Book Review: PK Nair Shapes Indian Cinema’s Past and Present

A compilation of PK Nair’s writings, ‘Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow’, is an engaging read.

4 min read

PK Nair’s writings have been compiled into <i>Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow</i>. (Photo courtesy: <a href="">Facebook/ Filmheritagefoundation/ vishwagujarat</a>)

A little boy of eight sitting on the sand floors of a tent cinema in Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), engrossed in the celluloid magic unveiling in front of his eyes. That was when the seed of Paramesh Krishnan aka PK Nair’s passion for cinema was planted - a very fortunate occurrence for Indian cinema, considering he has been single-handedly responsible for archiving and preserving most of it.

Despite being home to one of the largest film industries in the world, our apathy towards preserving our cinematic heritage is stark. And if it hadn’t been for India’s ‘celluloid man’ - as Nair is famously known - we would have precious little to show for it.

He was the driving force behind the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in Pune since its inception and managed to take its meagre collection of around 80 titles to 12,000 by the time he retired as director in 1991. And now, Film Heritage Foundation has published a compilation of his writings in Yesterday’s Films for Tomorrow: Essays on Indian Cinema - From the Man Who Rescued Its History, and it’s a must-read for anyone who’s really interested in Indian cinema.

Edited by Rajesh Devraj, the book is divided into sections focusing on Nair’s writings that bring out the different facets of his cinematic personality - archivist, historian, critic, columnist and above all, a passionate member of the audience.

The book cover. (Photo courtesy: <a href=";theater">Facebook/ filmheritagefoundation</a>)
The book cover. (Photo courtesy: Facebook/ filmheritagefoundation)

From the story of his desperate attempts to retrieve Dadasaheb Phalke’s films to the evolution of Indian cinema vis-a-vis socio-economic backdrops to his encyclopaedic knowledge of Indian and world cinema - Nair is a delightful movie companion.

What is even more engaging is how his thoughts / writings reflect and have shaped discourses around Indian cinema. And how relevant they remain even today. Take his stand on Bollywood mainstream flicks and regional cinema for instance. Mainstream commercial cinema, maintains Nair, produces “repetitive inconsequential films” and the audience continues to be “under the hypnotic influence of commercial cinema with its distortion of human values, reasoning and logic”. Regional cinema on the other hand “has become synonymous with quality cinema” - a thought that shapes our take on the movies even today.
PK Nair with Raj Kapoor. (Photo courtesy: <a href="">Facebook/ Bollywoodirect</a>)
PK Nair with Raj Kapoor. (Photo courtesy: Facebook/ Bollywoodirect)

Another interesting piece is that on censorship, where Nair traces the inception of censorship and the depiction of sexuality / nudity on the Indian screen.

The taboo regarding kissing in Indian film only developed later. Kissing scenes were commonplace in the 1920s and ’30s... Kissing disappeared from the Indian screen not because of censorship, but a collective and self-imposed decision by the patriotic film community, which did not wish to imitate western culture or submit to its onslaught. This came at the peak of the freedom movement, and its public acceptance resulted from nationalist considerations and patriotic sentiments rather than anything else. 
PK Nair, Censorship: Colonial Concerns

While reading the book, I was constantly going into a ‘what-would-he-have-said-to-this’ mode. This bit for instance, made me wonder how he would have reacted to the current activities of the censor board, which picks bones with a Lipstick Under My Burkha or Haraamkhor - films he presumably would have approved of.

Nair’s views on the “educative” responsibilities of filmmakers are interesting as well. He is very clear that the message films carry is important because of their massive reach.

There is no doubt that the popular film provides an outlet for people from their socio-economic and sexual frustrations. But the filmmaker will argue that it is not his function to do the job of the school teacher or the educationist. His main aim is to provide three hours of Entertainment with a capital E to an audience that pays for it to escape the day’s worries... But if in the process, this so-called entertainment makes one a dull and a lesser human being, this should be a matter of grave concern to all of us.
PK Nair, What Price Entertainment?
It’s clearly the same idea that is only now questioning a hero’s relentless pursuit - in other words, stalking - of a clearly uninterested woman or trying to cosy up (molest) to her - on screen.

It’s important to remember that Nair is not a writer by profession. So the book might appear a tad boring at times - especially if you are reading it at one go like I did. And there’s a fair bit of repetition as well as he reiterates certain ideas in his essays. But go beyond that, and it’s a cinema bible you can’t do without if you really love the movies.

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