To the Rescue
by Paolo Cherchi Usai
Sep 11, 2012 | 1822 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
P.K. Nair helped turn the neglected, underfunded National Film Archive of India into a viable caretaker of a fragile film history. According to Shivendra Singh Dungapur’s new documentary Celluloid Man, Nair has watched the archive slip into dangerous irrelevance in the years since his retirement. Singh talked to archivist Paolo Cherchi Usai about the state of cinema preservation in India.

Paulo Cherchi Usai: How was P.K. Nair regarded by the Indian film industry at the time of his activity at the National Film Archive? Who were his allies? Did he have enemies?

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur: Filmmakers, students, and researchers talk about times when they needed help or information and could just pick up the phone and speak to Mr. Nair. He was always accessible and willing to help, often rattling off can and reel numbers instantly. He was keen to create a culture of cinema and share the films in the archive with as many people as possible. Today, accessing information or films from the archive is a nightmare. Even after countless phone calls and innumerable visits, one is lucky if one is able to get what one was looking for. Nobody is interested in giving access to the archive material and probably there is also a lack of knowledge about what is there.   

The Mumbai film industry had mixed feelings for Mr. Nair. Not many cared for archiving or understood his role in building the archive. In fact, rarely did anyone give him a print for free. He would make several calls and have to meet them in person, and even then they would probably say that they would give him the negative to make a copy of the print at the cost of the archive. It was extremely difficult for him to convince the government of the need to acquire films for the archive. I still can’t figure out how he managed.

Cherchi Usai: How would you describe the story of the National Film Archive of India after Mr. Nair retired in 1991?

Dungarpur: The archive was orphaned when Mr. Nair retired. He loved the smell and feel of film. He understood films and they understood him. He gave them a human face and to him they were living, breathing things. Today they lie dead.

The people in charge of the archive are government appointees, essentially bureaucrats, who have no background or interest in film, their archiving, preservation or restoration. The fact that Mr. Nair was not allowed to enter the Archive for the last five or six years is a testimony to the resentment that the archive authorities felt for what they perceived as his interference.  Mr. Nair was disturbed by the fact that the films that he had so painstakingly collected were not being stored in the right conditions at the required temperatures and humidity, and nobody really cared. Even valuable memorabilia, like Josef Wirsching’s German camera and the statue used in the Prabhat classic film Sant Tukaram went missing, and there is a rumor that some silent film cans were sold as scrap. There was a fire in the Archive in 2002 that destroyed so many important nitrate silent films and original negatives, but even after that nothing changed.

Cherchi Usai: What was your own most personal revelation while researching the film?

Dungarpur: At a factual level, I was shocked to discover that 1,700 silent films were made in India and only 20 remain, of which only nine are complete. There is no trace of India’s first talkie Alam Ara, made in 1931. I still hope that someone somewhere will discover the film in a cupboard or a shed so that it will see the light of day again. At a personal level, I fell in love with cinema all over again. … I found that I wanted to go beyond the film and actually work towards archiving and restoring films myself in whatever capacity I could. My aim is to start a foundation to restore films and spread awareness about film preservation and restoration in my country.  Thanks to this film, I began to live for films.

Cherchi Usai: Describe the current situation of film preservation in India.

Dungarpur: India does not have a culture of archiving, preservation and restoration. That applies to most areas of the arts, not just film. Until there is a change in this attitude, the situation appears bleak.

Currently over 1,000 films are made in India every year, but we have approximately just 10,000 Indian films in our archive after all these years. In a country where archiving itself is such a struggle, film restoration is a whole new battle. It is a sad reflection on India that landmark Indian films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Uday Shankar are restored overseas with foreign funding. Nothing is done in India. It is not that India does not have the funds. It lacks the will.   

Paolo Cherchi Usai is senior curator of motion pictures and director of the Eastman House’s L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, the former director of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and a resident curator at the Telluride Film Festival.


India, 2012, 164m

Director: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

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