India’s Celluloid Man PK Nair, no more

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Illustration : Dwijith CV

PK Nair, pioneer of India’s film archiving and founder of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) passed away in Pune, Friday morning. The 82-year-old film scholar’s health had been critical since 11 days.
Nair founded the NFAI in 1964 and devoted three decades to collecting and archiving films from the country and abroad. Born in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, Nair’s fascination with the moving picture began when as a child he set eyes upon Tamil mythological films.

Having enrolled in Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), he worked in the position of research assistant and later prepared ground for the establishment of the NFAI by collecting films from countries like UK, USA, France, Italy and Poland. His was an archival style characterised by the belief that each film was worth preserving and could not be left out merely on the basis of its contemporary value.

Nair’s achievements were recognised in 2008 with the Satyajit Ray Memorial Award. He has been an inspiration for numerous filmmakers and actors like Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt, Kamal Hassan, Ramesh Sippy, Naseeruddin Shah, Lester James Peries, Dilip Kumar, Vidhu Vinod Gupta among others.

PK Nair and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Photo : Sasikumar V
Amrit Gangar (Left) PK Nair and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Photo : Sasikumar V

Among the most notable of his contributions is the preservation of the silent films and early epics like Raja Harishchandra, Kaliya Mardan, Fearless Nadia and Sant Tukaram. Nair is believed to have single handedly preserved 12000 films in his career. He will also remembered for his film appreciation classes for students on the FTII campus. One of the many who benefitted from the screenings was avant-garde Malayalam filmmaker John Abraham who walked into Nair’s screening one night and demanded a screening of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Mathew. Nair was more than willing and is said to have sat up all night to watch the film with Abraham.

Nair was instrumental in building a visual culture in the country. Till a few years back, he used to travel to different cities and towns introducing best of world cinema to film society members and students.
Inspired by Nair, filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur made a documentary called Celluloid Man in 2012. Having screened in over 50 festivals across the country, the film is a tribute to Nair’s persistent and colossal efforts in documenting the history of Indian cinema.

Speaking to journalists during the centenary celebrations of Indian cinema in 2013, Nair expressed sorrow over the fact that many films before the 1950s couldn’t be archived. This despite the films he did manage to scavenge; like the first part of Raja Harishchandra. Such was the passion of the man that has bid us farewell.