A group of film lovers, filmmakers and film scholars had appealed to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting some years ago with a suggestion that P.K. Nair, the first and perhaps the greatest archivist of Indian cinema be bestowed with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for his unparalleled contribution to the history, preservation and sustenance of Indian cinema on the one hand and for creating and sustaining a cinema culture on the other. Needless to say, this did not happen and now that he is no more, it will remain an unfulfilled dream for his committed devotees of which one is yours truly.

One wonders if there is anyone who has ever been to the National Film Archives of India, Pune, while he was in charge, will be able to forget the slightly bent, ever-smiling, grounded image of this man who age could not bend and authority could not strip from his encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema, Indian and international. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, who made a brilliant documentary on Nair entitled The Celluloid Man and who was his disciple when he was at the FTII, Pune, says, “As a student at the Film Institute, Pune,

I remembered Nair as a shadowy figure in the darkened theatre, scribbling industriously in a notebook by the light of a tiny torch – winding and unwinding reels of film, shouting instructions to the projectionist and always, always watching films. We were all a little in awe of him and had to muster up the courage to climb the creaking wooden stairs to his office to request to watch a particular film. He is, for me till today, the only person I know who can tell you exactly in which reel of a film a particular scene can be found.”

Nair, who passed away on March 4 in Pune, the city he came to and settled down till the end, was passionate about films in general and cinema in particular. He is the one who made us aware of the tragedy of nine films having survived of the 1700 silent films made in India. He travelled to remote parts of India to collect and save cans of rare films. He is the man who first drew attention to the beginning of cinema in India and introduced us to the existence of Dadasaheb Phalke as the father of Indian cinema. He was truly democratic as an archivist trying to save any film that he could get his hands on be it world cinema, Hindi popular films or regional Indian cinema. He even took world cinema to the villages of India.

Noted film critic Joseph V.K. says, “The Restoration Man, PK Nair is the man who singularly materialized and developed National Film Archives of India.. He loved cinema, Film Festivals, filmmakers, Film Societies , film students and everyone and anyone connected to cinema in any which way. Without him, we would never have had access to see so many world classics and Indian films. Cinema was his life. FFSI Keralam decided to honour him with Satyajit Ray Award as a life time achievement award in September 2015 and invited him to receive it in the closing ceremony of Signs Festival in Kochi. He said he would come to Trivandrum during IFFK in December. It never happened.”

Shot entirely on film with eleven DOPs, Dungarpur’s Celluloid Man, a 150-minute documentary that never puts you to sleep or allow you even to look away is a brilliant film that overlaps several genres – history, biography, sociology and even politics. In an understated manner, much like its subject, Nair, the film points out how the very man who made this history possible can be summarily rejected by the institution he built up from zero till what it stood to become. Brick by small brick or rather, one film can by another film can, patiently yet determined, Nair built the National Film Archive of India in a country where few beyond films even know what archiving of cinema means.

P.K.Nair was born in Trivandrum on 6 April 1933. Twenty years later, he graduated in Science from the University of Kerala. Soon after, he left for Bombay to pursue a career in filmmaking though his family did not approve of his interest in films. It did not take him long to realize that he did not have it in him to become a filmmaker. His interest shifted to film academics where he shone brightly as an archivist, scholar and teacher. He came close to Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, from whom he gained valuable practical training in different branches of filmmaking. He gratefully acknowledged the guidance of Jean Bhownagary of the Films Division, Government of India, and later of UNESCO, Paris, who suggested that he should try and get into the FTII if he wished to do something useful.

Nair’s first memories of watching his first film was in the 1940s. “I was about seven or eight, a sat on a floor with shiny white sand to watch a film made by K. Subramanian who made mythologicals. We had tent cinemas at that time and films that left a deep impression on me are Vigilante’s Return, Cecil De Mille’s Unconquered, Blue Earrings and The Lost Weekend,” recalled Nair. “When I was planning Murder at Monkey Hill as a student, Mr. Nair asked me to watch Goddard’s Breathless and I wanted a 16 mm print he fetched out for me. When I watched the film, I could understand why he had suggested it. It helped me create and decide on my editing pattern for my film,” says Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

Dungarpur says, “Nair saheb was never keen that I make a film on him. He kept saying that if it is a film on preservation, then he could be a part of it. I never told him during the shoot that the film is about him. Every time we would shoot with him, he would ask why we had to shoot so much with him. It is only when he saw the finished film that he realized that the film was about him.”

The last word comes from Vidyashankar, N. Executive Artistic Director, Bengaluru International Film Festival. He says, “Documentation and preservation are not the strongest characteristics of the long Indian cultural tradition and cinema history is no exception. Mr Nair challenged this weakness singlehandedly with deep commitment and hard work to prove it otherwise. We film buffs across the world owe a lot to him. Many of my generation would not have accessed some of the greatest works of cinema if not for his pioneering archival endeavours and NFAI academic initiatives like the film appreciation courses. Thank you Mr Nair. You will always remain in the individual and collective memories of future generations as well.”