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Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow

It was but natural that legendary archivist and  ‘Celluloid Man’ PK Nair’s last wish was that his personal collection of books, journals and diaries be handed over the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) to preserve after he passes on. The FHF is a not-for-profit organization based in Mumbai that was established in 2014 by filmmaker and archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. Recognizing the urgent need to preserve India’s rich cinematic heritage, the foundation is dedicated to supporting the conservation, preservation and restoration of the moving image while developing interdisciplinary educational programs that will use film as an educational tool and create awareness about the language of cinema.

According to Dungarpur, when he went through the material after Nair passed away on 4th of March, 2016, it proved to be a treasure trove of Nair’s writings, delving into personal experiences and thoughts on cinema. It lent itself easily in book form as a compilation of his varied and astute observations on a medium he gave his life to. Yesterday’s Films for Tomorrow contains Nair’s evocative memories of movie-going in the 1940s, and working with Mehboob Khan, the legendary director of Mother India, as well as a first-person account of how Phalke’s Kaliya Mardan and several other lost films were salvaged and ultimately preserved.  Opinion pieces present views on the need to preserve films and the threats posed by the digital age, while a section on Indian film history provides fascinating insights into the little-known  silent era. Other highlights include an illustrated survey of poster art, and Nair’s ‘notes in the dark’:  his essays on themes ranging from regional cinema to the use of song in Indian cinema and Devdas‘ many avatars, drawn from a lifetime of watching movies.

The book is being released on April 6, 2017 in Mumbai on the occasion of Nair’s 84th birth anniversary. Amitabh Bachchan will release the book while Naseeruddin Shah will be reading out passages from the compilation, which has been edited by Rajesh Devraj.

Following is a little extract from the essay titled Mehboob As I Knew Him, which we are reprinting with FHF’s permission.

Watching Mehboob at work was a unique experience. Rarely had I seen a film unit work with such close coordination and precision. As soon as Mehboob came on the set, everyone became alert, and the speed at which the properties were rearranged and the artistes reassembled and coached according to his direction was really a sight to see. Faredoon A Irani, Mehboob’s perennial cameraman (Faredoonji to the members of the unit), was giving instructions to the lighting boys, and Chimankant Gandhi, his chief assistant, another familiar figure in all his films, was actively supervising the stage management. Master Sajid, a devil of a child with the airs of a Dilip Kumar in the making, had to be put in the right mood; Mehboob had a special knack of getting the most spontaneous expressions out of this boy. The unit members thoroughly enjoyed watching Sajid’s performance.

I distinctly recall the shot of Sajid asking for laddus from his grandma (Jilloobai), who was feeding the Brahmins at the shraddha ceremony held after the death of the head of the family. As soon as the shot was over, I was surprised to see the camera had gone up to the catwalks and was fixed in the girders for a top-angle shot. I was amazed at the split-second speed with which the change of camera set-up took place and Faredoonji announced he was ready for the take. Sometimes, Mehboob would disappear from the sets all of a sudden in the middle of shooting, and you would find him outside, in the studio garden, doing his namaaz. Mehboob was indeed a deeply religious man, and I used to hear stories from the studio workers of how he started his career as an extra in films and was practically sleeping at the Grant Road station when he came to Bombay from his hometown Bilimora; how despite the fact that he was illiterate and did not have any formal education, he rose from his low beginnings to become a movie tycoon with one of the most up-to-date and well- equipped studios in Bombay, and a number of successful and significant films to his credit. No doubt, he thanked Allah for all he had achieved.

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