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The Archive of a Postcolonial Film Archive
On the upper floor of the elegant Jaykar Bungalow in Pune is a dusty room with a weary wooden roof, jaded windows, and cobwebs all over. Once home to the administrative office of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), the old bungalow now serves as a security post and a warehouse within the NFAI premises.1 The room remains locked for the most part, its surroundings cluttered with steel trunks, packing boxes, wooden boards, an old typewriter, and a framed poster of Assoiffé (Guru Dutt’s 1957 film Pyaasa in French) lying on its side. Gracing the poster are the captivating faces of the lead actors Waheeda Rahman and Dutt, now knocked over, seemingly gazing at a battered chair close by, a poetic testament to the apathy suffered by old films and their paraphernalia in the largest film-producing nation in the world.2 [End Page 99]
Acting as an “archive of the archive,” the locked room houses a collection of hundreds of old files from the NFAI. Small, unremarkable, and unlikely to get Walter Benjamin excited, this archive is a far cry from the image of a large state institution the term archive conjures. It corresponds well neither with the a priori of knowledge described by Michel Foucault nor the authoritarian repository of records described by Jacques Derrida.3 Instead, it is a minor brick-and-mortar realization of the exalted ideal, more in line with Carolyn Steedman’s abode of dust and bureaucratic detritus, and not unlike hundreds of other such incidental archives scattered across the globe, especially in developing nations.4 Inside it, under an aging ceiling fan and a dim lamp, are files that have remained undisturbed for decades, stacked atop one another on rows of steel shelves and in small piles on the floor.
These files contain crucial traces of the history of the NFAI from its earliest days. Many of them, despite being relatively new in archival terms, are torn and crumbling from years of neglect.5 Still, they exist, because in a culture yet to wake up to the importance of archiving, a particularly insolent film archivist at the NFAI named Paramesh Krishnan Nair, suffering from archive fever that extended beyond films, decided to disregard official procedures and retained old records rather than destroying them selectively.6 They also exist because his successors at the NFAI respected his decision without questioning his motives and continued to hold on to the records long after his retirement. And they come to light today because the NFAI staff, performing admirably under many constraints and general indifference from the government, rediscovered them and helped me sift through them to reconstruct the prehistory of their institution.
These files cannot have been saved by Nair all alone, for a few predate his appointment at the NFAI, and some belong to other government departments and should not have ideally made their way to the NFAI.7 Still others are unnamed and un-numbered, a compilation of linked documents held loosely together. Nair himself has little recollection of the oldest ones, making their exact provenance difficult to ascertain.8 Supplementing them are more files from the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) at the National Archive of India in New Delhi, many of which were initially “Not Traceable” but started making slow appearances after repeated requests spread over the course of months.9 Understanding them required multiple interviews with Nair and other old timers, some aged ninety, who battled their aching bones and failing memories to patiently answer questions and fill the gaps.10
Together, these files and interviews narrate the incomprehensive and fragmented history of the making of the NFAI outlined in this essay. This “prehistory” [End Page 100] privileges the network of actors who helped create the institution in the context of postcolonial India’s idiosyncratic investment in cultural institutions, the numerous bureaucratic impediments to the NFAI’s eventual founding, and the irrationality inherent in “rational” bureaucratic planning.11 It takes note of the underappreciated labor that...