Ashok Shettar in his regular column in Avadhi wrote about Saket Rajan. I refused to read it on the day it was published. The following day I couldnt resist myself from reading. I read it and sat silently for a while and coincidentally one Abhishek Srivastava had written about Saket Rajan on his wall:
“क्या आपने साकेत राजन का नाम सुना है? आज पत्रकारिता दिवस पर उन्हें याद करना बहुत मौजूं है। साकेत राजन उर्फ कॉमरेड प्रेम- जिन्होंने अस्सी के दशक में IIMC से पत्रकारिता की पढ़ाई की और दीक्षांत समारोह में इमरजेंसी के लिए कुख्यात उन्हीं विद्याचरण शुक्ल के हाथों डिग्री लेने से इनकार कर दिया जो आज मेदांता अस्पताल में मौत से जूझ रहे हैं- उन्हें 6 फरवरी 2005 को धोखे से मार दिया गया था। IIMC Alumni Association से तो खैर क्या ही उम्मीद की जाए, लेकिन जिन्हें अब भी एक्टिविज्म और पत्रकारिता से न्यूनतम सरोकार बचा है, वे साकेत राजन के बारे में जानने, उनका लिखा पढ़ने और ज्यादा जानकारी जुटाने का प्रयास करेंगे, ऐसी आशा है।”
The very thought of Saket Rajan makes me restless and I cant lay my fingers on one reason and explain why he makes me restless. Now in a restless state of mind, after read Ashok Shettar’s column- with all the comments- and the note by Abhishek Srivastava I sit to write this note, on what I know not…
It was only during my last days of class 12 that I started becoming politically conscious. When I joined for my under graduation because of my association with some radical seniors I started reading about and on Marxism, Socialism etc. Not that I understood everything but still I continued to read and whatever little I grasped charged me up.
When I was in my second year of UG that I started fancying armed revolution as a romantic idealist. In a few months I came across an interview of Comrade Prem in Lankesh Patrike. The editorial of Captain (Gauri Lankesh) also spoke of Com. Prem and also had a slice from a poem that he had written on the death of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian playwright and activist, who was hanged by the then Nigerian regime in 1995 for his anti Shell mobilization and movement of the Ogoni people. The part of the poem published in Lankesh Patrike, monsoon 2004 was:
It was a lesson
You learned too late.
Should’ve been backed
By the gun, alright.
Its past night
Your corpse sleeps in the coffin
Your spirit fills the air.
Stab the heart
That pumps out oil,
Shell the brain
That causes the drain,
Avenge the Saros of humankind.
By then I was under the heavy influence of Ken Viva’s short story Africa Kills Her Sun, in which Bana writes to Zole the day before him being hanged, explaining why he took an anti-social route which made a heavy impact on me. So when I read Com. Prem’s poem, especially the line, “Your pen playwright should have been backed by the gun,” I wondered if that is what Ken Viwa who fought for the Ogoni people and against the multi-national Shell oil company lacked which caused him his life and the weakening of the battle for Ogoni people. Yes, said my naive mind. I saw the short story of Ken as his own changed belief regarding armed revolt, at the face of death. Com. Prem happened to say the same thing and it was all convincing to the naive mind of mine. As the poetry and the words of Com. Prem uttered in the interview seeped into my heart he became my hero.
Few months later some of my friends decided on a trek to Western Ghats. I agreed and we all went for a trek on 6 Feb 2005. While walking thorough the forests I kept remembering the description by Captain, in her editorial, on the path cutting through the forest to reach Com. Prem I remember having recited the poem of Com. Prem to a friend of mine after speaking about him for a while and also telling my friend, in my romantic ideas of armed revolution, that I wouldn’t mind joining Com. Prem in the forest.
When I woke up from deep sleep next morning the news paper carried the news about the assassination of Com. Prem whose name, which I wasn’t aware of, in real was Saket Rajan. My eyes swelled. I felt restless. I read the newspaper again and again and tears rolled down my eyes. Was it only his assassination that disturbed me or was it something more, I dont know. Because I had read and re-read the line saying a gun was found next to his body and I kept remembering the line, “Your pen and playwright should’ve been backed by the gun,” and it convincing me that Ken had lost the battle because he was not backed by the gun. But now here was the photo of Com. Prem alias Saket Rajan’s dead body and the report saying he had a gun in his hand. Suddenly it felt like the path that I had fancied also did not assure changing the world. The unarmed struggle of Ken stood at one end and the armed struggle of Com. Prem stood at the other end and I saw both ends meet at one point, not succeeding to change anything much but ending in almost a similar manner- at the hands of the state. It looked like a dead-end to me for I saw Ken and Com. Prem both die without achieving the larger cause that they dreamt of that they lived for and also died for. The system had managed to beat both of them and both the ways too. It was a moment of disillusionment to a naive romantic idealist. I cried like a child for I had lost not just a hero but also had lost a hopeful illusion.
The newspapers spoke of his background and his education reading which my admiration for the man shot up sky high, which was until then based on just the poem, the interview and the writing by Captain. Saki was born to a upper caste upper class family in Mysore. His father was a Major in the Indian army. Saki had left all of this behind for the causes of the wretched f the earth. One of the magazines, I remember, spoke of an incident where a policeman was abducted by Com. Prem and co who on being released did not get his job for it was suspected that he had some association with the Naxalites. Com. Prem then, the article has read, had pressed the department of police to take the policeman back for it was a matter of his livelihood. This incident showcased the human side of the so called “greatest internal threat”. This quality to respect and understand the member from the so called enemy camp was simply amazing and unheard of. To Com. Prem the policeman was not the enemy but a human being working for his livelihood which he respected. His enemy was the larger system and its that which he was fighting.
The newspaper also read that he had authored two volumes of Karanataka history titled MAKING HISTORY in the name Saki. I was shocked. Shocked because I had seen those books in the book stalls of Mangalore then and wondered how come Saki- Hectar Hugh Munro- had written about Karnataka history and had ignored it as “bogus” because I couldn’t imagine a British fiction writer would write two volumes of Karanataka history. Now I went in search of the book again and couldn’t find it anywhere. One of my teachers said that he had bought two volumes and given it to the library. But the then Principal of the college burnt the book fearing it being found in the college library. My search for the book was on even when aware that the book, which untill then was a prescribed text in one of the Universities in Karanataka, was banned overnight when it was realized that the unknown author Saki was Com. Prem alias Saket Rajan. I finally read the first volume of the book in 2008.
The ‘dead-end’ which my naive mind saw those days (2005) made me write an article on Saket Rajan alias Saki alias Com. Prem for our college magazine which went unpublished. The editor of the college magazine had called me and said, “Do you want me to lose my job? I cant approve this for the college magazine.” In 2011 I had also attempted writing a play on Saki and wanted to meet some of his friends who could give me some inputs on his life. Because I couldn’t access those details the play got stuck after the first act. Now I hear that a film is being made on Saki about which I feel happy and also envy.
But every time I remember Saki alias Saket Rajan alias Com. Prem I remember that day when I read the news of his assassination and the ‘dead-end’ that the I the hot blooded naive romantic idealist saw then. “What is the way?” was/ is the question that Saki, my the then hero, left me with intertwining himself, for me, with Ken Viwa. Its that question which still makes me restless for I, in my struggle to be intensely and regularly associated with social activism and living my life, am still struggling to answer for myself and also feeling guilty about not being able to leave behind all comforts like Saki did and not being able to make the greater common good a completely personal goal, merging the self and the world.
Cinema, as Krzysztof Zanussi mentions in the beginning of the documentary film Celluloid Man by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, is like a beautiful butterfly which flies off after a while. But as Zanussi adds people like P.K. Nair are able to catch hold of those butterflies and preserve them.
From Shyam Benegal to K. Hariharan all, in the documentary, say that P.K. Nair lived cinema which is true but perhaps the relationship was/ is more than what we can ever perceive which Nair sahab himself reveals when he says after his retirement he misses the “smell” of cinema. His relationship with cinema was at a totally different level. This intense relationship comes across in that moment in the film when Nair sahab is watching the climax scene of the film Meghey Dhaka Tara where Neeta is crying aloud, “I want to live” and when the film cuts to the cans in the archive and we realize that P.K. Nair heard the films, which if neglected can commit suicide by setting themselves on fire due to the nitrate contents, cry to him their desire to live. And Nair sahab not just heard it but also attended to it and ably caught the beautiful butterfly which otherwise would have flown away.
P.K. Nair the legendary figure who to Indian cinema, as Gulzar mentions, is of no less significance than Dada Phalke. Nair sahab set up “brick by brick,” to borrow the expression of Shyam Benagal, the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) at Pune, which was not just brick by brick as Shyam Benegal says but also “frame by frame” of which Adoor Gopalakrishnan speaks of the way in which Nair sahab restored the second Malyalam film Marthanda Varma. The film sprockets were damaged when the film was found and hence to retrieve it it had to be copied frame by frame, recollects Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
Between 1969 when the archive was started and 1991 when P.K. Nair officially retired he had managed to collect as much as 12,000 films out of which 8,000 were Indian films. How did he collect these films? He says he went in a taxi that delivers newspapers from the press to Nasik to the house of Dada Phalke and collected the film Kalinga Mardana from Prabhakar Phalke. After collecting the film he waited for the same taxi in the night to return and requested the driver to “drive slowly” for he was holding “something very precious” in his hand. Did the driver understand what was the most precious thing and how precious was it? Not sure. But looks like not many understood the importance of the films and also of the work that Nair sahab was doing. For example we see Supuriji, son of Ardesh Irani who made the first Indian talkie Alam Ara, confessing to Nair sahab of having sold some of the reels of the film for the silver in it. Had it not been for Nair sahab the now under custody three reels would have also gone missing. Adoor mentions that even the producers of the film too did not care to preserve the films. When they found that film could not get “returns” anymore they abandoned the films. Years later there was this man who went in search of those films.
Like he traveled from house to house he also traveled from studios to studios collecting films, including studios in Lahore which were shut by then. He collected films as a pure archivist. As he himself says in the film for him, as an archivist, a C grade film is as important as a film by Ray. Girish Kasaravalli remembers Nair getting hold of the first Kannada talkie in Hubli and that too not completely but still preserving it for its “archival importance” and “historical significance” without bothering if its a good film or a film from which one can learn. They were all, in his own words, “a part of the cultural heritage” and not mere “commodities.”
Girish Kasaravalli speaks of how his first film Ghatasharadha was lying down in a lab in the then Bombay without proper care and how Nair sahab preserved it later by making copy of the missing sound in the print he had got. Girish Kasaravalli says that if not for Nair sahad today we would have not gotten to watch Ghatashradha.
Apart from collecting films from studios and homes of the directors, Nair sahab collected films through personal contacts like Basu Chhatterjee and Mrinal Sen who all happened to spot films in some part of their world during their interactions with people. At times, like in the case of Jahnu Barua, Nair sahab insisted him to leave a copy of the film at the archives. Some films like the Russian films were gifted to the archive by the Russians. Nair sahab used his personal contacts with film suppliers to make copies and thus add to the archives. K. Hariharan remembers the film Battle of Algiers coming to the Institute for the students to watch and when requested to Nair sahab to make a copy of it Nair sahab doing so and returning the favor by sending a copy of Pather Panchali with those who got Battle of Algiers. There were instances where Nair made copies without permission! When asked by the Director if he “stole” films Nair sahab says that “steal” is not a good word for an archivist and confesses that he “duped” films for archival purposes and says, “The archivist should have the immunity to the dangers of legal problems.”
Thus in various ways- beg steal borrow- Nair sahab set up the film archives in India which today enables us to look at the history of Indian cinema. Not only that but also, as Nair sahab says, “The taste of the audience” in different times. Even historians who are looking at individual lives of artists, today, have their way into the lives and those times, the collective consciousness of particular junctures of history through these films. Is that all? There is more to it. More, beyond what we can assume.
Naseeruddin Shah tells us of how he had not watched world cinema till he came to the film institute (Film and Television Institute of India- FTII) except for Rashoman and how on the insistence of Nair sahab the acting students watched Bicycle Thieves which shook Naseer completely and also made him look at acting in a new light. He says the film that Nair sahab made them view changed their outlook. Shaji Karun says the films that Nair sahab screened shaped his sense of cinema and says that his works owe a lot to Nair sahab. Vidhu Vinod Chopra speaks of how the access availed to him by Nair sahab, to the films of Hitchcock enabled him understand editing better and how he remembers those lessons learnt on editing under the supervision of Nair sahab helps him every time he is making a film. Saeed Mirza lists out a complete list of filmmakers who influenced him and says if not for Nair sahab he wouldnt have watched all those filmmakers. Girish Kasaravalli remembers how he and some others got the habit of making notes while watchig the film from Nair sahab and how that has enhanced his learning. When all these film practitioners speak of their sense of cinema being shaped by the efforts of Nair sahab we realize that we “the cinema conscious nation,” as called by Nair sahab, owe a lot to Nair sahab not just for collecting and preserving films for us but also for shaping the people who in all these years have shaped our collective consciousness through their works.
Yes, Nair sahab puts it correctly that we are a “cinema conscious nation” and our lives our perception our actions our reactions all have a great influence of cinema. Saeed Mirza speaks in the documentary about him writing a letter to his parents after six long years and says he wrote a letter because Ozu’s film Tokyo Story made him realize that he had neglected his parents for long. Narrating this incident Saeed Mirza says that films shape us and help us discover ourselves and adds that the films collected and screened by Nair sahab helped many students of cinema discover themselves not just as filmmakers and film practitioners but also as humans and makes us realize that the cinema conscious nation too owes a lot to Nair sahab and not just cinema for shaping its psyche.
Behind the efforts of K.V. Subbanna in a small village called Heggodu in Karnataka is the efforts of P.K. Nair who provided the earlier with films to showcase them to the villagers and today, from several years from now, the villagers of Heggodu- literates, illiterates, semi-literates speak of Bergman, Kurosawa, Ray and Robert Enrico while engaging in their daily labor in arrecanut farms. Subbanna held film screenings in Heggodu as a part of his larger project of enriching the village culturally through literature theater and cinema. While literature and theater was easy to be taken to the village cinema wasn’t. But Nair sahab’s collection and passion for cinema and the desire to share, matched equally by the passion and desire to share of Subbanna, made farmers in a small village become cinema literates and discover a new world and their own world newly and contributing to the shaping of their psyche. Bangara, the projectionist at Heggodu, speaks of how An Incident At Owl Creek is his favorite film, while another farmer speaks of Rashomon and another farmer speaks of Apu Trilogy. When in 2005 K.V. Subbanna passed away Atul Tiwari had written an obituary where he mentioned of how during his first visit to Heggodu with his National School of Drama classmate, son of Subbanna, K.V. Akshara, first in flight from Delhi to Bangalore, in train from Bangalore to Shimogga, in bus from Shimogga to Sagara and in a bullock cart from Sagara to Heggodu, he heard the man riding the bullock cart spoke of Chaplin and Bergman whose films he, being in NSD and Delhi, had not watched. This enriched environ was possible because of the will of Subbanna and also by the desire to share of Nair sahab apart from his efforts in preserving these films.
Saeed Mirza also remembers of the days when Ritwik Ghatak used to teach at the film institute and would argue with Nair sahab on which film is to be screened for the students. He recollects that Nair sahab would convince Ghatak for two films in one night, one of his choice the other of Ghatak’s, after Ghatak’s dismissive statements on the choice of Nair sahab. These experiences helped the students learn more than one film in a night. K. Hariharan recollects of an instance when the film Double Suicide was being screened Ghatak got up and said, “There is nothing to learn from this film,” and instructed the students to walk out and later when asked Nair sahab to get up and stop the film he getting the answer, “You leave if you want to. I will watch it completely,” from Nair sahab. Naseer remembers of some screenings where only Nair sahab used to sit till the end. Such was the passion for cinema.
This passion for cinema was in Nair sahab ever since his childhood. During his childhood he would go watch the films at the tent theater. He recollects how his parents did not like him watching cinema and how he would run to the tent once everyone at home was asleep in the night. By then the film would have been half complete and he would watch the second half first and watch the first half the next day during the matinee show. This love for cinema was not just restricted to watching cinema but also making notes on each and every film with details of when the film was watched and where and also to the collection of the film tickets. He remembers, fondly, his brother Ramakutty, who not just understood his love for cinema but also helped him collect the tickets. The seeds of an archivist was present in Nair sahab since his childhood, it appears. Not just the tickets but also the weighing machine tickets that used to come with some details about cinema stars were collected by Nair sahab. This later took shape of the booklets and posters being collected and preserved at the archives. This unadulterated love for cinema and everything related to cinema, an nonjudgmental love an unbiased love for cinema made Nair sahab the celluloid man that he is who though did not make cinemas made cinemas available for us and for generations to come.
It is not just the quality of collecting and preserving which is quintessential to Nair sahab but also the quality of sharing. He had the desire to share and that is what made him initiate the film screenings at the archive. When the film screenings were started at the archives Nair sahab would pick the telephone directory and make random calls to random numbers of Pune and inform them and invite them for the screening. For students interested in learning the films were always available. Girish Kasaravalli says that Nair sahab would not keep the film to himself but would give it the students after testing their real intention behind watching the film. If it were just to watch the film would not be made available. But if it was with genuine interest for leaning then the film would be made available at any hour of the day or any hour of the night. K. Hariharan speaks of he being given with a 16mm print of Battleship Potemkin for viewing by Nair sahab when he told Nair sahab that to learn one will have to watch a film hundred times John Abraham is said to have knocked at Nair sahab’s door at 3:00 hrs wanting to watch a film and Nair sahab arranging for it and following the viewing with a discussion. Vidhu Vinod Chopra remembers him being given with the copy of Hitchcock’s films when he wanted to learn how had the man edited the films.
Nair sahab shared all the films of Ray with Sajeev Kumar when the latter came to him saying he was approached by the master to act in his Shatraj Ke Khiladi and feeling ashamed that he had not watched any of Ray’s film though he had heard a lot about them. Nair sahab remember Sanjeev Kumar having rented a house in Pune for a month to study the films of Ray in order to understand his sense of cinema by watching his films at the archive. There seems to be no end to the ways in which the archive built by Nair sahab has benifited and how and who and all have been enriched by his archiving and his desire to share.
Nair sahab shared the films with K.V. Subbanna of Heggodu too when he wanted to have film appreciation course in his village. The films were made available to H.N. Narahari from Bangalore who remembers of an incident when due his carelessness a film got spoilt and Nair sahab got angry and said, “This is the end of our friendship.” To Nair sahab cinema was not for friendship as much as friendship was for and with cinema. His friendship with cinema and friends of cinema made cinema available to people across the country from Heggodu to Bangalore to several other places. Behind all of it was not just his love for cinema but also his “desire to share”. This desire to share was to share with not his friends but friends of cinema and when that friendship, with cinema, was doubted he withdrew completely, such was his commitment to his friendship with cinema.
He collected them and preserved them as though they were his “kids” and as though they have a “human face” according to Lester James Peries. In doing so he preserved not just films but as U.R. Ananthamurthy says, “he preserved memories.” What makes it incredible is the fact which Shyam Benegal points out that our’s is a nation with no culture of archiving. In such a soil there emerged, thankfully, one man who painstakingly and selflessly kept on collecting films and preserved them. So dedicated he was to these “kids” that till his retirement he hardly spent any time with his family, which his daughter Beena Nair remembers and says, “It took many years for us to realize that its not that he loved us less but that he was so passionate about his work.” K. Hariharan says he always thought that Nair sahab’s life went in circle from NFAI to FTII and back to NFAI. He says he chad never imagined Nair sahab going home and adds that he dint even know if Nair sahab had a home to go back to, for he was always either at the institute or at the archive. After his retirement he couldnt stay in Kerala for long. Three years after shifting to Kerala, post his retirement, he shifted back to Pune. But back in Pune his entry to NFAI, the archive that he established brick by brick and frame by frame, was restricted because the changed regime thought he was interfering too much. But Nair sahab’s only concern were the films which he had taken care like his “kids” which were now not being preserved in a proper manner.
When he goes back to the archive while shooting for the film he feels pained when his the then working room has been turned into a dumping room. Even after two decades of retirement while walking through the archives can recollect which reel of which film has which scene or song. One can only have her/his jaws dropped when Nair sahab is shown delivering the dialogues of Citizen Kane with his back to the screen. All of this is possible only when one, as Mrinal Sen said, has an “intimate relationship” with cinema.
The director of the documentary Shivender Singh Dungarpur mentions that his mentor Gulzar used to mention to him of an actor in Kabuliwala of Bimal Roy who used to sing the first song of Indian cinema from the film Alam Ara. With that man died the song for the film couldnt be archived. The loss of it can be felt by every cinema buff of this nation. Had it not for the painstaking work of P.K. Nair every other film, over a period of time, in one of the largest film producing nation would have evaporated to memory and from memory. Shivendar Singh’s film archives the archivist whose life story and contribution needs to be told to the coming generations and is not to be allowed to get erased. As U.R. Ananthamurthy says, “We have a rich past but a poor history.” The richness of Nair sahab’s contribution shouldn’t be eclipsed by a poor history for he has not let a poor history eclipse the rich history of Indian cinema. In that sense the film is a significant film that archives the archivist whose contribution has touched the lives and shaped the lives of not just film makers but also of film actors, film buffs, film researchers, film historians, film theoreticians and normal film viewers too, which the documentary captures unknowingly while trying to weave a narrative of one life, great life, through several people.
Post Script: In Nasik P.K. Nair stands at the place where once stood the house of Dada Phalke and explains how the house looked like when he had first visited the house. After narrating by recollecting from his sharp memory pointing at the memorial stone standing where once the house stood Nair sahab says, “This is what happens when the world changes,” as though to say what we actually need are not memorials but embodiment of memories, our past, our culture, our history, our heritage. Nair sahab himself is an embodiment of the culture, heritage and tradition of cinema and is an archive in himself. The film doesn’t make a memorial out of him but captures the pulse of the spirit of Nair sahab and the lives that he touched.
[Based on the one view and the notes made during that one privileged viewing of the film at the National Film Archives of India, Pune with the Celluloid Man- P.K. Nair himself on 12 May 2013]