Each film is material for archive – Amshan Kumar’s Interview with P K Nair
P K Nair is undoubtedly a major source of Indian film history. Also a rare combination of healthy bureaucracy and film scholarship, he was the head of National Film Archive of India for three decades. Even after retirement he is still busy as a senior consultant to film festivals, a visiting faculty in Film and Television Institute in Pune and advisor on projects related to film preservation. Still we have not said enough of him. Through his pioneering work as an archivist of films he is responsible for effecting a fundamental change in the Indian mindset that treated cinema as a perishable commodity unworthy of preservation. I took the following interview at his residence in Pune.
Abbrevation: AK – Amshan Kumar, PKN – P K Nair
AK: Anyone who evinces interest in cinema will like to be involved in one of the many opportunities it offers. He may wish to write screenplay, compose music, photograph, edit , direct or exploit its commercial nature. Even film studies came into vogue only in the 1960s. But you had chosen to collect and store films from very early on. You are the pioneer in archiving films in India. How did you choose this?
PKN: I too wanted to make films initially. I graduated with a BSC at Trivandrum Science College in 1953. I was familiar with Hindi films. In south I had known only A.V.Meiyappan and S.S.Vasan. Sridhar was on the scene just then with his Kalyana parisu. But as far as north is concerned I knew of Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Mehboob Khan. I was fascinated by their filming methods and techniques. Madras did not start making Hindi films.
AK: So you wanted to make Hindi films?
PKN: I wanted to make Hindi films. In fact I learned Hindi as my second language. Mathematics, Physics and statistics were my other subjects. I went to Bombay and met Mehboob Khan.He was making Mother India. I wanted to be his assistant. But he allowed me to be an observer, an unpaid apprentice. I lived in Bandra near his studios and it was easy for me to go in a bus and attend all the shootings. I began to watch other films too that were being made there. After Mother India got completed I shifted to Bimal Roy. He was making Devdas with Dilip Kumar. Then I joined Hrishikesh Mukherjee. He was making Anari with Raj Kapoor and Nutan. It was shot in R.K.Studios.
AK: In which department did you work?
PKN. In editing. Hrishikesh was very helpful. Everyday I used to go his house. We used to go together in his car to the studios. I learnt about editing and direction. He was also struggling at that time. But he gave me enough. He was the editor for Chemmen too. I learnt many things during the period 1955-60.
AK: Did you attempt to make films on your own?
PKN: I did all that. I discussed the script with artists and technicians. But everytime you had to make deviation. Ultimately I lost all interest and that was why I decided to join Films Division. When I came to Films Division they said that a film institute was going to be commissioned by next year. That was when I joined FTII in March 1961. I was in the research department. I was not involved directly with teaching but began to collect data from the syllabus of other film institutes. There were hardly four or five senior people at that time. Most of them were retired people. Lakshmi Narayanan from Bangalore, R.K.Ramachandran from Chennai were there. We were all recruited before the courses were started. One of my responsibilities was to find out the constitution for setting up an archive for films. Simultaneously I was negotiating with British Film Institute, Institute of Modern Arts and all the established archives all over the world. I was collecting their constitution, aims and objectives. In 1963 Satish Bahadur joined. He was the professor of film appreciation. I was also in charge of both book and film libraries. We started collecting Battleship Potemkin and Ivan the terrible.
AK: where did you get them from?
PKN: From Soviet Russia. They gave them for teaching purposes on what you call rouble-rupee exchange system. Sometimes they also gave them for free. We collected most of the Russian classics. Some films came as gifts from the British Council. They included the films of David Lean. The same time we also began to collect Indian films. Film Archive of India had not yet been started. We wanted films for the institute. The concept of archives came later in 1964.
AK; On whose idea was it set up as an independent unit?
PKN: Actually the concept was there in 1954 itself. If you want to go back to its origin, the basic document is the Film Enquiry Committee Report of H.K.Patil in 1951. It was called the Patil Committee report. Patil was very fond of film people and that was why Nehru assigned him the job. Nehru was very keen that arts should be promoted. He set up Sahitya Akademi for literature, Sangeet Natak Akademi for music and drama and Lalit Kala Akademi for arts. When he came to films he was at a loss for he did not know what to do. He knew that cinema should also be brought under arts. But cinema was not very respectable like music, dance and literature. Raj Kapoor and Devika Rani were held in respect. But the average film people were not given that respect. Cinema was looked down upon. Congress party had a poor idea about cinema.
AK: What was Nehru`s approach to cinema?
PKN: Nehru was no exception. Gandhiji hated cinema. He had seen only one film in his entire life and that was `Ram Rajyam`. Morarji Desai opposed it vehemently . He thought that all the social evils sprang from it. That way most of the politicians looked at cinema at that time except the DMK in the south.
AK: But Congress leader S.Sathyamurthy wanted cinema production included in the syllabus of the Madras University.
PKN: I am not aware that Satyamurthy was very vocal about it . DMK people thought of it as a wonderful medium through which they could reach out to the people. That was why Annadurai and Karunanidhi started as script writers in films. They understood the importance of cinema as a means for communication. But not Congress. In fact Kamaraj used a derogatory term for cinema artists.
AK: He called them as `koothadigal`
PKN: Yes. They were at par with street performers or something like that. You can very well understand the attitude of the people in Bombay.
AK: But it seems later on Nehru went through a transformation. He developed an appreciation for films. He had seen Satyajit Ray`s films.
PKN: Nehru had a good rapport with respectable people. For example he was very chummy with M.S.Subbulakshmi and those kind of people. Satyajit Ray came much later in 1955. Actually he was one person who was respected by the politicians and the Congress party, thanks to Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi was the vice president of the Federation of Film Societies. Satyajit Ray was its president.
AK: She was then the minister for Information and Broadcasting.
PKN: I.K. Gujaral as Information and Broadcasting minister also gave importance to cinema. It was all due to the the film society movement that film industry got its recognition. But only a certain kind of cinema, the Satyajit Ray brand of cinema and Calcutta was the centre of that kind of film making. You have Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. Even though there were people like Barua and Nitin Bose making films much earlier they did not get that kind of recognition. Of course Bimal Roy came to Bombay and he was a respectable figure in Bombay film circles. But nothing was in comparison to Ray after his Pather Panchali. It got not only recognition at the Indian level but also at the international level. So Nehru showed his interest when Patil`s report got ready.He suggested means for improvements. Patil met lot of producers and took their advice. National awards were instituted. To boost the quality of films awards should be given. Along with the gold and silver medals from the President for best national and regional films there was also the stipulation that the award winning films have to be kept under the custody of the government .
AK: But even then there was no department for archive?
PKN: This was the origin for it. But still it was not in its complete form. The prints of award winning films that were to be deposited with Information and Broadcasting ministry were to form the base level collection of the National Film Library. But again the concept was only to keep the prints of award winning films. The film producer after he won the national award should give the print free of cost to the government. This went for the first ten to fifteen years. Later the government had to pay the charges for the color prints. The producers argued that after giving Rs.50000. as prize money the government was taking away the print worth about a lakh of rupees. The National Film Archive of India was set up in 1964. We had to bring to Delhi all those award winning films lying in Bombay kept there by the Central Board of Film Censors. When I took charge my first assignment was to collect 123 films lying at the Central Board of Film Censors in Bombay. Pather Panchali and Aparajito were there among them. They were all positive prints fairly in good condition. Archiving does not mean we should collect only award winning films but all kinds of films made in this country. Even popular films. Any film whose loss you would regret later. You should try to keep as many films as possible. That was a very difficult choice and to convince the Government that we must keep everything just apart from Satyajit Ray films was an uphill task. Even stunt films are equally important from the archive point of view. It did not sound good to lot of secretaries in the ministry. Why should we keep all these `junk` ? they asked. That was the term they used.
AK: How did you bring about the change?
PKN: Being an archivist my concept was we should not use our sense of likes and dislikes to decide whether the film is worth preserving or not. I may not like a particular film. But that should not be the criterion for keeping it in the archive. The archive criterion is totally different. That was how it got started and I concentrated on silent films, the oldest film starting with Phalke. We went to Phalke`s family members who were all scattered in Bombay and Nasik. We just tried to collect as many films in bits and pieces. We had only one complete film ` Kaliya Mardan`. We went on searching for old films. It was basically a shocking experience that there were very few people available who could give us information about the availability. First of all the producers themselves were no more and even their sons and daughters sometimes refused to talk. I remember somebody said, `Do not talk about films in our house. Our father wasted a lot of our family wealth in making films.` They hated films. That kind of attitude was there. Very few people knew what their fathers and elders were doing was of historical importance. Phalke family knew that. But not all the others. The biggest shock that I found was nearly 70% of Indian films made before 1950 was not available for love or money. All gone, destroyed and vanished. Some of them got lost in fire. Because the prints had nitro cellulose they got powdered. Producers and distributors sold as waste film after extracting silver from them. Silver nitrate was one of the chemical ingredients and silver was very costly. Waste film was a big business. Moreover in South they buy films in gunny bags and they put them in boiled water. That way the emulsion came out and the cellulose became blank. The blank cellulose was used in the manufacture of bangles and ladies handbags and a whole industry was behind it. I mentioned that in one of my lectures and T.V.Chandran developed an idea out of it. That was what he told me. In his Tamil film `Adum Koothu` he showed bangles coming out of old films. Very interesting film. I do not think it was properly released.
AK: It was never released at all.
PKN: It had lot of songs and dances. It had a story within a story. Someone making a film draws a parallel to what happened to the Indian film. There were lot of nitrate fires, I was told. That is if you keep nitrate in the storage it can catch fire, especially in the tropical conditions.
AK: That was why transporting films in the passenger cabins in Trains was banned.
PKN: Abroad they transfer it from the vault to the lab only in the night through special vans. Of course they do not have to be like that because of cold climate. Compared to that we had to be extra careful. One big company in Bombay made more than 120 films. I do not know if they themselves set fire to their godown for collecting money from Insurance and proved it as a kind of accident.
AK: From which part of our country did you collect the maximum number of films?
PKN: Being in Pune we had great access to Bombay films. But films were being made much earlier in Kolhapur and Nasik. Big production took place between 1914 and 1930 in Kolhapur. There were big studios. Also in Calcutta and Lahore. In South I remember places like Coimbatore and Salem where you had Patchi Raja and Modern Theaters respectively.
AK: You have to include Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu. AVM started a studio there.
PKN: Yes. In Kerala they came much later. In places like Rajamundhry and Vijayawada there were film activities. National Film Archive of Indias is an all India setup. So I did not concentrate only on Bombay. I was very much in tune with films made in the South. I tried to contact major companies like Prabhat, Bombay Talkies, Calcutta New Theaters and Gemini, AVM, Vauhini, Modern Theaters and Jupiter in the south. There was also a company called Tamil Nadu talkies run by Govindaraj. These were the oldest. Director K.Subramanyam had Madras United Artists which he sold to Gemini.
AK: How did you approach them? By writing or visiting them in person?
PKN: Through letters mostly. They cooperated well. S.S.Vasan wrote that of all his films only Avvaiyar, Chandraleka and Mister Sampath were worthy of preservation. But I asked him for all of his films from Bala Nagamma to Nandanar. He gave me all the negatives he had. We got Bala Nagamma, Insaniyat (in Tamil it was made as Samsaram) and my favourite Miss Malini. We could not get Dasi Aparanji. We received many films from Vauhini Studios. Sen Gupta was lab in charge in Vauhini. Jithan Bannerjee and Madras Cine Lab in charge Piran Dasgupta, all helped. There were many Bengalis as technicians in the South(laughs).
AK: Besides Bengalis other language people also worked as technicians. There were many Iranians. Dinsha.K.Tehrani was a sound recordist who produced a Tamil film called `Iru Malarkal`. From what you say I gather that actors were not of any use. Only the technicians were helpful to you. Only they had understood the importance of archiving.
PKN: True. A lady called Bhuma was in Tamil Nadu Talkies. She was waging a lone battle with old machines. Anyway we gave her work and all our films got copied there. There was a compilation film called N S Krishnan in 1967. The negative had lot of glitches. Studios were also very good. Especially Vauhini and Vijaya Labs. Prasad Lab was just coming up. So was Gemini. AVM was under split with family members feuding among themselves. There was on Sardarji who was in charge of AVM lab.He came from Lahore. There was Dada Mirasi Shinde from Maharashtra. In Labs you saw a typical all India crowd.
AK:National Film Archive of India was initially a part of FTII . Why?
PKN: But not for a very long time. Actually what happened was this. In 1964 when I joined there it was an independent unit. The only link between FTII and National Film Archiive of India was both were run by the same head. That was until 1967.
AK:What were you then?
PKN: I worked in FTII between 1961 and 1964. Then I got selected through UPSC and joined National Film Archive of India as an assistant curator.
AK: How long were you an assistant since you retired as its Director?
PKN: I was in that position for 10 years. When the director left the post was not filled. So I had to take charge and deal with the Ministry directly even though I continued to be an assistanct curator. It was only when the secretary in the Ministry got to know of it he passed an order and I became the curator in 1975. In 1984 I became the Director. All these existed only in titles. When I became the curator there was no assistant curator and when I became the Director there was no curator either. I shouldered all the responsibilities and continued the show throughout. That is government functioning. If everything runs smoothly there is no problem. But if you ask for additional post or salary then you have to go through rules and regulations. But otherwise I had full freedom to do whatever I wanted. In all I worked for 37 years from 1964 to 1991. Actually I was the head of the organization. Quite an unusual thing that happened.
AK: How many films did you collect during your tenure?
PKN: I started with 123 films. They were all award winning films. When I left it reached the capacity of 12000 films out of which 4000 were foreign films.
AK: How did you get the foreign films?
PKN: From International Federation of Archives. We exchange Indian films with the Federation to get those films. For some of them we paid. We bought Potemkin. We got Soviet, Japanese, East European and French films. It was difficult to get American films. But we collected them from various sources. Sometimes 16mm prints were available for cheap sums. I wanted to collect all classics. So thanks to our colleagues classics and also new films were acquired. Sometimes we had to pay royalty. Swedish films of Bergman were bought with Film Society rights. That way they were not only available for students but also for Film Societies.
AK: Did you get funds regularly from the Government?
PKN: Funding was not a problem. Real problem was lack of man power resources. I did not have hands to assist me. You can call it was one man show all through.
AK: Did you travel a lot?
PKN: I went to all parts of the globe.
AK: Was it to collect prints?
PKN: No. To attend conferences of International Federation of Film Archives. In some part of the globe it used to happen everytime. Unfortunately we could not have it in Pune. International Federation of Film Archives was started in 1930s with 40-50 members. Initially there were four archives. One was in France by Henri Langlois. The others were British Film Institute Archive in London , Soviet Archive and Modern of Museum Art in New York.
AK: Did Soviet Russia preserve the pre-revolution films ?
PKN: They preserved all films. Especially documentaries. In German Archives there was lot of damage during the war. Rome had a good collection. Henri Langlois strated the concept of private archives. He was a mad man collecting films.
AK: Did you met him?
PKN: Yes. In 1970 I met him when I went to France for an archive conference.
AK: Langlois made only one film. Since films could be made only by depending on others he called it a slave art. I had seen that and also a documentary on him. It showed where he had stored film cans– inside his toilet fearing destruction from the Nazis during their occupation of France. That scene forever lingers in my mind.
PKN: He was crazy about cinema. He slept amidst film cans in the archive.
AK: What did he say of our films?
PKN: I had lunch with him in Paris. He glanced over my catalogue of our archive. He began to tick the films as he browsed it. I did not know what he wa showing. Later he counted the films he had ticked and said `OK. You have forty films Good archive`. What he was doing actually was counting the films we had collected that were made before 1940. That means starting in 1964 in six years the collection of forty oldest films demonstrated our strength.
AK: In what ways you think the films you collected have been put to use by film scholars here?
PKN: Maximum use was in the film institute. When I was in Pune, there used to be two screenings in film institute. One screening was selected by Film Institute staff. Second by me. Whenever I had a new film I had a private screening. Students were freely allowed. Then I started the distribution library. I used to send duplicate copies to film societies for which we had rights. That time we took four 16mm copies for for regions and sent to Trivandrum, Calcutta and Bangalore. I could not open an office in Chennai. Apart from that we were conducting month long film appreciation courses in Pune every year.When request came from elsewhere we went. In Chennai in Adyar Film Institute two times, then for Chennai Film Society, for societies in Pondicherry, Madurai and Pudukottai. The maximum numbers of courses were conducted in Andhra Pradesh including once in Tirupathi. In Heggodu in Karnataka it was held through Ninasam. Films like Pather Panchali, Rashomon and Bicycle Thieves were shown. They spoke in English to the audience. Subbanna the founder of Ninasam translated them in Kannada. He also published them in a book.
AK:You have conducted film appreciation courses all over India. How do you think they were responsible in bringing about a film culture?
PKN: For that you should look at the small towns where we took our classes. The origin of the course was here. People came from all over the country and assembled in Pune. Then they wanted the courses to be held in their places for the benefit of others. Such things worked out well in small towns. If they had projection and other facilities we went there with our films. It helped us to spread the movement much faster.
AK: Now we have visual communication courses in almost all the colleges and film appreciation is part of the curriculum.We do not have to look upto a centre point like FTII any longer.
PKN: But for all that the foundation was laid here. All those instructors took their initial training here. That was why we gave priorities to teachers among our students.They continue through the educational institutes they are employed in. They also conduct film festivals. There was one such festival in Chandigarh. Mani Kaul took his Uski Roti to show there.
AK: Film Societies could get the classics only through you. That was in the past. Now anyone can get them in local video shops. They can also be downloaded via internet. Which means film societies or those who want to see good films do not have to depend on you any longer. What could be the role of Indian Film Archives in the changed scenario which was traditionally sending films only to film societies?
PKN: The choice of the film societies is now much wider. They do not have to depend on us for films. Still there are certain classics not always available outside in the market. But our foremost function is to store the films and we analyse them in great detail during our courses. At times we spend a whole day in just analyzing a particular film. There are film societies that want to show as many films. But that is not our kind. We study them in depth, see the film again and again, reel by reel in detail. So that takes time. That desire should be there in the groups that study them. Otherwise they will be disappointed. It happened in Chennai. We showed a Bergman film. The whole morning I was discussing the film and screened it again. Some were not prepared to get into its depth. They did not have the patience. They just wanted to lap up many films. You see, we cannot jump from film to film. Even for a small film of ten minutes like Zoo, I need a minimum of three hours to study and analyse in my class.
AK: Do you store digital films in the Archive?
PKN: Storing is used for teaching purposes. Films in digital mode are very easy to carry in our suitcase. In early days I took 16mm prints. Now they are all DVDs. It is a great advantage.
AK: With the digital technology firmly on the saddle many are of the view that film format is shown the door.
PKN: No I do not think. Digital technology is very useful for dissemination. It is not the original mode. You can take a digital film and show it to your friends. But film is film. Digitial technology can never substitute film. What can be done in film can never be achieved in digital. But digital film expenses are much less. That was why I suggested to NFDC to ask from applicants a ten minute digital film on the subject instead of a 200 page script. You can assess the talent of the applicant in a better way. That digital films are easy to make does not mean anyone can make them without training.
AK: Are you still associated with Archive after retirement?
PKN: It is sort of advisory post. I am one of the lecturers in film appreciation in FTII. I conduct courses outside too.
AK: How are the films about people with disabilities? You are associated with Indian International Disability Film Festival.
PKN: Some good documentaries are made here about the disabled. But feature films on them are way behind those that are made elsewhere. They make films based on research. There was a Japanese film on a mute girl. An actor as a mute woman had portrayed the role so well. Mozhi (Tamil) was different. It should have been a woman film. But it was man oriented. Prakash Raj and Prithivi Raj were given importance. Disability took back seat. That woman (actor) Jothika appears only after the film is into half an hour. It is poor scripting.
AK:You have succeeded in mooting the concept that all films irrespective of their worth should be stored in the archive. But these days there are people who are opposed to even screening of films opposed to their viewpoints.
PKN: That is totally wrong. We should see everything from all angles. We should not jump towards our preconceived notions. If we decide what is right and what is wrong all by ourselves then we are denying the possibility that others may be right. I am not in favour of censorship in the way it is done. We should not underestimate the power of people in understanding movies.
AK: We have not talked about you yet.
PKN: (laughs) I was born in 1933 in Trivandrum. I started seeing films in 1940. Father was an English teacher.Later Head master. He was very negative about cinema. But he fostered an interest in me on literature. I have two sons. One lives in Canada. They are software engineers. One daughter. All are married. No one has taken to film in a big way. spoken about you yet.
AK: What cinema has taught you?
PKN:It has taught me to look at life more minutely in great detail. Cinema exposes you to the rest of the world, its different cultures. If you watch them closely you feel closer to them. Ultimately the film is a vehicle for understanding life for me and it is not merely a tool for entertainment. Every film with its regional backdrop shows the people, their stories. That way you come to understand the universal character of human behavior. Formerly I used to read a lot of novels. After my association with films I do not read as much. Watching a film in two hours will give a much richer experience. A film like A Tale of Two Cities gave me a much richer experience than reading of that novel. Of course it does not happen with all films. Only with very good films.
Author Amshan Kumar can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org