THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: P.K. Nair, 86, who “preserved the butterflies of cinema” (in the words of great Polish filmmaker Kryzstof Zanussi), passed away in Pune on Friday. Zanussi used the butterfly allegory to emphasise not just the beauty of cinema as an art form, but also the short lifespan of its old self. By the time Nair began preserving and archiving films, most of those made till Independence had been lost. Nair painstakingly preserved cinema and made it accessible to those who later emerged as the greats of Indian films. In short, he made cinema eternal.
Nair joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune as a research assistant in 1961 and went on to play a key role in setting up the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) in 1964. He was appointed assistant curator in 1965 and continued with the NFAI till 1991.
When Nair joined NFAI, it was a hollow place. He found that the first Indian film made, ‘Raja Harishchandra’, was missing; so were many of the nascent classics. He went to Nashik to meet the son of Dadasaheb Phalke, the maker of Harishchandra. (It is a cruel irony that certain sections felt that he was only a bureaucrat to be honoured with a Dada Saheb Phalke award).
He went to Kolkata to meet Uday Shankar and get a copy of his dance-drama, ‘Kalpana’. This adventure in search of missing prints became a binding passion for Nair. He travelled far and wide in the country, in trains, buses, and with local guides.
He would meet families of old filmmakers, and sometimes find films even in cowsheds. By the time he retired, he had acquired a whopping 12,000 films for the archive. Of these, 8,000 were Indian and the rest foreign.
Some of the classics he retrieved from oblivion and saved for posterity are: Kaliya Mardan, Bombay Talkies' films such as Jeevan Naiya, Bandhan, Kangan, Achhut Kanya and Kismet, and S.S. Vasan's Chandralekha....