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PK Nair (1933-2016): Cinema's guardian angel no more

Film archivist PK Nair passed away on Friday, leaving behind an enviable legacy in cinema preservation

If you haven’t watched the documentary Celluloid Man (2012) yet, you have missed out on something worthwhile. The subject of this film uses the phrase ‘bits and pieces’ repeatedly while talking about his work. Interestingly, he isn’t the only one doing that. Accomplished cinematic personalities like Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Krzysztof Zanussi, Gulzar, Naseeruddin Shah, Mrinal Sen, Jahnu Barua, Girish Kasaravalli, Shabana Azmi, Vidhu Vinod Chopra — to name a few — have something to say not only about the protagonist of this film, but also how he influenced them. After all, he was once a collector of items long lost; not just in physicality but also in memory. Nonetheless, he was determined enough to do his precious bit for the neglected ones.

P K Nair in the 2012 documentary Celluloid Man
P K Nair in the 2012 documentary Celluloid Man

The person in question here is renowned film archivist and scholar Paramesh Krishnan Nair (fondly called PK Nair) and the work being referred to is preservation of old films — films that belong to the Silent era as well as the Talkies; films that are national as well as international in nature; films that barely made it to the present because nobody else in the past cared to preserve
the reels.

If it weren’t for his unbridled efforts, it would have been almost impossible to find an original copy of Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (1913) or Kaliya Mardan (1919) today. Or for that matter, classics like Jeevan Naiya (1936), Bandhan (1940), Kangan (1939), Achhut Kanya (1936) and Kismet (1943), SS Vasan’s Chandralekha and Uday Shankar’s Kalpana, both of which released in 1948. And these are just a few of the many films he managed to preserve.

The tragedy of losing innumerable cans of old films is now cascaded with the loss of the man dedicated to saving them. Nair passed away yesterday morning in Pune after being critically ill for 10 days. He was 82 and is survived by his son and daughter.

Born in 1933 in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, Nair’s interest in films developed at a young age. Determined to serve cinema, he joined National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in 1965 as assistant curator. Seventeen years later, in 1982, he became its director. It would be remiss to say that his tenure wasn’t without any controversy, given his ceaseless battle against the indifferent bureaucracy. However, by the time he retired in April 1991, he had collected over 12,000 films, of which 8,000 were of Indian origin.

Known for his reticence, Nair has left a resounding legacy in the world of cinema preservation. An effort that dates way before the likes of Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation came up. Contributions of the aptly nicknamed Celluloid Man to world cinema is extraordinary, to confer the least. But despite all these, chances are that you may never have heard of him. And that’s precisely what makes the aforementioned documentary a must-watch.

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