In the on-campus theatre at Pune's Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), students through the 60s, 70s and 80s would often spot the quiet, shadowy figure of a man watching film after film in the dark, scribbling in his notebook by the light of a little torch. If a student asked for a
particular scene from a film, he could usually name, from memory, exactly which reel to find it in.
It was because of this man, in fact, that Dadasaheb Phalke - who made India's first film, Raja Harishchandra, in 1913 - gained recognition as the father of Indian cinema.
"PK Nair discovered Raja Harish-chandra, rescued the only remains of its original reels and ensured that Phalke went down in history. He himself, unfortunately, has not got due recognition for his contributions," says Shivendra Singh Dungarpur (left), Mumbai-based filmmaker and director of Celluloid Man, a 2012 documentary film celebrating the life of PK Nair.
Nair single-handedly founded the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) on the FTII campus in Pune, in 1964. Now a sprawling two-storey structure not far away, NFAI is the only official film archive in the country.
On May 3, Dungarpur's film on Nair hit screens across the country, coinciding with the centenary year of Indian cinema. Screened at 24 film festivals around the world, it won two National Awards this March, for editing and for best biographical documentary.
An ad filmmaker, Dungarpur decided to make Celluloid Man in 2010, after attending a festival showcasing old, restored films in Italy. "I felt that I had to do something to preserve our cinematic heritage," says Dungarpur, 43, a former student of FTII.
Nair, now 80, began his love affair with Indian cinema in his hometown of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, where he spent his boyhood sneaking out to movies and obsessively collecting film memorabilia. In 1958, despite his family's disapproval, 25-year-old Nair moved to Mumbai with the dream of becoming a filmmaker, and showed up outside Mehboob Studios in Bandra. "He trained for a few years under director Mehboob Khan and even wrote a script, but he soon realised that he wasn't cut out to make films," says Dungarpur.
Instead, in 1960, Nair applied to the newly-founded FTII for the post of assistant librarian. In the library, surrounded by filmmaking books and a small collection of movies, he discovered his mission. "I realised the need for an archive of all films made in India," says Nair.
In a country that perceived films as little more than entertainment, Nair had difficulty convincing the government to part with space or funds.
The NFAI now has three regional offices across India, but when Nair began his collection he had just an old, poorly air-conditioned make-up room at FTII, a remnant of the Prabhat film studio that once stood there.
"For 27 years he built up the archive can by can," says Dungarpur. Through interviews with filmmakers, actors and Nair himself, Celluloid Man tells riveting stories of Nair's experiences.
While on the hunt for the country's first film, for instance, Nair found, in the home of Dadasaheb Phalke's family in Nashik, not just the first and the last reels of Raja Harishchandra but also assorted bits of another film. When he pieced together the bits with the help of some notes from Phalke's diary, Nair discovered he had all six reels of Phalke's 1919 film, Kaliya Mardan. Unfortunately, Nair's desperate search for Adeshir Irani's Alam Ara - the first Indian talkie - never bore any fruit.
"Irani's son Shahpur had a few cans of the original print, but he sold them for the price of the silver in the film strips," says Dungarpur. "In fact, by the 1960s, we had lost most of our film heritage. Of the 1,700 silent films made in India, only nine survived, and those because of Nair's efforts."
Despite this, Nair managed to archive more than 12,000 films made in various Indian languages before he retired from the NFAI in 1991. He then moved into a house across the road, so he could always be close to his 'baby'.
"Nonetheless, when I wanted to shoot parts of my film at NFAI, the staff told me Nair wasn't allowed in anymore," says Dungarpur. It took the filmmaker 11 months to finally get permission to shoot with Nair inside.
Dismal scenes from Celluloid Man provide clues to why Nair might have been barred: cans of film reels lie in haphazard heaps, covered in dust, and precious footage that must be played at least once a year to keep it from rotting lies forgotten and untouched.
"The films in the archive are not even being stored at the right temperature," says Nair, indignation and helplessness in his voice. "The archive is no longer being looked after well."
(Celluloid Man released in PVR theatres on May 3)
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