The Man Who Found Phalke Films Deserves Phalke Award
Just as we celebrate characters from history, the historians who preserve them for future generations need to be celebrated too. It is in that context that film buffs are demanding that the Dada Saheb Phalke award, named after the Marathi film maker who pioneered film making in India in 1920s, should be conferred on the man who found and restored Phalke’s first film.
He is none other than our own P.K. Nair, affectionately called Nair Saab. Nair discovered the print of the Phalke film and restored it in 1960s. Just as Phalke created history with his film making, Nair Saab created history by archiving classic Indian films for us to celebrate.
Nair is often described as the Henri Langlois of India for his pioneering work of archiving our cinema. Henri Langlois was a French film archivist and cinephile, who was an influential figure in the history of cinema. Just as Lamglois archived the Lumeire films for the world, Nair, over six decades, kept the history of Indian films intact. Just as Phalke’s films, he also discovered the second Malayalam film “Marthandavarma.”
From being a library assistant in the now iconic Film and Television Institute of India in 1963, Nair built the National Film Archive of India, which has all the major works of film makers across the country, including the ones like Raja Harish Chandra. Not just that, he collected all important films from across the world and archived it at Pune for the FTII students. Some of the noteworthy films in the NFAI collection include Kaliya Mardan, Bombay Talkies films such as Jeevan Naiya, Bandhan, Kangan, Achhut Kanya and Kismet, S.S. Vasan’s Chandralekha and Uday Shankar’s Kalpana, apart from Phalke’s first film.
As the world has moved to a digital era, the Government of India has assigned NFAI the task of digitizing all the films in its archives as well as other films that should go into a national film history museum, being built as part of the 100 years of Indian cinema.
NFAI under Nair was the main source of cinema for film societies across the country. At the height of the film society movement, NFAI had over 800 societies accredited to it. It was Nair and Prof. Satish Bahadur of FTII, who started the annual film appreciation course as a joint activity between FTII and NFAI in late 1960s. The one-month course trains film scholars into new levels of film appreciation and aesthetics every year even today.
Though the upcoming National Film History Museum is the biggest tribute to the NFAI and its founding director Nair, his admirers strongly feel that he deserves the highest honor of the land for films, as his contributions are indeed as great as that of any film maker. “His contributions for a better film culture is unparalleled as he institutionalized and promoted a good film culture”, said V.K. Jospeh, Secretary of Kerala, Federation of Film Societies of India(FFSI is the apex body of film societies, the biggest beneficiary of Nair Saab’s archiving of films)
As a Government employee, Nair has had many a run down with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry for years for the growth of NFAI. “While discussing the annual budget for NFAI , an I&B Secretary asked me , `why are you acquiring all such trash films?’ How can I retort saying why we are allowing such trash to be made,” Nair, 85, once said in an interview with this writer. Being a Government employee and having not made a film or associated with a film directly in its making has been cited as one of the reasons why his contributions does not come under the Phalke award category, though finally it is like a Padma award, a government’s political decision.
Nair was born in the capital of erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore, now Thiruvananthapuram. Tamil mythological films in the early 1940s, such as K Subramaniam’sAnanthasayanam and Bhakta Prahlada, flamed his early interest in cinema. Though his family was not appreciative of his interest, he was determined to get into films soon after his graduation in science from the University of Kerala in 1953. He proceeded to Bombay to pursue a career in filmmaking, little realising that he was among the few graduates pursuing such a career at that time. He had the good fortune of working with directors such as Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee.
“In Mumbai, I realised that academically I had a different bent of mind, may be my degree in science led me to look at the emerging opportunities in the film establishment. I heard about Jean Bhownagary, a French Indian and advisor to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and went to meet him. It was he who advised me to wait and apply for the post of a researcher/archivist at FTII, which they planned to convert into a film archive,” Nair recalled those days when I met him at his Pune apartment.
The independent NFAI was established in 1964, and Nair was appointed Assistant Curator in November 1965. He was promoted as the Director of the archive in 1982. When he retired in April 1991, he had collected over 12,000 films, of which 8,000 were Indian. He had also established NFAI as an institution worthy of its stature in the international film archive circuit.
Nair was awarded the Satyajit Ray Memorial award in 2008 and the Federation of film Societies of India has decided to honor him with a Life Time Achievement award. Perhaps it’s time that we honor the celluloid man with the highest cinema award in the country.