Interview with P. K. Nair - Founder and ex-Director of National Film Archives of India
1) You contributed to the creation of the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) in 1964. Could you tell me more about your specific role over the years?
From the creation of the Film Institute (FII, now FTII) in Pune in 1961 and until the creation of NFAI in 1964, I was in charge of the book and film library of the institute. One of my duties was to come up with a blue print for the creation of the first film archive in India. So, I borrowed ideas from abroad, from the US, the British film archives, the French cinémathèque and so on. So, the idea of NFAI grew out of the Film Institute.
Yet, there was no concept of archiving in India and nobody understood what a film archive was at the Institute, they associated the archive with the Institute's film library. From 1954, each film receiving a national award had to be deposited to the government. So, by 1964, the initial collection of NFAI included about 100 of such award-winning films. The first mission of NFAI consisted is preserving award-winning films. But then, we were advised by foreign film archives to preserve popular films too, those that did well at the box-office, because they reflected the tastes of the people at a particular time. But they were prints, not negatives. The life of a print is reduced with every screening and can only last for about 200 screenings. The need of preserving pre-print materials was not understood. Under my leadership, for each film collected, we would make one master print (for conservation) and one release print (for screenings).
In the conception of NFAI, it was made clear that it should be an independent body, with autonomy of functioning. At first, the director of the Institute was also heading the archives, but after two or three years, I took over.
The films were preserved on the same premises as those of the national film school, which is a very rare advantage for the students, who could see all these films. These screenings were part of the curriculum.
Between 1913 and 1932 (the silent era), we estimate that approximately 1500 films have been produced, but we were only able to get bits and pieces of these films. International co-productions with the UK and other countries were easier to get. So, we did collect reels of films from Russia, Australia, France, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy... Even now, we only have nine or ten complete silent films, out of which half were collected abroad.
Finding film reels can happen under various and unpredicted circumstances. For instance, I remember my friend from the Royal Film Archives of Thailand contacting me one day, after finding three reels of an unidentified Indian film lying on the floor of an old theatre in Bangkok. The reels were sent back to India through the embassy, but the complete film contained 6 reels, and we only found 3. Overall, finding and preserving films was all about creating a network of people.
The NFAI has 75% of the Prabhat Studio films, simply because the archives and the institute were located on the studio's premises. They were kept in good condition until 2001, when a fire – due to human negligence – destroyed a large part of the collection. I officially retired from NFAI in 1991, after that the mission of NFAI was not well sustained. But I continued to be a member of the archives' governing council.
2) What were the main official policies and historical events that influenced the development and evolution of the documentary film sector over the period 1948-1975?
First, let me say that the documentary in India dates back to the early films of Dadasaheb Phalke (considered the pioneer of Indian cinema). He made 'The Growth of the Pea Plant', showing how a seed sprouted into a plant. Other films on a brick lane, on glass manufacturing were also made in the late 19th, early 20th century. But the word 'documentary' did not exist at the time, the terms 'actuality film' or 'topical' were in use. Such films were made very early on in India and improved over time. They were shown along feature films.
Later, during the Second World War, the British colonial government understood the importance of the documentary to explain to Indians why they should fight in the war. They formed the Indian News Parade for newsreels and the Information Film of India for documentaries and implemented compulsory screenings in every theatre in India. Yet, they not only covered war propaganda issues, but also other subjects on India, such as dance and music traditions, Indian Women, All India Radio... Alexander Shaw, a British and a disciple of the British film movement, was the head of the IFI, but Indian filmmakers made the films. They all came from the feature film industry and were later asked to make films for Films Division. So, this gave a special flavor to the films.
After independence in 1947, these units were seen as instruments of British propaganda and therefore were dismantled. This explains why there is no Indian footage of the raise of the Indian flag on the day of the celebration of India's independence. Nehru soon realised the importance of the documentary, in order to explain how the government spent people's taxes. And Films Division was created in 1948, which partly used staff from the former British film units. The plan was to release one newsreel and one documentary per week, and the compulsory screening rule was maintained. But, they would make a lot of lousy films, thus this usual recollection of people getting out of the theatres for a smoke during FD films' screenings... Spectators did not realise that there were some interesting films too.
- Dr. Camille Deprez (2015)