Posted on Trivia – The Spice of Life on 18/09/2022
My curiosity about Paramesh Krishanan Nair was piqued after I read an interview of his about How the staircase played a starring role in Indian cinema which helped me in writing my post on Songs of Stairs some time ago. The interview was very impressive; it revealed his excellent observational and analytical skills. Ever since, I had wanted to read his book Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow. I was finally able to read it last week. Having read it rather intently, I felt I must review it as well. This post happens to be the first book review that I am writing on my blog.
For the unversed, Paramesh Krishanan Nair or P.K.Nair (1933-2016) joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII, Pune) in March, 1961 as a Research and Reference Assistant. It was in 1965 that he joined the National Film Archive of India or NFAI (which was setup in 1964 within the precincts of FTII) as assistant curator. Post that he took up the cause of film archiving with missionary zeal. His romance with cinema and its various facets continued much after he retired as Director, NFAI in 1991; in fact he breathed cinema till the day he bid goodbye to this mortal world. Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow – published in 2017 by the Film Heritage Foundation after P.K.Nair’s death, is a collection of his writings – personal diaries, detailed notes, articles, letters – deftly edited by Rajesh Devraj, who has also penned an insightful introduction. It would not be out of place to state here that Celluloid Man was an award winning documentary that was produced by Dungarpur Films in 2012 when Shri P.K.Nair was alive.
In the book, images of P.K.Nair’s film diaries of 1968 are very innovatively used as end pages. This bears testimony to the fact that he was meticulous in taking down all details of every film he watched; by his own admission in an interview, he is said to have watched a film a day since the early 1940s. One can imagine the kind of treasure trove of information he would have left behind, if such was the comprehensive chronicling he believed in. The editor has very thoughtfully arranged his writings under different sub-categories based on the facet of Nair’s interest that gets highlighted in the writings. The categories are – the moviegoer, the archivist, the film historian, the film critic and the columnist.
P.K.Nair started off as an avid moviegoer at a rather tender age, in fact, rather surreptitiously and went on to assist greats such as Mehboob and Hrishikesh Mukherjee during the making of films such as Mother India (1957) and Anari (1959). It was then that he realised that film making was not his cup of tea. It dawned upon him that he was cut out for making filmmakers and not films. He felt that it was important to instil a film culture in a country where even the well-read, he rued, could not distinguish between Einstein and Eisenstein.
Nair’s writings bring out various dimensions of cinema which pertain to both creative and technical aspects. While he believed that each and every film made must be preserved for posterity, for what is today considered to be a cheap stunt film could be tomorrow’s festival pick, with the resources spread rather thin, his focus was on preserving films made before 1955. He started off at NFAI salvaging about 80 films in the initial years; the archival collection had swelled to 12000 in 1991 when he retired as Director.
In his piece Yesterday’s film’s for tomorrow (under the category the archivist) he highlights the manner in which the reels of Alam Ara (1931), the first talkie, were ignorantly and insensitively disposed of as junk by his own son Shapoorji because the silver nitrate reels were highly inflammable. The practise of destroying reels for the small amount of silver that could be extracted is also discussed at great length. Later when the triacetate base stock replaced the silver nitrate, the cellulose film was stripped to make curios like bangles and purses. The apathy of the common man as well as the film makers is exposed. Preservation of films was never the culture for there was no financial gain (immediate at least) in the offing. While reading his articles, one learns about several technical terms (such as duplicate negatives, positive prints) associated with film preservation. He enlists ten of his favoutire movies – Bhakta Vidur (1921), Bilet Pherat (1921), Savkari Pash(1925), Balidan (1927), Alam Ara (1931), Sairandhri (1933), Seeta (1934), Mazdoor(1934), Khoon Ka Khoon (1935) and Zindagi (1940) – which are lost for ever.
Nair devotes a number of articles to the three men he idolizes – Dada Saheb Phalke (especially for Raja Harishchandra 1913 and Kaliya Mardan, 1919), Satyajit Ray (especially for his Pather Panchali, 1955) and Ritwik Ghatak (especially for Meghe Dhaka Tara, 1960), a contemporary of Ray who was equally brilliant but did not get his due. He highlights the role of the projectionist who is side lined in the film industry. He also delves into the realm of regional cinema and believes that it is more realistic. One may however beg to differ. For Nair, a film is not just a source of entertainment but a mode of education and an agent of enlightenment and change. Again, there can be a debate about the role of cinema.
The section I liked the most was the one on Nair as the film critic; this section discusses the importance of the Song in Indian Cinema, remarking that for the Western critics who had little understanding of Indian cultural moorings, all films were ‘musicals’. For Nair, a film song is an integral part of the movie; it could be a celebration of life, an expression of inner conflict, a means of comment, a medium of poetic exchanges and much more, all of which he illustrates through apt examples. He also discusses at length the Devdas Syndrome, arguing how Devdas heralded the tragic-ending trend in Indian cinema which was hitherto taboo. Devdas, he says, is perhaps the only novel which has lent itself to 12 official screen adaptations beginning with the 1928 silent version of Naresh Mitra. It became a cult movie and inspired many film makers to replicate the love triangle plot of Devdas in different ways. He also writes very absorbing short pieces on subjects such as ambient sounds being woven into the on screen action, the role of rain drops in a movie, the use of wipes for transition. These show his keen observation and correlation skills.
Nair as a film historian has an eye for detail. He minutely analyses the role of posters in advertising and popularising films. Posters of about 12 films (such as Duniya Na Mane (1937), Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Mother India (1957)) have been incorporated into the book. This review will not be complete without describing the changes in filmmaking that Nair speaks of from studios such as Prabhat (which incidentally is where the FTII and NFAI operated from) to independent producers and film makers such as Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt. The role of the world wars in shaping Indian cinema is also touched upon.
To conclude, peppered with anecdotes, personal experiences and a commentary on film making and film preservation emanating from first hand experience, this collection of articles arranged thematically appeals to both the novice and the connoisseur. The only drawback of the book is that there is a fair amount of repetition which is bound to there as the writings belong to different years with subjects overlapping. The editor has however tried to mitigate this to the best of his abilities.
The one thing I am however disappointed about is that P.K.Nair makes no mention of his family in any of his writings presented here; this is pretty ironical because a lot of what he writes about while analysing films is human relationships. Long hours at work, travelling at odd hours to locate reels of vintage films, being wedded to film screenings beyond office timings – all this would surely have not happened so smoothly but for a family which was supportive. He should have acknowledged the role of his family – his wife and three children – in enabling him to pursue his passion in an unbridled fashion. A certain sense of detachment too was perhaps lacking. This has been one of the peeves of his colleagues and successors as well. Institution building is as important as pursuing one’s passion, so that the good work continues after one leaves.
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8 thoughts on “Book Review : P.K.Nair’s Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow”
This sounds very interesting! This, especially, appealed to me:
“He also writes very absorbing short pieces on subjects such as ambient sounds being woven into the on screen action, the role of rain drops in a movie, the use of wipes for transition.”
Thank you for this recommendation. Am adding this to my list ASAP.
Madhuji, this book must be read by every film lover. I love Nair’s detailed analysis of various technical and creative elements of various scenes and songs. I am glad my review whetted your curiosity.
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I have been to NFAI where I saw Saigal’s ‘Devdas’. I was impressed about the valuable work they have done. Your review has aroused my curiosity, and it is on my must-read list. Thanks a lot for your review.
I am glad the review has inspired you to read the book, AKji. When you went to NFAI, did you happen to meet Mr.P.K.Nair? He seems to have been the driving force in the initial years.
Had I known about him, I would have made it a point to meet him. I don’t remember to have met him. I went there in 2012 when he must have long retired.
AKji, such was his love for films that even after he retired, he lived not far away from NFAI. He was extremely attached to NFAI.