Of the 1700 films that were made in the silent era in India, only nine exist today. This number would’ve been zero, had it not been for one man. The rest have been lost, destroyed, or sold for their silver, used in a compound with halide that coated earlier forms of celluloid. It is also thanks to this one man, that we acknowledge Dadasaheb Phalke as the father of Indian cinema. It is because he literally pieced together Raja Harishchandra, India’s first indigenous film, from bits and frames he tracked down in Phalke’s house in Nasik aided by a diary with the director’s notes. And it is thanks to this man, that a large part of India’s artistic heritage has been preserved.
That man is PK Nair. And he is the Celluloid Man, India’s greatest and perhaps only legit film archivist.
Celluloid Man maybe a documentary. But this is only a façade. What it really is, is a film in love with film. Director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur unearths many unimaginable and unheard of facts as he uses PK Nair as an anchor to trace the evolution of cinema and weaves an inspiring story of a one-man army who tasked this endeavor upon himself as he went about collecting and managing over 12,000 film prints until he retired in 1991.
After failing as a filmmaker, PK Nair discovered his true calling: locating, acquiring, and restoring prints of Indian films. He singlehandedly set up the National Film Archives of India and – as the NFAI shares its campus with FTII, the Film and Television Institute of India – is the man who impacted the minds of multiple generations of the country’s finest filmmakers and movie technicians as they relied upon him for their dose of classic world and Indian cinema. Often, he advised them on their own exercises.
The narrative builds around PK Nair’s own personal accounts that he tweezes out of his elephantine memory, interviews with his contemporaries at the Archives, and colleagues and students who knew him well. This list comprises of the who’s who of Indian cinema – Yash Chopra, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Rajkumar Hirani, Shyam Benegal, Saeed Mirza, and Vidhu Vinod Chopra to name only a few.
Memories, anecdotes, revisits to landmarks (a superb story set in Heggodu, Karnataka where villagers discuss Bergman and Kurosawa is a highlight), and clips of classics – some of them never seen before on the big screen – make for an enthralling and educational viewing.
A significant agenda of Celluloid Man is to highlight the government’s lack of initiative when it comes to archiving its cinematic heritage. How else does one account for the loss of the print of Alam Ara, India’s first talkie and the fire in 2003 at the NFAI that destroyed thousands of original pre-1950s nitrate prints, most of which had no copies. Dungarpur himself had to wait a year-and-a-half and eleven meetings to get permission to shoot in the NFAI premises when all his intention was to further its cause.
While PK Nair’s contribution is there for you to see, let us not forget Dungarpur’s phenomenal effort in putting this film together. It would take a person whose passion for the subject is at the very least equal to Nair’s. This is a not a flashy idea born out of perception of what the audience wants; it’s what Dungarpur wants. And it is a truly monumental and honest effort in which he takes no short cuts.
To avoid any ironies, he shoots on film (rare is the documentary shot on actual celluloid these days) as he works with a dozen acclaimed cinematographers including K.U. Mohanan, Mahesh Anay, and Kiran Deohans. This makes for a top-notch production technically. Dungarpur’s zeal has resulted in a somewhat unstructured and overly long film, but when the knowledge to be shared is encyclopedic, who’s complaining?
So then, if you have any attachment to the movies, get ready to be dazzled by the story of PK Nair and his tales as he literally went on to reconstruct the history of Indian films frame by frame.
There can hardly be a better way to celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema.