Celluloid Man

May 12, 2013 at 9:15 PMMay (Cinema, Musings)

celluloid man_POSTERCinema, 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.

celluloid man.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.

pk nairSaeed 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.

mini-still_celluloid_man_2Nair 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.

397913-celluloid-manWhen 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]


  1. Gaston Roberge said,

    I am very happy to find that at last the contribution of PK Nair to the Indian film culture is ackowledged, and beautifully. Thank you for writing these notes and for sharing them.
    Gaston Roberge, one who greatly benefitted for Mr. Nair’s work.

  2. buroshiva dasgupta said,

    Of my short stay in FTII Pune in late 70s, memories of two personalities I can never erase – one is Satish Bahabur who taught me study film shot by shot ( he took Charulata as an example) and the other is ofcourse PK Nair. The national archive is a one-man creation that is PK Nair. He literally broke all laws to collect films – and had no compunctions.Why should he ? He knew what he was doing and that is how we have the archive today !

  3. Remembering Nair Sahab | Crazy Mind's Eye said,

    […] in that year a film made on him Celluloid Man was released which we had the fortune of watching with Nair sahab himself during the occasion of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: