The late P. K. Nair, archivist, critic and student of cinema was an articulate commentator on the past and the future of the medium.

BY PARTHA CHATTERJEE

Cinema is about time and its fragments, orchestrated to produce a harmonious whole through a narrative. The results depend upon the talent of directors but what they create is a record of the world in action in a span of time, and therefore deemed worthy of preservation in an archive so that viewers can perceive the world and its goings on in particular moments of human history as seen by a certain film maker. In order to make preservation and viewing of films from the past, distant and not so, a film archive is necessary. In India P. K. Nair created such an institutionin in Pune and helped it achieve greatness over a period of 30 years.

The publication of a volume of Nair’s writings entitled Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow by Film Heritage Foundation, an organisation set up by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, filmmaker and archivist, is timely, considering technical and aesthetic transformations that cinema has undergone in the last decade and half.  Nair lived long enough—he died on March 4, 2016— to witness this change and to try and fathom what it entailed.

In his preface, the editor, Rajesh Devraj, writes about Nair’s love of cinema. “For P. K. Nair the lights never came up. This book is a remembrance of a person who was obsessed with not just the stories that cinema told, but with all the facets—the form, function and the ephemera of the moving image. He was a collector, a cinephile, a historian, an archivist, an evangelist, a teacher and a student of cinema—all of which is reflected in this compilation of his writings.”

Despairing of the rut into which popular Indian cinema had fallen, particularly Hindi, one asked him if a breakthrough was ever possible. “Yes” he said, “but it will not come through the all-India Hindi Film but regional productions.” Why he made this comment was not hard to guess; perhaps he meant the financial risks a regional language film ran were fewer than a Hindi film produced in Mumbai where budgets were much higher and producers played safe to protect their investment. Of course, investments in certain Tamil and Telugu films were also high enough to preclude any attempt at seriousness, leave alone experimentation, even at a rudimentary level.

The idea of film archive as an adjunct of a historical archive was a novel one in the Indian context because an overwhelming majority of producers and directors regarded cinema as a business for making money—the more, the better.  It was beyond them to consider that cinema could be a valuable record of a changing world, and in certain cases, a beautiful one.

Nair understood soon after he was appointed in 1964 as assistant curator at the National Film Archive of India, that cinema regardless of its genres, fiction; long and short, documentary; a genre which could be sub-divided into many categories; non-representational experimental films; animation works of various kinds; was a record of the world and also a portrait of the person responsible for the making, for guiding a team to realise a particular work.

***

He and Satish Bahadur, another forgotten hero, formed an unbeatable team as they made their way to the remote corners of India screening world classics with an evangelical zeal. Nair’s passion for cinema was also linked to its practical aspects like safe transportation of prints; there was no digital technology then, the handling by projectionists and efficient, caring projection and a safe return to NFAI thereafter. He discussed the shown film with great warmth with almost always a lay audience, encouraging each viewer to think, while Satish Bahadur laid emphasis on film theory without being esoteric. No small feat that!

Celluloid Man Dungarpur’s tribute to P. K. Nair, not only shows his passion for cinema; it also shows on camera his children, grown to adulthood, speaking with a tinge of regret at seldom finding their father at home in their childhood and adolescence. He would usually be away at a screening, discussion or meeting to sort out administrative problems at the NFAI. His tenure as director was the most fruitful in the history of the institution and hugely beneficial for students at the Film and Television Institute of India to which it was attached and remains so to this day.

He first became a part of the film appreciation (FA) course with Marie Seton, the British critic, and Satish Bahadur. He speedily learnt that, “It was not enough to show films: they had to be explained, analysed, debated and understood.” The FA course was a hit with beginners as well as professionals from the film world. Shorter courses were organised by NFAI with the help of film societies in far-flung places like Imphal, Indore, Chandigarh, Thrissur.

In Heggodu, Karnataka, K. V. Subanna, a theatre activist started his own appreciation course. Using a live interpreter he introduced rural audiences to the masterworks of Ray, de Sica and Kurosawa and proved to be adept at understanding their nuances.  “In Heggodu, we broke the language barrier”, Nair recalled in an interview. “Cinema is believed to be a universal language and I saw it with my own eyes in Heggodu!

“The course was run over 10 years with his [Nair’s] support and occasional participation: in certain circles, there is by now a legend of Heggodu, the mythic village where bullock cart drivers discuss French cinema amidst the areca nut groves.”

Nair’s idealism and dedication may leave many digital age millennials puzzled. First, satellite television, then the Internet and a plethora of technologies related to digital production have come to replace celluloid. Together, they have contributed to a drastic cut in production costs and facilitated quick completion of a project from start to finish. Technology has ironically resulted in an unquestionable drop in quality. This change has also led to a noticeable drop in the attention span of the average viewer and simultaneously a craving for instant gratification. Life and all means of knowledge and entertainment, are now expected to fulfill the need(s) of the moment. The classic concept of time, of yesterday, today and tomorrow seems have become passé.  History of any kind, including film history, is unimaginable for many young people. So where does a man like P. K. Nair stand, and how can the value of his work be measured in the present context?

His finely tuned response to the nuances of film language can be appreciated in the following observation on the use of ambient sound in Duniya Na Mane, a 1937 film directed by V. Shantaram, a pioneer of Indian cinema. “The decision to dispense with background music for the entire movie was indeed a bold one. However, it gave an opportunity to the filmmaker to experiment with related sounds for the soundtrack. In this respect, the film is quite unique, taking into account that it was barely five years after sound was introduced to Indian cinema, at a time when the crafts of recording, re-recording mixing and use of ambient sounds were still in their infancy, with filmmakers and technicians trying to come to grips with the new technology.”

Nair gives two examples; the first: “Before entering the bride’s village house, the old man [who has married a young woman] stops for a moment at the entrance when he hears a distant voice. This turns out to be the call of a street vendor offering to recycle old vessels with aluminum coating. The voice is repeated later on, when he desperately tries to dye the grey hair in his moustache. The analogy is quite obvious”. (Pg 165)

The second example (166) is when “Nirmala, the young wife is trying to put sindoor on her forehead, in the background we hear the sound of shehnai music associated with marriage. When Nirmala reveals that her Mama passed away long ago, the sound of the lota (the metal vessel for holy water) falling from the Mama’s hand is associated with death.  One is reminded of the sound of a lota falling in the pond at Pishi’s death in Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) which came 18 years later.”

In the same piece he draws an analogy between a drop of rain falling on the pate of a bald man sitting by a village pond and startling him, to signal the onset of rain in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Jovis Iven’s 1929 silent classic Rain. He praises Ray for creating a genuinely poetic sequence of images that signal the onset of rain and how, despite being the symbol of fecundity, it becomes the messenger of death when Durga, Apu’s older sister, drenched to the skin, catches a fever that kills her.

Nair’s love of cinema embraced both the technical and the artistic sides of the medium. It was a mixture of curiosity, adoration, and at the same time, critical appraisal. He was as much concerned about the making and preservation of film prints as he was with the aesthetics and the sociology that went into the making of every film he saw and may have been inspired to preserve.

Devraj writes in his preface: “In later interviews, Nair disclosed a horrifying fact he had suppressed in print: the negative (of Alam Ara, 1931, India’s first talkie) had been destroyed for the small amount of silver that could be extracted from its silver nitrate base. Alam Ara was lost out of sheer greed, as were many precious films of the period.

“In later years Nair would mourn the loss of these images in lists of vanished films. They were the ones that got away: Sohrab Modi treading the boards in Shakespearean tights, beautiful Ruby Myers as the dancing girl Anarkali, and many other ghosts of the past.”

But he notes that “Despite all the setbacks, the archive’s collection kept growing steadily, adding 80 titles a year. Prominent acquisitions included the classics of New Theatres, Bombay Talkies, Minerva Movietone and Prabhat Film Company (though the government had taken over Prabhat’s premises to house FTII, they had not bothered to keep the films).  Going south, there were films of Vauhini, Gemini, AVM and Salem’s Modern Theatres.”

The history of Indian cinema was re-written, and as Ramesh Kumar points out, Nair had the “unbridled freedom” to define its contours. His articles show that he tried to use his freedom impartially, arguing with an indifferent bureaucracy that every film deserved to be saved, a cheap stunt film as much as an international classic. Today’s frivolous junk could be tomorrow’s festival pick: the films of Fearless Nadia and John Cawas were not considered respectable in their times, “but if we had discarded them, we would have missed an important genre of our film history.”

Nair’s sympathies were clearly with films that engaged maturely with social issues. He was worried that cinema in India was seen exclusively as a means of making money. In his thoughtful 1976 essay, “What Price Entertainment?” he declares, “The average filmmaker is not worried about the historic fate of his film. In fact, he probably does not believe that what he is doing is of any historical significance. He is concerned with his immediate returns, to keep himself in business.”

In the same paragraph he further observes, “He has a peculiar notion of the likes and dislikes of the audience and what they really want.  In fact, these are primarily his own likes and dislikes, as he puts himself in the position of the audience and packs the film with things he himself would like to see.”

He ends the piece saying, “It is said that the British fed the Chinese with opium so that they were permanently under the influence of the intoxicant.  But socio-political changes in China awakened them from their prolonged slumber and history has shown what a powerful nation they proved to be.  However, we in India continue to be under the hypnotic influence of commercial cinema with its distortion of human values, reasoning and logic.”

The filmmaker who has made a popular hit takes pride in the fact that he has contributed a sizeable portion of his films’ collections to the national exchequer by way of entertainment tax, though he knows the money comes from the public; the public is happy that they continue to be entertained.  One might very well ask, “What Price Entertainment?’  Here in 2017, the situation hasn’t changed very much, has it?

Nair was a deep thinking man committed to the cinema of human values.  In his essay, “Amma Ariyan” on the imperfect cinema of John Abraham, written in 2004/2005, expresses his most cherished socio-political as well as artistic concerns. He comes to the point in the first sentence: “If I were to pick one Malayalam film that is truly a landmark, my choice would unhesitatingly be John Abraham’s 1986 black and white political reportage Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother). John who died young in May 1987, was an erratic genius. All his films (he made only four features) are masterworks of imperfection.  He never believed in cosmetic perfection in cinema, let alone in life.”

Amma Ariyan is a picaresque tale “retold” as tragedy. A young man Purushan is leaving for Delhi after bidding his mother goodbye. The jeep he is travelling in is stopped by the police and commandeered to transport the body of a young man who is said to have committed suicide.  Purushan sees the face of the deceased who appears to be familiar.  The exercise of identifying the dead young man moves with enormous feeling and perception from the particular to the universal. He is identified as Hari, as the story progresses. The dead youngster’s friends proceed to meet his parents.  Then, without apparent effort the director opens out the narrative to include other mothers and other sons. The character moves across the entire Malabar region.

“As Purushan reports to his mother about Hari and his friends and their mothers on his southbound journey, John reconstructs the history of the land through a series of class struggles, student protests and the clashes of workers’ unions that took place in the region traversed.  The colonial past of the places, what they took from us and what they left behind, as well as the people’s protests and uprisings that the region witnessed and their heroes and victims are integrated into the main narrative by way of information as well as critique.”

Amma Ariyan was the first (major) Indian film to be crowd-funded. Earlier, Shyam Benegal’s Manthan inspired by Verghese Kurian’s creation of the Amul Milk Co-operative in Gujarat, was similarly funded. But John Abraham’s achievement was by far the greater in scope and ideas. Politically aware citizens across Kerala contributed one rupee each to make the film possible. Given the volatile political situation today, Amma Ariyan revives the old debate of whether the state has the right to terrorise the citizen, since it has come into being in the first place, because of him/her.

Nair has often been compared with the great Henri Langlois, creator of the Cinemathique Francais, presumably the most well stocked and varied film archive in the world.  It was Langlois’s generosity of spirit and secular (meaning inclusive) vision that made it possible. Nair too had this largeness of heart and vision. He worked tirelessly to convince often unsympathetic bureaucrats to release government funds to maintain and replenish the collection of the National Film Archive.

It was often said that he was paranoid about NFAI and its fate after his retirement. He was prescient about how the institution would run on auto pilot for some time and then go to seed. What he built against impossible odds has been allowed to descend into mediocrity. During his lifetime he was banned from entering NFAI as the incumbent officials feared he might raise a stink.

Nair’s admiration of Ritwik Ghatak and his films was as deep as his understanding of them was clear.  In his 2004 essay “Partition in Cinema” he observes: “Ritwik Ghatak is perhaps the only filmmaker who kept harping on the psychological impact of uprootedness and homelessness through the central characters in all his films. One can never forget the scene of the speeding train coming to a screeching halt at the dead end of the track as the hero looks with anger  and pain, [in Komal Gandhar] pointing his finger towards the other side (of the river where is East Bengal, his former home, now East Pakistan.) Ghatak, hailing from Dhaka, was himself a victim of partition. He could never overcome the tragedy of partition and the scars it left on his sensitive mind were indelible. When we think of partition and what it did to millions of people on both sides of the border, we begin to understand that such wounds take more time to heal than one can ever imagine. Until a fuller catharsis or coming to terms happens, Ghatak’s images will continue to haunt us.”

The last piece is titled “Are the days of cellulose films over?” Written between 2010 and 2013, it is full of sadness. “Imagine the prospect of  a generation of filmmakers and viewers brought up, exposed only to digital images all their life, with no opportunity to experience the pristine glory of a pure black-and-white optical image, and the camerawork of such veterans as Subrata Mitra in Charulata (1964) or V. K. Murthy in Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959)?”

At another point in the piece he declares, “The fact remains that film has lasted more than 100 years. Even today, we can see Lumiere films in the original film format, because someone bothered to preserve them on a film base, whereas digital technology is hardly two or three decades old. Whether it will last a century is yet to be seen. Already, they are talking of 6K and HD in the post-digital scenario. One wonders what is in store next. The capitalist world is out to dump yesterday’s technology as obsolete so that they can come up with something new to maintain their superiority. And we, with our colonial hangovers, are dragged into the trap, before we realise where we are being led. Let us, therefore, exercise our own choices, keeping our feet firm in our soil and not be blown away by dominant forces.”

He understood the artistic as well as the social role cinema played in the last century. Many considered it to be a secular church where dissimilar people gathered in the darkness of a theatre to escape from the drudgery of everyday existence into another, sometimes magical world, if only for a short while. It was in this creation and understanding of memory that art happened, sometime intentionally, and more often unintentionally.

Krzysztof Zanussi, the  Polish filmmaker paid this tribute. “Nair for me is a symbol of the memory of cinema.’’ Those who understand P. K. Nair’s work will see no exaggeration in this statement.

Partha Chatterjee is a writer on the arts based in Delhi.

 

 

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