A tribute to an extraordinary man called Mr PK Nair, who built the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) film can by film can in a country where the archiving of its cinema is considered unimportant.
Celluloid Man is more than just a biographical documentary. It can be interpreted as a full-length feature film that documents the journey of a man committed to creating and sustaining a new kind of cultural archive for the benefit of posterity. It is not only a biographical fleshing out of the life of Indian’s cinema first and only archivist, but also the cultural and descriptive history of the building up of the first and largest film archive in the country. At times it seems as if you are watching the history of Indian cinema unfold in front of you seen through Mr Nair, the subject and the man who made him the subject, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. Yet, a card during the credits says how Shivendra Singh Dungarpur had to wait for one-and-a-half year and eleven meetings before he could get the permission to shoot some portions of the film in the National Film Archive of Pune founded in 1964 by Nair himself.
The opening frames, shot in half-lit, B & W, open into a square of light inside the archive with the focus on Nair’s walking stick preceding him and then he enters, leaning on his stick, slowly, his mane of hair framing his round face like always, but now turned white. “Cinema started as a wonder and magic which became an obsession and then a passion. Today, it is a part of me. I began to understand people better with my knowledge of cinema,” says Nair, slowly and softly in his unassuming manner, shot against the backdrop of a huge screen showing clips from Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara.
The camera pans caressingly across strips of celluloid, framing shots of shelves willed with cans of films as the soundtrack plays lines from Door Hato Ae Duniyawalo Hindustan Hamara Hai from the Bombay Talkies’ hit, Kismet. Nair recalls as a boy and during his growing years, how he kept collecting bits and pieces of cinema in the shape of ticket stubs of films he had seen, the small card tickets that came out of weighing machines with a picture of some star and a few lines about the star written underneath, which suggest his passion for preservation that spilled over and into his personal life so much that somewhere over the film, his daughter recalls how they got to see very little of him during his working years because he left early in the morning and came home very late.
One can hear the sound of a movie projector playing often in the backdrop, dotted with clips of historic films like Raja Harishchandra, Kalia Mardan, Hunterwalli, or a picture postcard of Watson’s Hotel, Bombay where one of the first films of Lumiere Brothers, Arrival of a Train was screened. The NFAI was housed in a hutment in the beginning. In 1969, Nair travelled to Nashik to visit the Phalke’s son to find if he could collect the films Phalke had made. He could collect bits and pieces that had to be connected to make a whole film. “We did not know the order of the clips we had collected. But Dadasaheb Phalke had kept a handwritten notebook and this helped us combine the bits and pieces to make the six-reel film and make it one whole film,” Nair reminisces.
Celluloid Man throws up an encyclopaedic volume of information about world cinema in general and Indian cinema in particular, beginning from its early history, pointing out again and again, the significance of building, sustaining and evolving a film archive that is an integral part of a country’s cultural and social history. Nair’s first memories of watching his first film was in the 1940s. “I was about seven or eight, a sat on a floor with shiny white sand to watch a film made by K Subrahmanyam who made mythologicals. We had tent cinemas at that time and films that left a deep impression on me are Vigilante’s Return, Cecil De Mille’s Unconquered, Blue Earrings and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend,” recalls Nair.
The film is filled with talking heads – stalwarts from Indian cinema ranging from Mrinal Sen, Yash Chopra, Ramesh Sippy, Kamal Haasan through Shyam Benegal, Mahesh Bhatt and Gulzar, FTII alumni who are now well-known figures who had the opportunity of closely interacting with Nair during their years in the FTII – Balu Mahendra, Ketan Mehta, cinematographer Venu, Jaya Bachchan, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Hariharan, Saeed Mirza, Kumar Shahani, Naseeruddin Shah, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Girish Kasaravalli, Santosh Sivan, film historian Nasreen Munni Kabir, Suresh Chhabria, film critic Rashid Irani and many more. Their memories of Nair create a beautiful collage of a man who is an institution unto himself in the sense that each one has something different but complimentary anecdote to recount. In retrospect however, the film stands tall on its own even without the back-up of these stalwarts of Indian cinema.
“When I was planning Murder at Monkey Hill as a student, Mr Nair asked me to watch Goddard’s Breathless and I wanted a 16 mm print he fetched out for me. When I watched the film, I could understand why he had suggested it. It helped me create and decide on my editing pattern for my film,” says Vidhu Vinod Chopra.
Nair recalls how when he went in search of prints of India’s first talkie Alam Ara to Ardeshir Irani’s office, the old man was still alive and his son, Shapurji Irani, was standing beside him.“As we were clambering down the stairs, Shapur confessed that he had sold the film’s reels and other films himself for the silver that could be obtained from the nitrate based films. At that time, the selling price of the reels was Rs.100/kg for 35mm film,” says Nair. He considers Henri Langlois, a master archivist of cinema of the Cinematheque in Paris his mentor who he met personally when he went to Paris.
Though Nair retired in 1990 and went away to Trivandrum where he had built his home with circular rooms, he was not really happy there and after his wife passed away, he returned to Pune which, he says, was the place where he spent the best years of his life. Says Dungapur who is a restorer of ‘lost’ films himself, “As a student at the Film Institute, Pune, I remembered Mr Nair as a shadowy figure in the darkened theatre, scribbling industriously in a notebook by the light of a tiny torch, winding and unwinding reels of film, shouting instructions to the projectionist and always, always watching films. We were all a little in awe of him and had to muster up the courage to climb the creaking wooden stairs to his office to request to watch a particular film. He is the only person I know who can tell you exactly in which reel of a film a particular scene can be found.” This comes across in the film where we see Nair walk through the narrow alleys between the shelves, touching them with love, mentioning the names and even stating the reel in which a given song can be found. His approach is no-nonsense, forthright and very simple – as if he is talking about something very ordinary like the time of day. He talks about the Heggodu Movement begun by theatre activist KV Subanna who began a film appreciation course in a village in Kerala in 1975 where there was no theatre. The rural audience would walk out of a screening discussing Bergman! Subanna wanted to bring about social awareness through cinema to impart a value system for the local people.
Nair says that there were 12000 titles at the NFAI when he left around 1991 of which 8000 were Indian films. He did not ‘choose’ which films to stock in the archive and which films were not worthy of the archive. He believes that every single film ever made has its own distinctive value. Sadly, after his departure, the NFAI is no more what it was. Benegal succinctly says, “He created all this but after him, nothing.” The West, Nair says somewhere in the film, does not have a rich past but it is rich in history. India has a rich past but is poor in history. The film brings this out tellingly.
The making of Celluloid Man is outstanding. The cinematography, handled by some of the best cinematographers in the country among which there are FTII graduates who knew Nair personally, mostly uses low-key light effects lucidly pans across places Nair visited on his unending quest for films. The low key is in keeping with Nair’s low-key personality and soft manner of speaking. Celluloid Man is a biographical film, a journey film, an ethnographic documentary and a historical film all rolled into one. Every student of cinema, every cinema lover, every filmmaker and archivist should watch this film not once, but again and again. Well done, Dungarpur.
Documentary, English, Color and Black and White