Preserving Butterflies

Remembering P.K. Nair, the Legendary Film Archivist

Guest Author: Sourajit Saha

In Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary Celluloid Man (2012), the veteran filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi compares cinema to ‘beautiful butterflies’ that fly and vanish. P.K. Nair was the one who saved these ‘butterflies’ from vanishing. Nair, often compared to the great French archivist Henri Langlois, was the man who singlehandedly built the formidable collection of the National Film Archive of India and became its first director in 1982. He went on to collect and preserve approximately twelve thousand film titles in his tenure of 27 years as an archivist.

A friend of mine once told me about a conversation she had with an Uber driver. The driver, a talkative fellow, immediately got to know of her interest in cinema and told her that he had almost a thousand films downloaded and stored in his tiny smartphone. By the end of her cab ride, she was quite surprised to have received a Christopher Nolan film recommendation, along with a detailed analysis of the plotline. Like my friend and I – who often exchange our hard drives when we meet, to copy the films we have collected from here and there – and like many of you reading this, the Uber driver has built his own library of films inside his tiny device. Man has been collecting things from time immemorial. The common man has always nurtured the hobby of collection – coins, watches, stamps, posters. We’ve been archivists all along, in our own little ways.  In Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World (2021), Aksel, says ‘I grew up in a world when culture was passed along through objects. It was interesting because we could live among them’. I have seen collectors left with no space in their homes to walk – living in the midst of the various things they have collected over years. Collecting is such an obsession. We collect to be with these pieces of art, we collect because they constitute our culture, represent our history, show who we are, and where we belong. Zanussi rightly commented when he said that Nair, for him, was the ‘symbol of memory of cinema’. Even though Nair isn’t there anymore, he is remembered for the legacy he has left behind in the form of an extraordinary collection that holds not just films but an entire history of our nation and of the world. When right-wing forces are prevalent in rewriting the course of history, these archives become the ‘temples’ of ‘truth’. 

Trained as a chemist, Nair joined the newly formed Film Institute of India as a research assistant. A few days ago, he was fondly remembered by Yogesh Mathur (ex-HOD, Film Editing, FTII) in a speech he gave at the screening of Celluloid Man at the NFAI theatre on Nair’s 90th birthday. I, as a current student of editing at FTII, got to witness this special recounting from Mr. Mathur, technically a super senior of mine who expressed his admiration for Nair Saab’s discipline. He reminisced – there would be two screenings. One, the FTII screening at 5:30 PM, and the second one at 9 PM which would be Nair Saab’s. Now, we sadly have only one screening in the evening in FTII. Mathur continued, ‘Many a time, Nair Saab came very late…at 11 o’clock, and the students used to wait for him!’ Such was the reverence for the man. Saeed Akhtar Mirza speaks of the frequent altercations between Mr. Nair and Ritwik Ghatak, the Bengali maverick who was a teacher at the institute back then, on the choice of films to be screened. Nair would appease Ghatak by agreeing to play a film of Ghatak’s choice first, and would then go on to play what he planned for the day.  Gayatri Chatterjee, a film critic, who also gave a speech on the same day, highlighted that Nair was not only an archivist but a true cinephile (an important choice of the word at a time when we tend to end up using it very easily) possessing ‘tremendous knowledge of cinema’. Naseeruddin Shah recounts in Celluloid Man that sometimes, there would even be just two students sitting in the theatre – or none at all – due to the privilege of watching films for free as part of academic screenings, and taking it for granted. Nair Saab would be the lone figure sitting on his fixed seat at NFAI, watching the film. He would also meticulously write down details in his notebook during each and every screening, constantly thinking of ways to improve the viewing experience. There are multiple tales of how extensively he travelled to collect films from all over the country, and even abroad. Returning from Nasik to Pune with the print of Kaaliya Mardan (1919, Dir. Dadasaheb Phalke), he had told the taxi driver to drive slowly, as he was carrying something “precious”. There are more interesting tales of finding negatives of films in unexpected places. Mrinal Sen, another Bengali maverick, while shooting his film Akaler Sandhane (1980) in a village outside Calcutta found one person informing him that his father had made a film named Jamai Babu, and he had the cans under his cot at home. Sen immediately arranged to send the cans to Nair and the long-lost Bengali film from the early ‘30s found a place in his archives. The Prabhat Film Company’s films were also difficult to get. When the order came to vacate the premises of the Prabhat studio (where FTII is now situated), the negatives were hurriedly kept in the vaults of a bank in the Deccan Gymkhana. But during the Panchet dam floods in 1961, which drowned half of Pune, a lot of the negatives were damaged. It was due to Nair Saab’s tenacious persuasion that the films were finally acquired with the help of Anandrao Damle, son of one of the founder-owners of Prabhat Film Company. There were times when he had to return empty-handed and utterly disappointed. Ardeshir Irani’s son, when asked for the reels of Alam Ara, told Nair that he had extracted the silver and sold it off. It saddens one to imagine how such important evidence of a country’s film heritage had been sold off for someone’s selfish monetary needs. Nair, in one of his essays about film preservation, laments that a lot of early silent-era films were lost as silver was extracted from the negatives, or cellulose was stripped to make bangles, ladies’ purses, and other such accessories. Also, the producers, who were mostly businessmen, didn’t care much about the preservation of the films for future generations, but were concerned only about the immediate turnovers from the theatrical run. This lack of awareness on the course of action for preserving these films in our country gave Nair and the people involved in the preservation and restoration process a very hard time.

The role of an archivist also requires one to be a curator. Which films are to be archived and preserved, which films are important and which are not, are questions of serious debate. Nair Saab, with a thorough understanding of the current and past trends of world cinema, was the perfect person for it. He didn’t discriminate against films while collecting. He is found to admit in the documentary that a Satyajit Ray film is as culturally important as the ‘B’ or ‘C’ grade films of Wadia Movitone. Girish Kasaravalli also concurs on this point, pointing out that Nair Saab was so honest as an archivist that he would not even let go of three reels of a film found in a small town in Karnataka knowing that it was the first Kannada film. The fact that Nair was totally immersed in his work is understood from a small account by Venu, the eminent cinematographer, and an FTII graduate. He tells us how the filmmaker John Abraham went to Nair’s house demanding to watch The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964, Dir.: Pasolini) at 3 o’clock in the night, and Nair Saab, without any hesitation, arranged for a screening and both of them not only watched the film but ‘discussed about John’s next film and had breakfast and left’. Nair had helped generations of FTII students by providing inspiration through the suggestion of apt cinema for several names which include Sriram Raghavan and Vidhu Vinod Chopra. He even helped students like Jahnu Barua to pay for their studies by getting them small jobs in the archives. Else, we would perhaps have lost an important filmmaker. Nair Saab’s contribution to nurturing generations of FTII graduates and hence future filmmakers is no less than that of a film professor. His job didn’t end as an archivist but he made sure the dissemination of film knowledge to both the students and the general audience happened simultaneously. He remarked in a seminar on Film Education, ‘The filmmaker and the audience must be on the same wavelength because if there is a gap between transmission and reception it can create problems’.

Questions of ethics have been raised as Nair Saab always used to make a copy of whatever films came in his hands. In Celluloid Man, when he was asked whether he ‘stole’ films, he dismissed the word, replacing it with ‘duping’ negatives, and beautifully replying, ‘Archivists should have the immunity to the dangers of legal problems’. Nair had learned to traverse through these legal mazes to acquire films as many a time it was not easy to track down the copyright owner of several long-forgotten films which he chanced upon in his search.

Nair Saab’s tireless efforts also ensured the ‘correct’ restoration of a lot of films. He raised concerns about earlier filmmakers not making a dupe negative and making positive copies of their films for distribution from the original negatives, which actually resulted in the degradation of the originals. He had written in an essay about how painstakingly films were restored, as reels would often be discovered from unlikely places – for example, a cowshed. Such was the story of a film named Chitralekha (1931) whose reels were found stuck to each other and hardened to stone. Saving them required ingenuity and tenacity on the part of the team under the leadership of the relentless Mr. Nair.

He lamented that not many people are there in this field of film preservation and restoration. U R Ananthamurthy opines that our country is a nation with a ‘rich past but poor history’. It is heartbreaking even to think that preservation isn’t a well-respected job in a country like ours where preservation needs to be done in each discipline and not just in films. There is a scene in the documentary where the cries of Neeta’s ‘I want to live!’ from Ritwik Ghatak’s Megha Dhaka Tara are juxtaposed against the tracking shot of cobweb-filled racks of film cans in the archives. It is a very telling scene of the prevailing situation in the landscape of Indian cinema after P.K. Nair left us in 2016. Nair gave life and visibility to thousands of such films which otherwise would have been forgotten by the general public, and with it, we would have lost a part of our Indian culture and heritage.


1. Celluloid Man (2012) dir. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

2. ‘Yesterday’s Films for Tomorrow’, P.K. Nair

3. Celluloid Man, Sight and Sound: Link

Sourajit Saha was once a software engineer and is now a student of editing at FTII, Pune. However, he has been a 24×7 cinephile all along. With interests in visual arts and history, he aspires to become a filmmaker one day.

Read more by Sourajit here.

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