A film projectionist at Pune’s NFAI for many decades, PA Salam, or ‘SalamKa’ as he is fondly known, was recently conferred the Film Heritage Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award for Cinema Projection. Sourajit Saha speaks to him on behalf of ind.igenous
I might have seen ‘SalamKa’ once or twice at NFAI in my few months as a student at FTII, till I was officially introduced to him by Iyesha of the National Film Archive of India. The shy individual that I am, I couldn’t say much to this sexagenarian Malayali man except that I wanted to interview him. He was as busy at that time in the projection room as he would have been when he worked under the tutelage of the formidable P.K. Nair, the man who was the director of the Archives. He shooed me away from the projection room, asking me to contact him later. A week passed. I called him, and he gave me an appointment. Meanwhile, FTII had been abuzz with the delightful news that our much respected and beloved SalamKa had been declared the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Cinema Projection by the Film Heritage Foundation this year. On our second meeting, I encountered the boisterous awardee still in a hurry like the last time. He gave me a pendrive containing two films and a few videos recorded at his retirement ceremony at NFAI. This was his way of acquainting me with the work he had been doing for many decades now. The way Salam sir thrust the pendrive in my hand and instructed me to go through it felt very much like episode one of the television series Sacred Games, when Ganesh Gaitonde reprimands Sartaj Singh with his iconic dialogue, ‘Jaake dekh record mein kaun hain. Insaan hai ki bhagwan?’(‘Go check the records and find out who it is. A mortal or a God?’) And thus, like an obedient student, I returned and devoured the recordings. Both the documentaries named ‘Salam’ (one by FTII students, another by MIT Institute of Design students) painted a contrasting picture of a once-angry man slowly disappearing into his own world of film reels. The last shots of both documentaries were similar. The FTII one has Salam lying on a bed while a film is projected on the wall beside him, and the MIT one has a film reel running on a Steenbeck machine superimposed on him. Various people in the documentary, including Salam himself, talk about his anger issues but also admit that he was a man committed to his job all his life. Even after his retirement, Salam sir is still running the show (quite literally) in NFAI. He can even be seen on Sundays, running the projector for special screenings. He doesn’t have a family here and lives alone in Pune. His brother lives with his family back in Alleppey, where the projectionist had grown up. Calls from his family to return to his native are ignored time and again. I believe they have given up on their requests by now. I returned to NFAI a week or so after, and this time, I made him sit for my questions while a projection of Garam Hava played at the theatre. SalamKa was alert and took a break every 10 minutes to change the reel. Although an assistant was present, his mind was back there in the projection room throughout our session.
Where were you born? What was your childhood like?
I was born in a small village called Kaipamangalam in the Thrissur district of Kerala, in 1956. My father died early, and we were doomed to poverty. Ours was a big family of four brothers and four sisters. I was the youngest. My mother put me up with my uncle, who lived in Alleppey, as his economic condition was better than ours. A strict conservative Muslim man, he didn’t even let me listen to the radio, let alone watch films. But I was determined, and hence bunked school to watch films in the local theater.
How did you get into the profession of film projection?
In 1972, my brother came to Pune and got a job at FTII. My mother and I came just a year after and started living in Warje. I was doing odd jobs before my brother got me the job of a watchman at the FTII campus. He told me to introduce myself as Raju and not reveal my identity as a Muslim South Indian man. Most of the old people in FTII still call me Raju. Then, I got to know about Nair Saab and became an apprentice under him at NFAI. Later, I became a film checker. My starting salary was 2 rupees 50 paisa! As a part of the job, I had to go to collect film reels almost every day from the Poona railway station and check them before they were shown to the students. I used to assist the then projectionist for the regular FTII student screenings. I even went to a lot of film appreciation courses with Prof. Satish Bahadur, Nair Saab, Gayatri Chatterjee, and Hemanti Banerjee to different parts of the country, from Ahmedabad to Kerala. We screened a lot of 16mm prints as a part of these events. Once in UC College in Aluva, the projectionist wasn’t aware of how to screen 16mm prints, and I was entrusted with the task. Adoor (Gopalakrishnan) ji, on seeing my lack of confidence, helped me with it, and that was the first time I screened a film! After that, there was no looking back. Truth be told, I enjoyed watching films more than projecting them (laughs). By ‘82, I became an assistant projectionist. Due to the lack of an educational degree, I was not made a projectionist. It was a government post, and hence it required a minimum educational qualification. I got a degree after many years from a university in Tamil Nadu, that too in B.Com. It was in 2013 – I was officially designated the post of projectionist at NFAI.
Do you remember any memorable incident from when you were going for these events?
Umm, memorable…what can I say! Actually, I got into trouble while going for one such screening. It was a screening in Sofia College in Bombay sometime between ‘80-’85. I was carrying 2-3 boxes of film cans on an overnight train to Dadar from Pune. When the train was about to reach Dadar, I fell asleep and missed the station. My eyes opened when the train reached VT (Victoria Terminus), and I got down. Guards from the Special Squad caught me and fined me with an overhead charge. The train fare was 11 rupees, and they fined me 35 rupees!
How was your relationship with Nair Saab?
Arre..I had a love-hate relationship with him. As much as I respected that man, I used to have a lot of arguments with him too. Let me tell you one incident. I didn’t like going to Bombay, and Nair Saab knew this. There was a screening of Ardh Satya.. I think it was part of IFFI. Nair Saab took me to Bombay with him for the screening. Now, I wanted to come back early so I went to Nair Saab’s room and tried to convince him by giving excuses that I wasn’t feeling well. He usually didn’t give permission easily but probably seeing my sleep deprived state, he relented. I was locking Nair Saab’s room while he went out. I forgot to give him the keys and left Bombay with the keys in my pocket! I reached Poona in the evening and slept like a sloth. At 11:30 at night, Nandu (a film checker staff) came to wake me up, shouting for Nair Saab’s keys. I woke up in shock. Nair Saab had not only sent him to get the keys but had asked me to return to Bombay with film cans of some film! So at 12 in the night, I again boarded a packed bus for Bombay.
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Apart from the recognition you got in terms of the lifetime achievement award, is there any compliment or incident that made you feel that you have succeeded as a projectionist?
Ahh.. There was one time in Ahmedabad when Ardh Satya was getting screened. What was the name of the student? Umm..he was with Naseeruddin Shah…ahh yes, Om Puri! We sat and drank together.
Do you feel that projectionists have actually got their due recognition?
Shivy Dungarpur should be thanked. He arranged for an award to recognise this profession, acknowledge our efforts. But even if no one had given us any award, we would still be doing our work. Nothing extraordinary about it. Mila hain accha lagta hain..bas utna hi (Feels good to get some recognition..that’s all).
Is there any difference between film projection and digital projection? Did you feel that your job changed after the advent of digital cinema?
In the case of 35mm projection, in the earlier days, we used carbon rods. Even if it’s slightly moved by 5 inches, the projection will be affected. Also, constantly, you have to be near the projection system to change the reels. One cannot even go to the bathroom for a piss. On top of that, the grease from the carbon rods made the hands dirty. It was indeed a cumbersome process! For one 35mm projection, equipments weighing 40 kg need to be handled, while now you can carry 4000 films in a device of 4 gm weight. That’s the difference! I used to enjoy the labour of 35mm projection. Usme mazza tha! (The fun was in that!)
What do you think of the change now that the government has implemented the merger of the film bodies and NFAI has become a part of NFDC?
Nothing much. I’m not affected by this. I retired in 2016. I like this place and hence I’m still doing the same job even after my retirement. If I feel I’m no longer enjoying this, I will leave. I will go back home. But what will I do there? I feel this is the only place where I belong.
You are in love with this place, SalamKa.
Yes. That’s true. I’ve been here almost since my childhood. This is the only place I know.
SalamKa went on to admit that he ignores his family calls just for this reason. The man has truly been ‘institutionalized’, as the character Red says in the popular Hollywood classic, The Shawshank Redemption. Salam sir is one of those humble souls who married their work and couldn’t think of anything else apart from it.
A soldier of cinema, a soul dedicated to cinema. Our beloved SalamKa.
The author would like to thank PA Salam for his time, Iyesha Geeth Abbas for introducing him to Salam sir and Jasbir Baidwan, and Jainulah Deen of NFDC NFAI for letting him take this interview on their premises.
(All images in the article courtesy PA Salam. Cover photograph by Sourajit Saha)