How P.K. Nair Built the National Film Archive of India

NFAI was closed down at the end of 2022. It is not known what will become of the materials in its archives
How P.K. Nair Built the National Film Archive of India

On December 31, 2022, Indian cinema witnessed the end of an era when the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Films Division (FD) and a few other film-related agencies were merged into the National Film Development Cooperation (NFDC).  Laments poured in from filmmakers and critics, who recalled the role these agencies have played in the story and history of Indian film. The closures brought to mind the decades of perseverance that had gone into building the archives of these now-defunct bodies, particularly FD and NFAI, and the work of NFAI’s founding director, P.K. Nair. 

Born on 4th April, 1933, P.K. Nair grew up in a small town in Kerala. In the mid-Fifties, Nair came to Bombay with hopes of making films. He assisted filmmakers like Mehboob Khan and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, while working on his script. His experiences made him realise that his love for cinema was more academic than practical, in that he didn’t have the skill set to make or write his own film. In 1961, Nair was hired as a research assistant, at the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), where he helped noted film scholar Satish Bahadur to design the school’s curriculum. Around this time, Bahadur and Jagat Murari, the then head of FTII, were chalking out a plan to create an archiving body for films and Nair found himself getting involved in these conversations. He would go on to become the founding director of the NFAI when it was set up in 1964.

In its early days, NFAI had a small room at FTII, a budget of Rs. 50,000, and Nair had two subordinates. With these resources, Nair set off to archive the early years of Indian Cinema. Looking for reels of early Indian films, he went around the country, visiting places ranging from the offices of wound-down film studios to remote scrap-dealers. His efforts bore fruit and he was able to find and save films like Raja Harishchandra (1913), Jeevan Naiyya (1936), Chandralekha (1948), Kaliya Mardan (1919), and Sati Savitri (1927), among a few others. We can either feel sad and distraught at the knowledge that we have lost all trace of more than 70% of the films made in pre-Independent India (and over 95 % of films made in the silent era), or we can be grateful for Nair who salvaged the handful of films that he was able to find. 

In Celluloid Man (2012), a brilliant documentary in which film archivist and restorer Shivendra Singh Dungarpur chronicles Nair’s life, Nair responds to the rumours that he “stole” prints of foreign films that came to be screened at Indian film festivals and made duplicates of those prints for the film archive. He staunchly objects to the use of the word stealing, preferring instead the phrase “overcoming the legal problems”. It’s an admission that’s either delightful or alarming, depending on one’s perspective, but it shows the single-minded determination with which Nair approached his mission. Bound less by bureaucracy or propriety, and more by passion, he worked according to his own idiosyncratic set of rules. 

The early protocols of NFAI were initially restrictive. Rules dictated that only those films which had won a National Award would be asked to submit a copy of their print for the archive. Nair, however, had no interest in such hierarchies of taste. Whether it was a Fearless Nadia spectacle or a Girish Kasaravalli film, it was welcome in his archives and to that end, he expanded the scope of NFAI’s repository. He would go on to collect a total of 12,000 films (8,000 of them were Indian) for NFAI. 

Nair retired in 1991, but remained involved with his beloved NFAI while he was physically able. In 2016, Nair passed away.  

Both Celluloid Man and Nair’s collection of essays, titled Yesterday’s Films for Tomorrow, are reminders of how much of our cinematic heritage we’ve lost to carelessness and greed. One famous story is about Alam Ara (1931). Nair approached Ardeshir Irani, the film’s producer, to procure any surviving material, only to learn that the producer’s son had sold the prints, which were then recycled to extract silver for colored bangles (this incident was most recently given a romanticised spin in Pan Nalin’s film Chhello Show, which has received an Oscar nomination for the best international feature). It wasn’t until the Eighties, when Doordarshan started telecasting movies, that film found a life beyond the theatre and producers were incentivised to make money from their earlier projects. For many films, this development came too late.

Men like Nair, who cared about cinema as a cultural heritage and were able to be generous in their criticism as well as their praise, who worked selflessly for an idea of an inclusive Indian culture, have always been rare. The closure of NFAI and the government’s other film-related organisations is only the most recent reminder of this.  

We’re spoilt today with a seeming cornucopia of films on streaming platforms, but this abundance is recent and illusory. While all attention is given to filmmaking as a commercial enterprise, with a focus on the present and on profits, the past is given little value. Older films are becoming more and more difficult to access. Smaller and non-commercial films are struggling to find audiences and platforms. As a country, movies have played an essential part in our growing up. They’ve taught us about the world beyond our immediate boundaries and been pensieves of sorts. They’ve brought respite and joy to otherwise dreary lives and have informed our understanding of ourselves as both individuals and as a nation. Yet, we seem to pay little attention to the fact that movies, good and bad, are a fragile part of our history and that when we lose films, we lose a part of our collective memory. With NFAI becoming the stuff of memories, let’s hope the fruit of Nair’s decades-long labour is not lost to us.

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