Film Is A Part Of Our Cultural Heritage: P.K. Nair

September 29, 2013 at 9:15 PMSep (Cinema, Media, Slice Of Life)

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:

Photo by: Diego Jolly Jacob

Photo by: Diego Jolly Jacob

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.

Interviewing Nair Sahab

Interviewing Nair Sahab

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.

Dr. U.R. Ananthamurthy releasing the special issue of Vartha Bharathi. On stage with him Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, N. Ram and Devanoor Mahadeva

Dr. U.R. Ananthamurthy releasing the special issue of Vartha Bharathi. On stage with him Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, N. Ram and Devanoor Mahadeva

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.]

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1 Comment

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

    […] He asked me to do a special article for their annual issue and I immediately asked him if I could interview Nair sahab to which he said, “Ok.” As he said “Ok” I turned back and went into NFAI again […]

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