Half a century of contributions to cinema

Half a century of contributions to cinema

HN Narahari Rao, Nani VN, Subba Rao and N Lakshminarayan at inauguration of Suchitra Film Society in 1971.

One of the founders of BIFFes and the festival’s artistic director for the first six editions, HN Narahari Rao is not a frequent visitor to the festival anymore. “I can’t sit through movies in that AC,” says Rao, 78.

One of the pioneers of the film society movement in India, he is one of the founders of Suchitra Cinema and Cultural Academy, and much later, one of the founders of BIFFes.

Even as Rao describes cinema simply as a “hobby”, his knowledge in the area has brought him national acclaim and international recognition over the years. He has been a jury member at some of the most respected film festivals in the world, including Cannes.

He was the president of the India division of the international critics’ body FIPRESCI for many years, and even two years after he stepped down, Rao is still listed as the Indian president on the FIPRESCI website.

Rao was handed the mantle of the president of the Film Federation of India from director Shyam Benegal, thereby becoming the first non-filmmaker to take on that task.

Even as he earned his livelihood as an engineer, he did not let himself be limited by it. “That was my job, but people today know me by hobby.”

He, however, said the first time he was introduced to serious international cinema, “some French film with subtitles”, he could not make out what was happening because “it was a time before people knew how to use subtitles”.

Sitting in the study, where his computer has countless films in its hard drive, his cupboards hundreds of DVDs and books on cinema (many authored by him), Rao was happy to show photos of him with the stalwarts of Indian cinema. But he seemed most happy to talk about Satyajit Ray.

“He was such a wonderful man. I had called him up to invite him for the inauguration for the Suchitra auditorium. He got very excited. ‘A film society is building its own auditorium?’ he said surprised”.

Ray had one condition: “don’t bother about my expenses. I will come there on my own.” Ray did not even let Rao foot his bill at Ashoka hotel. “I know you guy don’t have the money after the auditorium,” Rao remembered Ray as saying.

Although the pioneer of film societies in the state, he says the time for such organisations have passed as even rare films are easily available on the internet today.

Rao is more interested in social service in “the last days of my life”. The school that he studied in was recently made ‘co-ed’ but there was no provision for a toilet for the girls.

Rao and two others collected over Rs 1.5 lakh to build the toilet.

“I don’t have the money,” he laughs, “but I am the man who built the Suchitra film society, so people are willing to contribute for my social service.” He recently had a bypass surgery and his doctor has advised him to walk regularly.

The fag end of this interview was conducted during one of his walks, and before saying goodbye, Rao said, “I have done so much for cinema in this state, including the film society and the festival, but the government has not recognised my contributions in any way. But that is okay, it doesn’t matter.” He smiled and walked away into the park near his house to finish his walk.