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(Continued from Part 1)

… Among all the activities of the young and growing Archive, none was more important to the Institute students than as provider of good films. Since generations of us have seen NFAI in that single light, let’s take a pause and bathe awhile in that ‘collective unconscious’. Given right stimulants and half a chance, recalling Institute screenings can send us, the ex-students from that period, into near-orgasmic raptures.

From all accounts, when the FTII began—which was in the early 60s—it acquired a small library of film prints. Moscow’s VGIK and the French IDHEC (which is today’s Le Femis), on whose pattern its curriculum had been drawn, were also its advisers on the choice of films. About 50 shorts and some feature films were all that the students had to see, re-see and to re-re-see. Incredible as it may sound today, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and John Shankarmangalam’s first batch of students had just one ‘General’ screening a week, on Saturdays, and it would be held in the only theatre available at that time, the Sound Theatre on the first floor of that department. One of the iconic pictures of Mrs Gandhi reading the Institute’s first convocation address as the Information and Broadcasting Minister took place in this theatre.

In 1968 when I joined the Institute, NFAI was just coming on its own and we saw one feature film every alternate evening. The venue too had shifted to a larger Main Theatre at the Wisdom Tree. Short film classics, a mix of FTII and Archive collection and mostly used by Prof Bahadur in his classes, such as Night Mail, Song Of Ceylon, Terminus, Diary For Timothy, Big City Blues, Happy Anniversary, The Other Side, Solo; the Bert Haanstra packet consisting of The Human Dutch, Glass, Speaking Of Glass, Delta Phase One, Zoo; and the Norman McLaren packet with Neighbors, Chairy Tale, Opening SpeechNotes On A Triangle, Lines Horizontal and Lines Vertical were the flavor of the times. Most teaching staff, having come on deputation from Films Division, had brought with them some of their more successful documentaries but these stood out somewhat embarrassed in the company of the world-class rest. ‘Big Brother’ Soviet Union had provided mint-quality 35mm prints of the Dovzhenko-Pudovkin-Eisenstein classics, as well as later a cute 20-minute student film Wedding (and another by the same director, Two), which remained an inspiration for generations of Direction students for its simple production values, tidiness of approach and aching intensity. [One of my personal regrets after a whole career teaching at the Institute is that we could never produce a diploma film of matching quality.] The feature films from the Institute’s collection that I remember were Andrej Wajda’s Kanal—Sohrab Modi had already stolen the underground sewer scene idea for his Kundan from here!—Shindo’s unique, dialogue-less but saturated with sounds and enchanting, landscape-filling melody, Island, and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s chilling Wages Of Fear. Bahadur sahib had told us that Wages existed in two versions and that our print was the Clouzot original where none of the four drivers escapes at the end. The other version, shot and released at the distributors’ instance, had Yves Montand return to the base alive, collect the prize money, buy two plane tickets and leave with his girlfriend to freedom and happiness. I’m not sure I fully grasped the import of the difference at the time but for the 22-year old me, watching Wages Of Fear was the memorable first experience of that classic can’t-sit-can’t-leave dilemma. Among Indian features we had Uday Shankar’s Kalpana—great dance implants upon the usual Bollywood fare—and of course about half a dozen Satyajit Rays. Thanks to our government clout, FTII had managed to break into the Max Mueller Bhavan-Alliance Francaise-Soviet Cultural Centre stream of films that had thus far been circulating only in Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi and Madras. We looked to these films for the latest in world cinema; these and the Hollywood releases exclusive to Westend theatre in the fashionable downtown called Main Street. Needless to say, of course, that today’s boxed-in Westend is not a patch on the open spread out original of the past!

Bahadur sahib would issue a detailed weekly General Screening schedule that was accurate on information and scrupulously spell-checked and proofread. Besides title of films, it featured name of the director, country of origin, year of production and running time of the film. Regular classes, which for most part were hands-on practicals in the afternoon, were over by 5, and after a 30-minute tea break and two buzzers, Bahadur sahib would be seen walking down the MT aisle slope. He would leave his jhola on the front corner seat and stand rolling a cigarette as students poured in. (Emboldened by which we too lit up in different corners of the theatre and nobody minded! Smoking wasn’t as big a sin then as it is today. But we never littered. Like Prof Bahadur, we too collected ash and stubs in our half-opened matchboxes.) Then using a microphone specially laid out and warmed up for the purpose—“Testing, one, two, three, hello”—Bahadur sahib would introduce the film. Broadly keeping to its historical-political context, he would skillfully bring his presentation to a head where the scene was ready to burst into projection. Whereupon lights would dim, projectors come alive and the magic rectangle light up. Beside the ethereal beauty of those great films, it was Bahadur sahib’s presentation that made the experience of General Screening such an unqualified popular success. Attending and submitting a diary for evaluation was compulsory for I year students but it never seemed a compulsion. Rather we saw this as a chance to impress Prof Bahadur individually with our ‘original’ observations and turns of phrase.

By the time I finished my course in 1971, not only had the number of screenings gone up to one every evening but there was also an additional late night show after dinner. This was Nair’s screening grudgingly conceded by Murari. Not yet having his own projection theatre, Nair used the Institute’s to check his growing number of prints and we were welcome! Complete opposite in character and flavor to the General Screening, we adored Nair’s screening but took care not to look too happy lest it should be withdrawn.

Like addicts we would rush through an early dinner and return to the Main Theatre. (Or the smaller CRT, Classroom Theatre, for 16mm.) As soon as our supplier-in-chief appeared at the Main Gate—all along Nair has lived in Chatur bungalow next to the Institute—we would finish our smoke and begin to drift inside. His was the corner seat closest to the projection booth and screening would begin as soon as he had taken it. (We didn’t notice at the time but this was the diametric opposite position to Prof Bahadur’s seat in the same theatre.) Since this would be an entirely unseen fare coming from remote cultures—and, like everything else in the Institute, uncensored—this was truly our window to the world. Only if you had hooked up a date would there be a dilemma as to which way to go. “Intellectuals” and those without a date (often one and the same characters) would stick on seeing whatever was playing on the screen.

Of course, mostly it would be drab archival material which you sampled for ten minutes and walked away from. But often enough there were rewards and when those came, we had this additional, devilish pleasure of seeing at least some good films ahead of Prof Bahadur! Now he would have no option but to listen to our appraisals the next day, we thought bursting with glee. I distinctly remember Bahadur sahib’s fidgety expressions as he heard Vinay Shukla’s and my accounts of Woman of the Dunes and Ozu’s Autumn Afternoon. Continuing with shuffling papers and appearing not very interested, he kept asking searching questions trying to visualize the stuff that had so excited us but was cautious not to give away any inkling of which way his own impressions were forming.

Sometimes there were howlers. Word went round once that the Archive had received a 35mm colour print of a sexy Italian film that Nair was holding back from screening. Not only did the title suggest a full-blown seduction but directed by a young woman, it also promised to be a ‘double-distilled’ take on the subject. Eventually the film hit the screen to a drooling packed house. As it happened, it was a brilliant fare and everyone enjoyed but came out laughing at the end. For Seduction of Mimi was our first Lina Wertmuller film—again, her first ever projection in India—where there was a good deal of skin-show and sexual action alright but the seduction of the title had been meant to be a political seduction and Mimi, rather than a nubile doe-eyed neighborhood girl, was a hairy man!

In the midst of all this excitement nobody noticed that within 6-7 years of the Archive, FTII had gone from starvation diet of films to the other extreme where we were drunk on viewing films. So drunk indeed that without our realizing, viewing films and talking about them began to look real fun and trying to make them, drudgery! The issue was debated even in the national press through a telling pun of the times: Had the Institute’s objective been to produce Taan-sens or kaan-sens; singers or enlightened listeners, rasiks? After years of struggle and exasperated that more and more bleary-eyed students had been staying away from his classes, Bahadur sahib was a bitter man. “When I began teaching I was a firm believer of the idea of free education,” he lamented echoing those socialist times. “But today, I think education should be heavily priced!” A similar malaise had infected the Summer Film Appreciation course. In response to the participants’ growing clamor for showing more and more films, he said: “For the duration of the course, the vaults of the Archive should be locked up and the keys thrown into the sea!” Or, “The best place to hold the FA course should be on board a ship off the coast of Lonavala!”

Nair of course was untouched by this controversy. He was after all a library, just a facility that made films available on demand. So as Bahadur sahib’s stock kept falling with every new batch of students, Nair’s image remained that of a generous provider, one steadfastly holding a pencil torch over his notepad as an active projection beam played overhead. Asking neither attendance, not attention, he continued to show choicest of films from all over the world. You were simply grateful and wanted to be seen exchanging notes with him on the film he had just shown and take his monosyllables-with-smile as Zen wisdom to be decoded as you proceeded to your hostel room to crash for the night.

But finally even the system could not cope with heavy demands on projection. Quality was given a go by and cheap multiple prints made of masterpieces. Well, you want projection, here it is! Some more? Take it! At first students didn’t know what had hit them; then understood that it wasn’t being elitist to expect perfect prints and great projection to view films, it was the basic minimum. That consuming art in compromised conditions is like seeing it on a headache.

But the damage was already done and it was irreversible. That was the end of good projection in the Institute as I had known it.

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NFAI was slow to start but quick to expand. Within a decade it had set up branch offices in Calcutta, Bangalore and Trivendrum. Gradually basic questions about archiving began to play out in the public domain. Being a slow poke, it took me decades to penetrate the haze created by books, films, Jaykar Bungalow and Prof Bahadur, and see NFAI for what it always was—another government department. The disillusionment came in stages and was painful. I can recall some instances.

Early in its life NFAI decided to subtitle its collection of regional films. Most of us had first learnt of the practice from seeing European films in the Institute. Since it needed a fresh print and the procedure had to be done abroad, subtitling was always an expensive proposition. Committees were formed to draw priority lists and when some of Ray films came up for consideration, dominated by new wave interests, they decided to divide the resources among their own productions. In a backhanded compliment, Ray’s films were made out to be so visual that they didn’t need subtitling! One result of this small-mindedness was that Apur Sansar remained permanently inaccessible to us at the Institute. We sailed through our entire course, and well into our careers later on, having seen just the bi-logy of the most famous trilogy of the world!

Another instance points to lack of clarity on NFAI’s objectives. At first the film industry took time to thaw towards NFAI; then driven by a sense of progressivism, some established producers started donating old prints of their “classics”. Soon more and more tattered prints began to fill the archive’s vaults. When Nair asked for better prints, the industry murmured to reimburse costs. Upon which, reminding everybody that he was government, Nair threatened to have the producers submit a fresh print by law before they were given censor certificates. Luckily, wiser counsel prevailed in Delhi and none of this came about. What would Nair do with prints of all films made in the country, I wondered. Where would he keep them in the first place?

Satyajit Ray suffered his heart attack in 1982 and remained debilitated for the rest of his days until death in 1992. That’s when Nair retired too. Well before that, somewhere in the middle of 80s, concerns began to be raised about the state of Pather Panchali’s negatives.  One day—I remember it was in front of the Main Theatre and we were waiting for the evening screening—Nair broke the news. He had just returned from Calcutta and assuming gloomy airs told a small group of us that the original negative of the iconic film had “shrunk” because of poor lab conditions!

Too shocked for words, I ended up carrying the issue to the pillow. Did that mean the end of that landmark film!? Even if it could somehow be retrieved—but how?—the film had been compromised and who was to blame? The laboratory where the negative had been stored or, as legal owner of the film, the producer, who in this case was the government of West Bengal? In a limited technical sense, of course, both were answerable but since when have the laboratories and producers been known to be an enlightened lot? What about NFAI, PK Nair himself? Sure, the negative was not in his charge but the onus of vigilance and a sensitive response concerning works of cultural value rested with his department. They were the members of the Paris based FIAF—check out their glorious website—for international perspective on precisely those kinds of problems, otherwise what was Nair doing there every other day? Lumiere’s negatives were sixty years older than PP, had they all shrunk?

Luckily—and his soul be blessed for that—Ismael Merchant, and later Hollywood intervened to recover and save Ray’s cinema for the world. But it’s a pity that while Nair kept expressing pain and indignity at the loss of early Indian cinema on all possible forums, he had been sleeping over the gradual decay of PP negative throughout his archiving career! Rather than be a news breaker, PK Nair ought to have been the whistleblower.

Even more inexcusable in many ways was another of Nair’s failures that came to light just before he retired. In the media it’s a common practice to keep material and write-ups researched and ready ahead of an important person’s impending demise. Ray gave NFAI 10 years to prepare good copies of his films for showing when he died but all that Nair could send to Delhi were scratchy old prints, indifferently sub-titled and even with reels mixed up. [Perhaps Oscar and Bharat Ratan came too suddenly and unexpectedly for Nair, who may have thought Ray was a forgotten force!] Doordarshan accommodated by suitably heightening the introduction pitch—‘Be grateful that they are there!’—and tucked them away in a late night slot for good 10-15 nights! In one sleigh of sarkari hand, two departments of the government of India had taken care of the Oscar and a whole Bharat Ratan without a murmur of complaint from any side! Ray ought to have made a couple of films less and cultivated officialdom instead…

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Nair’s imprint on the NFAI lasted until much after he retired and left the place. Here are some more instances.

In mid-90s I made some episodes for Doordarshan’s A Face In The Crowd. One of them happened to be on one Narayan Phadke from Pune, who was a passionate collector of film posters, photographs, booklets and other memorabilia related to Indian cinema. Having no space at home, he had arranged to stack everything in a deep dark loft at his work place. The whole thing was in shambles and I wanted to conclude the episode by asking him to donate his collection in the professional care of the NFAI. He laughed at the suggestion and told me he had been in touch with the Archive. “My dump is any day better than theirs. Here at least I know what is where!”

The same shoddiness got highlighted to me through another example soon after. Commemorating turn of the century, BBC produced an ambitious 26-part, one-hour documentary series covering important milestones of the last hundred years. Titled People’s Century, the film devised a unique idiom for its narration. Interviewing only direct participants in the global events of the hundred years that they were examining—real live-wire centenarians were fished out for the earlier decades—it decided to use nothing but stock shots from the period as illustrations. This was that great broadcasting institution’s way of telling the story of the 20th century through the century’s own ‘voice’ and it worked extremely well.

What got tested in the process was the strength and efficiency of film archives all over the world. Each one was required to provide easy, classified access to the local material in their collection. From NFAI, however, the makers of People’s Century could extract nothing more than the standard baton charge footage of a white policeman in a solar topee as a dhoti-clad local ducks while managing his dangling wire-rim glasses and escapes. Each episode of series lists about 20 film archives of the world in the credit titles but NFAI figures in just 2 or 3. Having material is one thing, making it available on demand is quite another.

In 2003 (in a rather rare happening for a society that’s not obsessed with fire), one of NFAI’s nitrate vaults caught fire. These were the notoriously inflammable, nitrate base negatives of the early films that NFAI had stocked for years at various points in the Institute. The flames hissed through tiny windows of that 30 feet cuboid structure left behind by V Shantaram (which we later saw had meter-thick walls specially built) in the manner of air-pressure kerosene stoves as we stood watching in horror.

Next day papers were full of the story. Cub reporters had had a field day brushing up stock phrases lamenting the ‘irreparable loss to India’s film heritage’ but surprisingly the Institute community too went advancing similar frothy sentiments to nodding heads throughout the day. Everything ran as though to a script with no pause allowed and none taken to wonder how the cause of film heritage had been served for decades that the negatives had been with us until the day of the fire! Third day onward the staff had gone back to monitoring air conditioners as before. I am not aware of any new steps taken to use the surviving stuff for any productive purpose.

Should archives be just about mindless collecting?

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I have not seen Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary The Celluloid Man on PK Nair but judging from a number of write-ups and visual snatches, the longish film addresses none of these serious issues. Rather it seems to be cast in the Kaagaz Ke Phool mold where the old white haired film producer Guru Dutt returns unrecognized and revisits the studios and sets, which he once owned.

Which is just as well. Nair’s quietude, non-controversial conduct and long innings at the crease should be worthy of credit too. None of his successors would have this last luxury since the place is now counted as a fixed tenure posting for junior civil servants who come and go at fairly regular intervals. None of them stands to be heard about (much less fussed) unless either they commit a murder or do something—but what?—that wins them a major prize.

An old banyan tree somehow begins to look pious. PK Nair is a classic example of, “They also serve who stand and wait…”

(Concluded)

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