There are those who flippantly describe P K Nair as a bureaucrat. There are bureaucrats, and then there is the bureaucrat. Nair sir was one person who brought an enormous passion and a single-minded focus to what might seem an essentially bureaucratic chore. Here was a man who had absolute commitment to cinema. He loved his job.
But he also set his own rules. He did not have anyone to model himself upon; the post of an archivist was virtually unknown in India. He proved himself to be an art curator with an obsessive bent of mind and amazing skills of improvisation.
For a person building the country’s film archives brick by brick, such a blinding obsession was a sine qua non. He had to meet filmmakers, convince studios and producers, argue with them and eventually force them to part with a copy of their films. It was not an easy task for him. By the time he began setting up the archives, a lot of Indian film history had been lost.
Nair sir also had an exquisite eye for good cinema. It was his taste that introduced to the country, and many who later turned out to be modern greats, to some of the finest of world cinema. By hook or crook, Nair sir managed to get prints of classic films to the country. He was a maverick who marched to his own tune, but he also had close links with archivists all over the world. He met them, learned the tricks of their trade, and invented some of his own.
The seventies, when I was a college student in Delhi, were crazy. It was nation-building time and the art world was effervescent with both home-grown and western ideas. If we were able to form a film club in our college, it was mainly because Nair sir had set up the archives.
There was no need for us, for instance, to knock at the doors of the Russian embassy or such inaccessible areas to get classics like Eisenstein ‘Battleship Potemkin’. Nair sir had somehow stored a copy in the archives. Getting classics, during those times were almost a miracle. I still remember how we wrote letters to the archives, and how the prints would come by rail and get unloaded at the railway station, which had to be picked up by some of us students.
Nair sir might have had been fussy about the prints that he had painstakingly collected but he was more than willing to share it with film students. When I came to FTII, Pune, he was a legendary figure. We students could never muster the courage to go and talk to him. But soon we learnt that he was only happy to answer our posers.
When I moved into festival organisation, he was my mentor. He guided me not only in the organisation but also gave me tips on the importance of retrospectives. I salute a great teacher.
(The author, a renowned editor and former artistic director of IFFK, is the director of the LV Prasad Film and TV Academy)...