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Celluloid Man review: Pure cinema gold!

Celluloid Man
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
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Its not every day you get to see something like this on the big screen. And Celluloid Man screening in the week marking the 100th year of Indian cinema is perfectly apt.

The documentary traces legendary film archivist P.K Nair’s journey from setting up the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) till present time.

In the beginning of the film we watch Nair gingerly climb up the stairs to see a room that used to be his old office. “There used to be a glass cupboard full of books. Wonder what happened,” he says with a hint of dejection. With a stack of papers and other things filling the place, it looks like a storeroom.

Why do authorities have an animosity towards Nair, asks director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and he gets one reply. The man being interviewed says perhaps it was Nair’s “one-upmanship and frank nature” that got him into trouble.

Which is why Dungarpur took months to get permission for Nair to be shot in the Archive building. It’s indeed tragic that while the outside world eulogizes Nair, even calling him “cinema god”, the Archive is yet to understand the value of his contribution.

Shyam Benegal goes on to state how film preservation is still not considered important by people in-charge and speaks of the abysmal condition in which prints are being stored. “No one is bothered,” he says. Of course, all this has happened only after Nair’s retirement.

His work during his tenure has been monumental. From going to corners of India to acquire prints, to officially paying for them, to bartering rare prints from foreign archives— it was through his consistent efforts that NFAI has an enviable library of Indian and international classics. While Nair often had to make a barter exchange of prints to get foreign films into the archive, he recollects the generosity of the Russian Archives that gifted several films to India.

The documentary takes us through dizzying stories about how Nair got hold of some of the prints— he got Kaliya Mardan (1917), Dadasaheb Phalke’s only complete film at the archive from Phalke’s son. The reels were all mixed up, and Nair pieced them together with the help of a notebook that Phalke had left behind. Another story has Nair refusing to let the director take his own film’s print from the Archive building.

“Maybe there was an archivist in me even then,” says Nair recounting his childhood and his propensity to collect the tickets of every movie he watched. His father was vehemently against his growing interest in cinema, but Nair had decided he was going to Mumbai to become a filmmaker. Of course fate had another plan and Nair started his tryst with the Archive in the ‘60s.

Several ex-FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) students, now industry stalwarts, remember the image of Nair sitting through film screenings all day making notes. As Saeed Mirza says, “A little light and a man with a pen. That was P.K. Nair.”

Director Ketan Mehta, even confesses to breaking into his office just to see what he wrote in those notebooks. And he was surprised to find painstakingly detailed notes of the prints and their quality.

Vidhu Vinod Chopra talks of the time when he went to Nair saying he wanted to study Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, enamoured as he was with its smooth editing. Nair offered the print to Chopra for a full two hours, and the ex-student remains grateful still.

The documentary delves into Nair’s equation with Ritwik Ghatak. Ghatak, known to be temperamental, often ordered which film should be screened (he detested Bergman). Nair would comply but also screen his own selected film. The students were thrilled with these altercations as they got to watch two films!

What fills your heart completely is Nair’s efforts to take world cinema to the India’s rural areas. And it’s the rarest of rare treats to view a peon talk about Roshomon and a farmer about Apur Sansar.

The documentary intersperses Nair’s incredible journey with scenes from precious classics like Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar and Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara, Uday Shankar’s Kalpana, Renoir’s River, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Godard’s Breathless and the Japanese film Double Suicide.

Plus the viewer gets to hear film stalwarts talk about cinema and about Nair, not that the two are exclusive. Sitara Devi reminisces about the time Alam Ara released and her rendition is one of the most entertaining segments of the documentary.

Nair himself said he tried not to bring his judgment in the selection of films, saying that all films were equally important from an archival point of view. And when you hear of film prints not being preserved, it breaks your heart. Precious film reels are often sold and you watch the reels weighed and the film images ‘cleaned’ off the reels to reuse them to make everyday things.

From his taking down notes, to helping students with screening films they were interested in, to the ‘unofficial’ Censor Cut Sunday screenings that showed scenes removed by the censor board, Nair loved the movies and most importantly, realized the importance of preserving them and showing them to anyone who asked.

As director Mrinal Sen says, “Nair ate and drank movies.” Calling cinema a part of our history and heritage, Nair says he misses the smell of film and the pleasure of taking a film reel out to check its condition. He says ruefully that he finds something missing in the images of today, but must live with the reality of the situation.

If you’re half as passionate about cinema, head to the theatre before it’s too late. This archive of Nair’s journey, and consequently of Indian cinema, HAS to be watched on the big screen.

Rating: Four stars


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