Vartha Bharathi, a Kannada daily, to mark the completion of its eleven years of existence, held an annual reader’s convention in Bangalore on the 27th of September 2013. During the occassion a speical issue was released by Dr. U.R. Ananthamurthy. For the special issue I did an interview with P.K. Nair, the celluloid man behind the National Film Archives of India, Pune. Here is the interview:
Samvartha ‘Sahil’: What are your early cinema experiences?
P.K. Nair: It was of wonder. When I used to watch the Tamil Mythologicals in my early years I was awestruck by cinema. I used to wonder what this is medium like. Those days I liked fantasy. But later in life I came across films like Rashoman and Pather Panchali which changed my views about cinema. It made me realize that cinema is not just about stories, mythology or folks. The form started fascinating me. But even when concentrating on form the filmmaker should be in contact with the audience. Communication with the audience is more important. It is the connect which one makes with the audience which determines the realism of the cinema and not the cinematographe of it or the outside form of it. With more and more exposure to cinema I learnt that films operate at two levels. One at the mere entertainment level and then it operates at a deeper level too making deeper impact on you at an intellectual and emotional level.
SS: Can you speak a bit of your relationship with the celluloid?
PKN: Cinema began with animation. In 1895 when cinema opened its eyes chemical films were used. In 80s and 90s the video format came into existence. In 2000 digital format took over. But the problem with digital is that there is no contrast and this upsets the image quality. I haven’t seen any good digital films Cinema is an artistic medium and attaining that artistic quality through digital is quite difficult and doubtful. It is difficult to find a ‘drop’ in the digital print. For that we will have to run the entire film. With digital films a viewer can adjust the film as per his requirement. With this possibility the viewer is not watching the creator’s creation. This according to me is dangerous. The archivists all over the world have been advised to go slow with digitizing of the cinema on celluloid.
SS: How did the idea of NFAI germinate? Was it a spark or a result of years of churning?
PKN: When the Government of India started giving away the National Awards then it was decided to have a library for the award winning films. That is when National Film Library was set up. When the Film and Television Institute of India was set up a film library along with the book library was set up. By then, i.e. mid-60s, suggestions came from foreign archives to preserve films and set up an archive. Thus NFAI started which was the 30th film archive in the world. When it was set up it was decided to preserve not just award winning films but also films of historical value. So there were three categories then: award winning films, literary adaptations and box office hits.
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 can take you back in time. Watch the first film and you can go back to 1895. Through films we can study the times that went past. For these purposes an archive becomes important.
SS: What were the practical problems in acquiring films?
PKN: Film has a limited life. It gets deteriorated outside the ideal temperature and there is the danger of self immolation. In earlier days very few producers had coolers required for the storage of films. The idea of preservation of films also began twenty years after the coming into existence of films. By 1964 almost 70% of the films made in India prior to 1950 vanished due to no proper facilities for preservation. Between 1910 and 1931 around 1500 silent films were made out of which only 9 to 10 films are available now at NFAI and not all are complete. The situation was quite better with talkies because the studio system which came into being started preserving the films. The studio systems came to an end with the 50s decade. So it was difficult to acquire these films. The reason to establish the NFAI in Pune was its climate. It is almost ideal. While acquiring the films some of the films we got for free but 90% of the films were acquired by paying for them.
SS: What are the most essential requirements for a film archivist?
PKN: Love for cinema is the first and foremost requirement. Especially old films. Technical knowledge is also essential to check the quality of films stored, to spot the likely problems and have them repaired. Between 1939 and 1943 sub standard stocks were used for cinema. This was directly related to the world war. Knowledge of this and extra care for those films is also the responsibility of an archivist.
SS: What are the responsibilities of a film archivist? Who is he responsible towards?
PKN: Storage and documentation. Storage also includes maintenance. Periodical checking of the films and making duplicate copies at the moment of deterioration is all essential. Documentation includes preparing synopsis with attached details of the film regarding its year of making the cast and crew. This is to not just keep a record but also to help research. But we can’t escape the question who do we collect it for? It is not just for filmmakers and researchers. The films are preserved so that people can watch them. It is also with the purpose of disseminating film viewing culture. For this we started regular screenings. The whole purpose of film society movement was this. We moved around the nation with films. Films should be seen more and more by people and not just filmmakers. It is with the purpose of spreading film culture that the annual film appreciation course was started in Pune by NFAI in collaboration with the Film and Television Institute of India.
SS: What is the importance of Film Appreciation course with regard to spreading of film culture?
PKN: The idea was that at least some people who attend the film appreciation course will become teachers and thus we can create a local base for film societies to operate. Not all those who attend the course become teachers but some do. It started with teachers as the main target who can take films and film culture to the ground level.
SS: Do you see the need to revive film society movement?
PKN: There is. But the academic base for film society movement has not grown. Most of the film clubs now in the nation are run by mass communication institutes. Sadly, these mass communication institutes or departments have not added to the film society movement. Their interest, mostly, is in film making or studying films but not in creating a film culture. Mass communication institutes and departments created new filmmakers for whom making a second film have not been easy. Usually these failed filmmakers become teachers. For them creation and spreading of film culture is not the first love.
SS: What is the purpose of film festivals then?
PKN: It is to keep the film community aware of the present scenario and making contemporary world cinema available to people. Earlier IFFI was the only film festival but now there are plenty of film festivals do happen which is a good thing. But there is a collective failure on our part in creating a body of people with intense film knowledge. Because of this the film festivals are suffering. We should have specialized and trained people who can make film festivals a real experience for exchange of thoughts ideas films and to reach out to the people and creating a film viewing culture.
SS: It must have been quite frustrating to create an archive in a country which does not have a concept of archiving?
PKN: It was. But it had to be done. I personally believe that every state and every language should have their own archives so that the burden is lesser on the central archive.
SS: You are, even before a film archivist, a film buff. Which are your favourite films?
PKN: During my childhood I enjoyed films which had simple stories with humanistic value. But now I view cinema in a different way. I can’t answer which is my favourite film now. May be 50 years ago I would have. Now my whole concept of cinema has changed and I don’t understand how to compare a 1920 film with a 1950 film. Every period has produced great films.
SS: During your long career at NFAI and FTII what has been the memory of which you are very fond.
PKN: Watching films and yeah the smell of the film! I miss them.
SS: Can you brief us about the Museum of Moving Images in Mumbai to which you have contributed.
PKN: The basic concept of it is from the archives itself. But it goes beyond that. Films Division has a museum of film cameras. But cameras alone don’t make a film museum. Cinema is a world in itself. Hence a museum of cinema should include technology of cinema, the content of it and other elements which make the cinema. Museum of Moving Images attempts that.
SS: Can you speak about your experience in Heggodu and the film society of Heggodu which was the first rural film society in India?
PKN: In Heggodu we broke the language barrier. Cinema is believed to be universal language and I saw it with my own eyes in Heggodu. I wish the Heggodu film society and their annual film appreciation course had continued. What was commendable about K.V. Subbanna was that he not just showed films and held film appreciation courses but also published booklets on and about cinema which is an important thing to do because they serve as knowledge material which go hand in hand with cinema in creation of a film culture. He did it in local language which makes his work extraordinary. Such work needs to be done more.
[Sincere thanks to the Editor of Vartha Bharathi, B.M. Basheer, who made this interview possible. Special thanks to Sandhya Rani who helped me with the translation of this interview to Kannada for the special issue. Affectionately thanking my friends Rahul and Pooraj for their help during the interview.]
Disclaimer: The thoughts expressed in this article are that of the author alone and is not the view of either the FTII Students’ Body or FTII administration.
A decade after the article The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky by A. Roy was published in The Hindu, I was sitting in Pune in my room staring out of the window and the title of the essay passed my mind. No. It dint pass my mind. It surfaced in my mind and remained at the top.
The title and the essay came to me with a situation in which Noam Chomsky found himself following the bombing of Hiroshima, which gets a mention in the article in his own words, surfaced in my mind. This is how he spoke of it: I remember that I literally couldn’t talk to anybody. There was nobody. I just walked off by myself. I was at a summer camp at the time, and I walked off into the woods and stayed alone for a couple of hours when I heard about it. I could never talk to anyone about it and never understood anyone’s reaction. I felt completely isolated.
There is a certain kind of political loneliness!
It was just three days after 12 goons from the Akhila Bharateeya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) attacked five students of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and I was sitting on the table, that holds the hand of the wall in my room, and staring out of the window sandwiched between many thoughts cutting through my mind and quite a lot of pending work. But couldn’t help but take a pause parking aside everything. A moment of silence was required. Not to find answer but just to digest certain facts and gather the courage again to march. There was no escaping from the fact that there was nobody and that I could not talk to anyone about it and failed to understand anyone’s reaction. Yes, I felt completely isolated.
There is a certain kind of political isolation. There is a certain kind of political loneliness.
My dad called me. He had in his mind that I was leaving Pune in a couple of days. He called to enquire. He dint know I had changed my plans. I had forgotten to speak of the change in the plan. No I hadn’t. I remembered it in all the days since the plan was changed. I avoided speaking of it to dad or mom. Because I did not want to tell them what had happened here for I know what their reaction would be. But now that dad himself called to ask I had to answer. I told him of the delay and avoided the reason. He asked me why was I delaying. I told him that some goons from ABVP had attacked FTII students.
“Come back soon.”
“Ok,” I said and cut the conversation saying I have a meeting to attend. No, I was not lying.
“We are not attached to any particular political ideology as such. Can’t we protest only for freedom of speech and expression? Why bring in the issue of Dr. Dabholkar and fascism?”
How could we see the incident in isolation I couldn’t understand. The screening of Jai Bheem Comrade and the performance of Kabir Kala Manch was homage to Dr. Narendra Dabholkar who was killed brutally just a day before the screening and performance. His battle against superstition and fight for an anti superstition bill remained incomplete with the murder. He had been receiving threats from the right wing fascists saying he will meet the fate of Gandhi. He did. Bullets pierced his body making way for life to fly away. The very next day a dozen of ABVP goons attack FTII students for inviting Kabir Kala Manch. The goons said the students were involved in “anti national activities” and also called them “naxalites.”
Few years ago the screening of Sanjay Kak’s documentary Jashn-E-Azadi at Symbiosis Institute, Pune was cancelled by the Institute at the last moment because the same right wing goons created a ruckus. Few days ago the same right wing disrupted an exhibition at Amdavad-ni-Gufa, Ahmedabad. Just a day before the screening and performance a man was killed allegedly by the same right wings. It was all about right wing fascism as much as freedom of speech and expression. Why was there second thoughts in calling a spade and spade, I failed to understand. But yes, it could be only about freedom of speech and expression. It can be seen just as that. We could shy away from “being political” and creating controversies. Had the organizers of Jashn-E-Azaadi screening taken steps to fight it probably few years later the screening of Anand Patwardhan’s Jai Bheem Comrade and the performance of Kabir Kala Manch would not have ended with an attack by ABVP goons. The issue of freedom of speech and expression is linked to the responsibility of resistance and registering a protest, of the responsibility of speech and expression to create an atmosphere for freedom to prevail.
But there was skepticism about “getting political,” because “we” as students of an Institute “do not belong to any particular political ideology.” How was our response to a particular incident- and related incidents- be the defining statement of our politics? We were not out to define our political stand as a whole. We had to respond, responsibly, to a particular situation. When it was a political issue- ABVP calling our students “Naxalite” and “anti-National” for inviting Kabir Kala Manch- why shy away from being political in fighting against it, while registering our protest against it? There were signs of neo-liberal untouchability practiced against the “politically charged,” though not in great numbers.
In a democratic space all points of view and all kind of voices come and all of it is taken for discussion. A good thing. But in the whole discussion, to arrive at a consensus, a certain kind of political loneliness manages to seep into your veins, even when you understand the other point of views at one level though disagreeing with it.
“I want world’s sympathy in this battle of right against might.” – M.K. Gandhi
Sympathy came in the form of solidarity from across the nation. People in different cities were protesting and decided to hold solidarity march in their cities at the same time and day we had decided to take a protest march here in Pune. Still the battle started appearing to not that of right against might but that against ‘right’, while trying to mobilize people and organizations for the solidarity march planned.
When another Hindu right wing fascist students’ organization extend their support to you when you are attacked by their rival/ competitor student’s party, how do you react? How do you react when a Muslim right wing fundamentalist group extends to you their support in the matter? It can only be rejected and rightly they were rejected. But what an isolation it is when surrounded by all reactionary and regressive groups. Its one among them who attacks you and others start supporting you. You realize that you are operating in a space where fascists are everywhere and all are here to establish their regime and you are left with no space. A certain kind of political loneliness hits you.
It hits you more when those who share your world view to a large extent have second thoughts in extending their support. So it is not a battle against the ‘right’ by the left of the centre but a battle against ‘right’ by the ‘left out’!!!
A student’s party, which is backed by a left party, tells they will not participate in the march if Kabir Kala Manch is participating. It doesn’t stop there. One of the victims is asked, by the party members, to stay away from Kabir Kala Manch.
A group with whom I have been associated, even though not actively, said they support us morally but cant participate in the march because KKM is involved in the matter. No matter how much it was tried to explain that the matter is not exactly about KKM did not help because to them the state the system doesn’t view it the way we view things. They said the police was waiting to link them to naxals and participating in a protest that is related, even if remotely, to KKM will cause problems for them. Words failed me. Because I had banked on this group a lot and believed that we have their support. As I continued to listen in utter disbelief the first Marathi slogan I learnt, after shifting to Pune, surfaced inside me and it started echoing deep inside me. The slogan is, “Bhagta Kaai? Shaamil Hwa,” meaning “What are you watching from distance? Come join…” It’s a slogan I had learnt from this group who were now saying they cannot openly support us in our fight.
While walking out of their office, to my mind, the battle had become against the ‘right’ by the left outs. That is when a certain kind of political loneliness hit me hard and became visible to me inside myself. It started biting me.
But at one level I could understand their position. Theirs is a group that has been fighting quite a lot of battles within the space of democracy for democracy to be established in its true meaning. The state and its machineries, majorly the police, is also such that it always wants a chance to silence such ‘troublemakers’ and no opportunity will be missed.
One should speak of the police. A department whose ideal self and real self are in opposition to each other. When gone to the police station to register complaint the victims of the incident are told, “Had you organized any other cultural programme like bharathanatyam it wouldn’t have caused any problem. Inviting Kabir Kala Manch was your mistake. Hence you got beaten up.” MISTAKE! Even before registering the complaint of the victims they are told that they have made a “mistake” and “hence” got beaten up. When gone to take permission for the solidarity march the students of FTII are asked why they want to indulge in protest and are suggested to “channelize” their energies into constructive work like “volunteering at the Ganesh Chaturthi programmes which are nearing.” It shocks but doesn’t surprise because the police station where the students went to register their complaints went has an attached shrine to it. If it were an old building which was later taken over by the police department one could still understand. But no. When the students go there to register their complaints, after being beaten up, the shrine attached to the police station has a lamp lit! It means a lamp is lit by the police department every day! Diya taley andhera (darkness beneath the lamp) acquires greater larger and political meanings here.
Permission to take out a march was denied saying the intelligence report says that the march might invite trouble from “anti-social elements.” If the intelligence is report says so are the police expected to give protection or stop the march? In any case, permission was denied!
The night before the day decided for the march as I was walking back to my room crossing the main gate, at around 3:00 am, I stood at the gate and wondered if it was late night or early morning! I saw two roads meet- the main road called the law college road and the road that goes inside the institute. I wondered what was to happen the next evening. We had decided to go ahead with the march as planned even when police had not just denied the permission but also given it in writing that if any mishap takes place then we ourselves will be held responsible for the mishap. Will the Institute come meet the road outside? Will the road outside ever listen to the voice that will walk out the following day? Who will walk along the day following? I had no answer for any of these questions. But one thing I knew i.e. we will march! We will march be it late night or early morning! But hidden inside that optimism of the will was pessimism of the intellect…
And a certain kind of political loneliness!
Over two hundred people gathered the next evening. Police, in the last minute, granted permission and protection. We marched, silently with black clothe around our mouth, till Omkareshwari Bridge where Dr. Dabholkar was murdered. At the site of murder we observed two minutes of silence for the departed life. As we stood silent we heard, from the river side, the sounds of drum from Dol Pathak and vehicles passed by us. The mournful silence got drowned in the sound of Dhol Pathak and the sound of automobiles!
Few days later a staff at the institute, open about his affiliation with the right wing, tells a student to gather all students for the Ganesh pooja, in the Institute, “like” they were all gathered together for the protest.
Follow up meeting, where the next course of action was to be discussed, had poor attendance. Negligible. To the extent that the meeting had to be called off. Was the protest just an ‘event’?
Why were the fellow students shying away from being “political”? Why was there a certain kind of untouchability with those considered “politically charged”? Why did the police decide, before taking the complaint, that the victims had committed a “mistake”? Why was the permission denied to take a march? Why did the right wing Hindu and Muslim organizations support our cause when a right wing Hindu organization had beaten us up? Why did the left and left of the center parties and groups either backed out or had two thoughts about supporting the cause? Was the march just an ‘event’ and nothing beyond?
I have no answer for these. But one thing I know for sure. If I had to live these days again I would still stand where I stand and where I have stood, no matter how hard political loneliness bites!