Andaz, Bimal Roy, Chandita Mukherjee, Chaplin, Dadasaheb Phalke, deSica, Dilip Kumar, Film and Television Institute of India, FTII, Guru Dutt, Heggodu, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Jagat Murari, Jaya Bhaduri, KA Abbas, Kurosawa, KV Subbanna, Mandakini Phalke, Nargis, National Film Archive of India, NFAI, Ninasam, Nirad Mohapatra, Pather Panchali, PK Nair, Raj Kapoor, Reeta Rajgurang, Ritwick Ghatak, Satish Bahadur, Satyajit Ray, SK Patil committee report, Vijay Saxena, Vinay Shukla
Working long years in the FTII, I have witnessed PK Nair’s career and NFAI’s growth from touching distance. Both are intertwined like eternal lovers. In its best days the place was even called Narchive.
Even today as you enter the Film Institute main gate, there is this inconspicuous hut that falls to the right. This was NFAI during my years as a student in the late 60s. There wasn’t even a nameplate there; perhaps it didn’t yet have a separate identity. Both being departments of Information and Broadcasting Ministry, NFAI had been conceived as FTII’s Adam’s rib in the same SK Patil Enquiry Committee report that started a number of other departments to promote Indian cinema.
A quiet, slightly thickset man with Kerala curls and meek smile would pass us by as we stood discussing high cinema and girls over those tiny glasses of chai. He would attract nothing more than a passing glance. His kind of demeanor would be expected when you had neither intellectual prowess nor designation and had to pass knots of boisterous students on a daily basis. PK Nair was then an under-study with Prof Satish Bahadur who had everything that his charge lacked, plus charisma. Over the next two decades both these men would complement each other and serve the cause of Indian cinema from largely overlapping positions.
My first entry inside the Archive hut was with Prof Bahadur. In a longish running front room, 6-7 people sat scattered around various tables. (It later turned out that not only had Nair chosen them in his own quiet image, but also from God’s own country.) A majority worked files and typewriters, but 2 or 3 of them were film checkers. I was familiar with their metal tables from our Editing department. Stooped over a backlit glass plate and guiding film through a white-gloved hand, they would hand-run 35mm rolls of film (occasionally 16 too) from one flat plate to another on these specialized tables. The moment you sensed a frayed edge, you stopped and repaired it on a cast iron splicer and with film cement—consistency of water, actually—applied from a used nail polish bottle.
PK Nair’s room was further inside. My earliest memory of it is that of a drab sarkari outfit: a wooden desk-and-chair next to a window, files everywhere and oversized Prabhat cupboards, largely empty, lining the walls. Then, suddenly, funds were released from Delhi and 2-3 upgrades happened in quick succession. Came an elegant glass-topped desk, a tubular swivel chair, and over half a dozen Godrej cupboards replacing old wood. When books came—hardbound, glossy, colorful and fresh smelling—it looked as if the whole film section of Manney’s had been transferred into those cupboards. Since at the time I too was dreaming of getting married to a bookseller’s daughter so I could sleep day and night with his books, I promptly fell in love with Nair’s office.
But the upgrades continued and kept going until that ultimate piece of archivist’s furniture came to the sanctum sanctorum. This was an import from Germany and both Prof Bahadur and I made a special visit to see it. Nair’s room had already been bursting with clutter but just no other room qualified for its installation. Unlike an old model in our Editing department where we were allowed rationed access to view only the final cut of our diploma films, this was a brand new Steenbeck table wholly dedicated to just watching films!
Imagine seeing a 35mm print of Battleship Potemkin on Nair’s Steenbeck! Alone, deep into the nights, surrounded by books and mood-lit by the machine’s high table lamp! A rising curl of smoke would complete the picture, except that Nair was never a smoker. Which somehow felt like a waste of resources!
PK Nair stood smiling shy, even perhaps guilty that he didn’t smoke.
4-5 years later when the Archive shifted to its present location, along with space PK inherited the aura of one of the most beautiful cottages in Pune. Done in lavish Burma teak and stone, and framed by a dense cover of greenery, the bungalow was picture postcard copy of an English cottage.
Once again, and almost to a pattern, Jaykar Bungalow had originally been an Institute acquisition, being used as girls hostel. I remember sending word and waiting for Jaya Bhaduri and Rashmi Sharma at the haloed gate “to discuss the script”. Years later I actually got to go inside with Chandita Mukherjee, Vijay Saxena and Reeta Rajgurang all the way to their dormitories at the unglamorous back. Principal Jagat Murari had had to double-role as warden in order to get to reside in the swanky front portion. “Otherwise rules wouldn’t only permit!” ordained Venkatraman, specs on nose, of the Establishment Section.
If now you were to visit Nair, instead of heading for the FTII main gate, you drove directly inside an independent premises a short distance away and left the car under an elegant porch. After signing your entry with a guard you stepped inside and took the wide wooden staircase. Three brief flights of steps took you just one floor above and there you were in front of his office. A peon took your slip inside as you waited on a sofa, absorbing ambience. This had been the exact place where in 1970 Murari received student leaders Vinay Shukla and I as he lay on a bed feigning indisposition—“my heart”—from our agitation. Now, a large blow-up of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Nargis from the 1949 Hindi film Andaz oversaw the scene and lent it a classy archival look.
On the way home from the Institute, Bahadur sahib would drop by Nair’s office almost every day. As his sidekicks, Nirad Mohapatra and I would often accompany him, first to the archive and later on home to bhabiji’s hospitality for the rest of the evening. Our strike against Mr Murari had been a success, my diploma film had won laurels, and both Nirad and I had been persuaded to join the Direction department as teachers. Nair’s nameplate at this stage said Assistant Curator. Even though heading the office all along, it took him—and a string of eminent ex-students in later years—years and years of lobbying with Delhi to first get himself a raise as Curator and eventually as Director. Bahadur sahib on the other hand lived and died as permanent Professor of Film Appreciation.
“Hullo, hullo, hullo, hullo…” Bahadur sahib would enter spraying the scene with greetings as Nair looked up to register with a leak of a smile. He would then off-load his heavy jhola on an empty chair and sit down on the next, while Nirad and I strayed inside the room checking bookshelves. Being academically inclined, Nirad always sought out Andre Bazin’s What Is Cinema? of which Nair probably had the only copy in the entire country. My own favorites at the time were yearbooks of films from different countries that featured production stills and detailed synopses of individual films. Teaching was a temporary parking for me and any place was good to pinch a possible plot for that first elusive film that I dreamt to make. Of course, as it happened, both Nirad and I ended up on the opposite sides of the divide.
“Nair, did you see my noting on such-and-such file?” Bahadur sahib would start. “I made some marginal changes but basically you are right. I think it can go.” “Have you heard from the ministry on such-and-such subject? No response even on the reminder? Maybe another one would wake them up!” “Let’s look at those books for approval now. I am busy the whole of next week and they’ve been waiting for a while.”
To us Nair’s response was nothing more than incoherent mutters but surprisingly Bahadur sahib heard him loud and clear every time.
“Slowly I would like to switch to working with smaller groups and in the interiors,” mused Bahadur sahib for the benefit of all present on another day. “Calcutta, Bombay, Madras can look after themselves, what do you think Nair?” The famous Heggodu experiment in Karnataka resulted from this thinking. Heggodu was a small village where the cashew-beetle nut farmer KV Subbanna, who later won Magsaysay Award, had started a cultural center called Ninasam. Taking film prints and projectionists from the archive and hopping transport, Prof Bahadur introduced weeklong film appreciation courses for the villagers in and around Heggodu. “Chaplin, Kurosawa, deSica are now household names in the neighboring villages!” Bahadur sahib often chuckled.
It’s over meetings such as these that both men pursued vaguest of leads and hunted down old rotting prints from remote interiors of Kolhapur or Satara or wherever else. “Do you know the lady who just left?” Prof Bahadur asked me one day after a group of Maharashtrian elders left his office. “Mandakini Phalke!” Turned out that that was Dadasaheb Phalke’s 60 years old daughter who we saw rolling eyes playing child Krishna in her father’s Shri Krishna Janm and Kalia Mardan!
This is how was started the FTII-NFAI collaborated, annual Summer Course in Film Appreciation where for a month a motley mix of critics, teachers, film society organizers, government officials handling film and both professionals as well as housewives from all over the country would come together and attend lectures, screenings, and discussions with invited filmmakers. Much as in Prof Bahadur’s classes with us, you were free to go wherever tongue carried you provided you prefaced it with an “I think…”. If nothing else a lot of people found their voice and confidence in these sessions.
And this indeed is how was dreamed, planned and executed the new archive building within the same premises next to the Jaykar Bungalow. Today all functions of the archive operate from this building while the Bungalow, sadly, stands a picture of neglect, unmaintained, unpainted, virtually decaying. Not unlike the tattered prints of old classics it once housed, Jaykar Bungalow itself is badly in need of restoration today.
Popular film culture was another of Bahadur sahib’s pet attacks, with Nirad and I joining and Nair scribbling on a pad with a smile. “It’s time universities took up film studies more seriously,” professed the professor with passion. “Surrounded by Hindi cinema day in and day out, you can hardly blame youngsters if their references are limited to inferior examples of film art. Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, are these worthies good to continue to determine the tastes of the younger generation? KA Abbas, with his sticky, socialist propaganda—rich boy, poor girl; poor boy, rich girl—please gimme a break sir!” Ritwick Ghatak, who Bahadur sahib had suffered as colleague for all of nine months that he was at the Institute, had raised more stink with his alcoholism than his noble films could clear. (Nine months, by the way, is all it took Ritwick Ghatak to ‘teach’ present, past and future students of the Institute!) Guru Dutt somehow escaped direct comment but to us even he suffered from those song and dance staples of Hindi cinema.
Bahadur sahib believed—and we agreed whole-heartedly—that after Satyajit Ray, Indian cinema needed neither apologies, nor apologists. That incompetence had better be called incompetence and shouldn’t be blamed, as had been the fashion, on some quaint, crooked “socio-economic” reasoning. That it was time the bar of Indian cinema was raised to international standards and the Indian filmmaker called upon to toe that new line. It was in this line of thinking that University Grants Commission was approached and tedious correspondence gone through. I don’t remember the outcome but places like Bhagalpur University were common to hear in that context. For good or bad, that was perhaps the first university in the country to start a film studies department.
We indulged in some petty politicking as well. “I think Murari should be sent as ambassador to an island country in the Pacific! Honestly, that’s where he belongs!” After our strike Jagat Murari had been repatriated back to Films Division but he returned in 1974 for another brief stint and was somehow a perpetual irritant to both of them. Bahadur sahib would often burst out in exasperation. “Do you realize that if Murari had his way, I would be using Raj Kapoor films instead of Pather Panchali in my classes!”
It was during this second tenure that Murari suspended the brilliant Bhaskar Chandavarkar who later resigned and left the Institute.
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 senior ex-students of the period, into near-orgasmic raptures…
(To be continued)