To PK Nair, The Neglected ‘Celluloid Man’ of Indian Cinema

Founder and Director of the NFAI and the celluloid archivist of India, PK Nair passed away on 4 March, 2016.

4 min read

The condolence meeting on March 6 at the auditorium of the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) in Pune, paid a fond tribute to the late PK Nair, founder and Director of the NFAI and the celluloid archivist of India who passed away on Friday.

Former students of the FTII (Film and Television Institute) where PKN began his career in the mid 1960’s, colleagues and cine lovers recalled the sterling contribution of Nair saab – as he was known – but the disappointment could not be contained.

Despite a buzz the previous evening among the ‘Nair fan club’ as it were, (many of this informal group had gathered in Pune on hearing of his demise) that the government would confer a posthumous award on PK Nair – this announcement did not materialise despite the presence of the Secretary, I&B at the Sunday’s condolence meeting.

Many speakers drew attention to this omission on Delhi’s part for decades (Nair retired in 1991) and the more cynical ones quipped that the state only recognises film stars and cricketers but has little time or inclination to acknowledge and recognise institution builders – especially the quiet, dedicated types who spend their whole lives with a single-minded commitment to a cause or discipline that has a national relevance and where the state is either indifferent or ignorant – or both!

Founder and Director of the NFAI and the celluloid archivist of India, PK Nair passed away on 4 March, 2016.
A still from the silent film Raja Harishchandra (1913) which was directed and produced by Dadasaheb Phalke, and is the first full-length Indian feature film. PK Nair was instrumental in archiving several such films. (Photo courtesy: PhalkeFactory)

A Dedicated Film Lover

An archivist of India’s film heritage, PKN’s career and life epitomised this trait of the Indian state in more ways than one. A film buff from age seven, as he recounted, he left Trivandrum for Mumbai in the early 1960’s to join the film world but soon realised that his interest was more suited for that of a researcher and an archivist.

The young Nair made his way to Pune and joined the FTII as a researcher where the early NFAI was born as the National Film Library. It had a staff strength of three and a princely budget of Rs 25,000 – to archive Indian films!

The determined PK Nair took it upon himself to preserve some part of India’s rich but totally ignored and lost film heritage that existed in film cans scattered across the country with producers, distributors and kabadi-wallahs!

The NFAI was formed in 1967 with PKN as the founder Director and with unparalleled zeal he located and brought back to Pune a fragment of this treasure trove. In conversations with PKN when we met in Delhi, he used to clinically bemoan the fact that by the time he got down to locating the early Indian classics – almost 70 percent of the films made in India beginning from the early 20th century had been lost.

Films made prior to 1950 were sold as raddi by the weight – and then the reels burnt to extract the silver from the silver-nitrate coated films. However by the time PKN retired, as many as 12,000 films were part of the NFAI of which 3,000 were foreign films.


A short clip of Acchut Kanya (1936)–a film that was archived by PK Nair. (Photo courtesy: YouTube)


Encyclopedia of the Film World

Many stories abound about how PKN collected rare films–and in one case to retrieve a Phalke film, he took a ride in a pre-dawn tempo from Pune that was to deliver newspapers to the mofussil region so that no time was lost.

A cow-shed in Kolkata, a kabadi-wallah in Bombay’s chor-bazaar, the family of a producer in Madras…there was no place that was not visited if it could yield a fragment of India’s film heritage. A revered teacher for film lovers and budding scholars, the archivist par excellence, Nair saab was also a living encyclopedia of film – both Indian and foreign – at a time when the Google option did not exist.

Suresh Chabbria who succeeded PKN as Director of NFAI, Anil Zankar–a film-maker and FTII alumnus, Nasreen Munni Kabir, a film scholar – all of who recalled Nairsaab on Sunday agreed that he was the ‘Supreme Court’ of film for their generation. Whether it was a song, or some detail about the script-writer or the camera – Nairsaab had all the facts at his fingertips.

Long hours of watching EVERY film that came his way and the copious notes he made during the screening with a torch, always seated in the same chair – Nairsaab became a ‘guru ‘ for generations of FTII students and film lovers across India.

Walking through the campus of the NFAI, one visited the old Jaykar building late at night where PKN had his office (it has now moved to a new location) and the image of the solitary archivist lovingly tending to the films that had become his life will be abiding.

The most appropriate tribute came from Salaam – the projectionist who was hired by PKN almost four decades ago and is now the oldest staff member at the NFAI. Nairsaab, he recalled– was a tough boss who expected the highest standards of work - which he set for himself and worked 24 x 7 for 27 years.

‘But beneath that tough exterior, he was a very compassionate boss and there are many like me who owe our present position to him.’ And he added in characteristic manner: Ab Nairsaab off hogaya – aisa aadmi kabhi nahi milega.

As Anil Zankar observed at the Sunday condolence meeting – Nairsaab has not left a void….he laid a strong foundation for the preservation of Indian film that must be made more robust in the years ahead – award or no award.

RIP Nairsaab.

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