We celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema, yet we’re little aware of the man who painstakingly restored Dadasaheb Phalke’s work as well as several other silent pictures and talkies, and then built our country’s moving pictures archive, one film can at a time. The documentary Celluloid Man, directed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, introduces us to that man Paramesh Krishnan Nair, or PK Nair — India’s film archivist who dedicated his life’s work to preserve our history. As far back as 1969, Nair rode overnight in a newspaper van to Nasik to collect Phalke’s film reels from his son, then slowly pieced the scenes in order from studying notes that Phalke had scribbled in an old diary. Celluloid Man celebrates his unstinting devotion to archiving…and through Nair’s story we journey through a celebration of Indian cinema.
Early on during the film you realize this is story of an extraordinary man, a film hero. P K Nair, during his stint at the FTII in Pune, realized the invaluable need for an archive and went about setting one up during his career. From visits to forgotten studios, scouring through junkyard shops and bartering with international film archives, Nair set up a treasure trove of moving pictures. He was careful not to discriminate on the contents of the film; Nair was clear that as an archivist, it was important that all works of cinema be seen, and by everyone. This is illustrated in a beautiful sequence in Celluloid Man, where farmers in a remote village for whom Nair arranged screenings, speak of how works like Pather Panchali, The Bicycle Thieves, and An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge have touched them.
From the plethora of talking heads in the documentary – directors, actors, cinematographers – you realize just how much of an inspiration Nair was, how he shaped generations of film students and our cinema. Jaya Bachchan talks of how he gauged her interest in films as a student and put in a word with her warden so she could attend late-night screenings. Naseeruddin Shah laughingly recounts ‘censor cut’ trials started by Nair. Girish Kasaravalli points out how Nair’s practice of taking down notes during a screening inspired film students like him to do the same. Vidhu Vinod Chopra reveals how Nair allowed him private screenings of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless so he could study its innovative editing techniques. Through Nair’s own interviews, we learn how he collected film ticket stubs as a boy, and what it took to restore and put together the marvelous National Film Archives. Filmmakers and lovers of cinema have Nair to thank for seeking out old, sometimes rare films, and storing them for posterity, instead of letting film reels meet that inevitable fate of being stripped and sold for scrap.
Through this documentary emerges a portrait of a man who’s “intimate with cinema”, as director Mrinal Sen points out. Nair dedicated his life to building this archive – even at the cost of spending time with his own family, as his daughter Beena reveals. Indeed, this is shown in the scene where Nair discusses his long association with filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. Nair’s life revolved around cinema and he fostered relationships based on it.
Although long and occasionally indulgent, this documentary is a must-watch, particularly for film buffs, because it’s a journey in celluloid, intercut by a wondrous collection of scenes from an encyclopedia of Indian and international classics. Shot on 16mm film stock and by renowned cinematographers, Celluloid Man has a rich feel, in parts nostalgic, in parts contemporary as filmmakers ponder whether Nair’s archiving will be taken forward in the years ahead. This is an unusual tribute to a film visionary; if you’re a lover of film, I recommend that you make the time for it.