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P K Nair: The Reel Deal

P K Nair: The Reel Deal

He never made a single film nor acted in one, yet Paramesh Krishnan Nair was a movie star.

Undiscovered for decades, Nair toiled tirelessly, ceaselessly and in almost complete anonymity, saving India’s cinematic heritage, bit by painstaking bit. His adventures while tracking down crumbling film reels stored in cowsheds and godowns, and coaxing the descendants of early filmmakers to part with old prints is now the stuff of legend.

Nair was the founder-director of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in 1964, and it is due to his quiet but dogged obsession with ferreting out, restoring and archiving films that we have been able to preserve some iconic moments in our film history.

He died in 2016 at the age of 82 but Nair was virtually hypnotised by the movies since he was a child. As a boy in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, he would slip out to watch films without his parents knowing, and when he turned 25, like any star-struck young man worth his salt, he came to Bombay to become a filmmaker.

According to Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, whose documentary Celluloid Man (2012) brought the pioneering film archivist and his work to light, Nair trained for a bit under legendary directors Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and even wrote a script. But he wasn’t cut out to make films.

| Pramanick via Wikimedia Commons

Setting Up The Archive

Nair landed the role of a lifetime when he was a research assistant at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. The NFAI was being set up in 1964, also in Pune, and he was appointed its first Director. He couldn’t have asked for more, so what if his office was no more than an old make-up room, a remnant of Prabhat film studio that once stood there?

The reason Nair’s work is even more precious is that film preservation was not a priority in India, which is why large parts of the country’s film heritage has perished. In Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow (2017), an anthology of Nair’s writings, Nair reveals a shocking truth – he says 70 per cent of films made before the 1950s are either in such a pitiable state that they cannot be salvaged or are permanently lost. 

Film reels were often mined for the silver in the nitrate coating on the celluloid strips, which is exactly what happened to Alam Ara (1931), India’s first talkie. Colour reels were also melted and the celluloid moulded into colourful bangles, handbags, combs and hairbrushes!

A still from Raja Harishchandra | Wikimedia Commons

Hunting Down Prints

Nair spent 27 years at the helm of the NFAI but he continued to hunt down rare and valuable film prints long after he retired in 1991. Many of his exploits read like a thriller. In the anthology, Nair recounts his quest for India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra (1913) made by Dadasaheb Phalke, regarded as the ‘father of Indian cinema’. While he recovered the film’s first reel from Phalke’s daughter Mandakini, he found the fourth with his elder son Neelkanth. The second and third reels are still missing.

When Nair visited Phalke’s younger son Prabhakar, he stumbled upon an unexpected treasure – an almost complete Kaliya Mardan (1919), the story of Lord Krishna. Featuring Phalke’s then seven-year-old daughter Mandakini, Kaliya Mardan is the only Phalke film that is almost intact.

Nair painstakingly reassembled it from film fragments based on Phalke’s notes in a diary found along with the disintegrating celluloid film in an old wooden box that Prabhakar had saved.

Greatly encouraged by this, Nair plunged headlong into what became his life’s mission. He tells of a grocer who claimed to have some old film prints in his attic but refused to part with them as Nair couldn’t ‘name a price’. When the old man’s son gave Nair the ageing wooden box with the reels in it after his father’s death, Nair was astonished to find the prints of Muraliwala (1927) and Sati Savitri (1927), produced by the Maharashtra Film Company and directed by Baburao Painter. 

“Somehow, we managed to collect about 10 out of the 1,500 silent feature films made in the country between 1913 and 1932,” Nair says in the anthology.

In Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow, Nair says he stumbled upon Chitralekha (1941) directed by Kidar Sharma in – believe it or not – a cowshed in Calcutta. The reels were stuck together and were as hard as stone. Nair and his team used utter ingenuity and some unusual home-grown techniques to salvage the brittle print, even as some of it cracked and crumbled before their very eyes.

But, Nair reminds us, not everyone was happy to cooperate with him. Sometimes, doors were slammed in his face by descendants of pioneering filmmakers, who had spent their life savings making movies at the cost of their families.

Cover of 'Yesterday's Films For Tomorrow'

Beyond Borders

The quest to recover old prints led Nair not only to remote places in India but overseas too. For instance, a few reels of Kanjibhai Rathod’s silent film Sukanya Savitri (1922) were located in a cinema in Bangkok. 

During his lifetime, Nair salvaged around 12,000 films, including 8,000 Indian and 4,000 international titles. He also corresponded with film curators across the world, and exchanged prints, to the benefit of all. It was his dogged pursuit of rare titles that helped Nair introduce film students to the masters of world cinema, for he was determined to preserve movies to make them easily accessible, not lock them away.

Nair was much more than an archivist. He understood the medium and its message. He wrote extensively on a range of subjects relating to films, including conservation as well as a personal commentary on cinema. His articles were published in a variety of film journals and other publications; many of them are part of the anthology, Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow.

Dungarpur, who regarded Nair as a mentor and a “living, breathing museum of cinema”, says that after living across his beloved NFAI all those decades, Nair was to return to his roots in Thiruvananthapuram.

When he died on 4th March 2016, he was a part of a film restoration workshop and was to catch the train back home a few days later.

Paramesh Krishnan Nair died with his boots on and he will be remembered just as he wished – through his work, through ‘his’ films.

Cover Photo: PK Nair in Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s award-winning 2012 documentary Celluloid Man (2012)

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