are impressive in themselves, especially for a government archive in a country where government institutions are notorious for their inefficiency and corruption. But if there is a single thing that Celluloid Man manages to convey, it is that that Nair's accomplishments cannot be measured in quantitative terms.

This is a man who lived his work: who legendarily screened and watched films from the late to the wee hours, and was never to be found in the theatre without his small torch and a notebook in which he meticulously recorded, reel by reel, the content and condition of every single film print. He didn't let his personal taste influence his collecting and he wasn't above making quick overnight copies of loaned international prints to serve the larger cause: as he says with a twinkle in his eye, "a true archivist should have the immunity to overcome such legalities". Nair combined this indefatigable, almost childlike enthusiasm for the cinema with a seriousness that daunted the frivolous student and unfailingly encouraged the genuinely interested. Jaya Bhaduri, for instance, proudly remembers being the only girl at Nair Saab's late-night screenings because he had told the hostel matron she wasn't using them as an excuse to "gallivant" around an almost-wholly male campus. Vidhu Vinod Chopra recounts the thrilling privilege of being allowed a few hours' access to the institute's print of Breathless so as to figure out how Godard achieved the "smoothness" of his cuts. Then there's the tale of how John Abraham — the late Malayali filmmaker — walked into Mr. Nair's house at 3 am and demanded to watch Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Mathew, and how Nair not just agreed but watched it with him. They then discussed John's plans for Amma Ariyan (it was to be his most remembered film), had breakfast together, and only then parted company.

hese anecdotes craft a portrait of a man so in love with the cinema that he could imagine nothing better than to be able to share that love with young people just starting to discover its treasures, as well as with various different publics: the areca nut farmers and peons of Heggodu's Ninasam, and Pune residents whom Nair drew to his weekly NFAI public screenings by mailing invitations to addresses picked at random from the directory. But Dungarpur's film is also a portrait of an era. Perhaps PK Nair's life would be much more solitary if he were an archivist now, when students have digital access to classics that an earlier generation could only watch by Nair's grace.

The other set of stories tell of Nair's memorable acquisitions, with filmmakers and ex-students acting as his eyes and ears all across India. Mrinal Sen describes stumbling upon the reels of Kalipada Das's silent Jamai Babu while shooting Akaler Sandhane; Adoor Gopalakrishnan remembers how the second Malayali film made, Marthanda Varma, was discovered; Nair himself tells us about finding Dadasaheb Phalke's Kalia Mardan, even as he stands outside the unattractive shopping centre that has replaced Phalke's house. The nine Indian silent films now extant were singlehandedly salvaged by him. In a country where 1,700 silents were made in 36 years, nine may seem like nothing. But without Nair Saab, we might not have even those.

The film's best part is when Nair walks through the NFAI vault, glancing at the shelves and listing, with casual ease, his favourite scenes and songs from each — with precise reel numbers. The saddest is that it took Dungarpur eleven attempts to be allowed to shoot with Nair in the archive: the institution he built up "brick by brick", as Shyam Benegal puts it, now refuses him entry. Nair has done more than his due — and received less than it. Perhaps there can never be another PK Nair. But we don't even seem to understand how much we need one.

 
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