Celluloid Man spotlights the work of P.K. Nair, who, almost single-handedly, has preserved India’s unique film heritage. For director-producer Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, his first feature-length documentary project was a monumental task as well. Celluloid Man was shot using 11 cinematographers and almost as many KODAK Film stocks. The documentary examines the remarkable work of Nair who founded the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). Featuring stalwarts from world cinema who were influenced by Nair and his work, it also looks at their experiences and the need to improve film preservation efforts.
“Nair built the Archive can by can in a country where the archiving of cinema is considered unimportant,” explains Dungarpur. “It is thanks to him that the Archive still has nine precious silent films of the 1,700 silent films made in India, and that Dadasaheb Phalke is recognized as the ‘father of Indian cinema.’”
Other treasures of the NFAI’s film collection are the silent films of Himansu Rai and Franz Osten; the independent works of Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, and more; several great films from companies and studios of the 1930s and 1940s such as the Prabhat Film Company, New Theatres, and Bombay Talkies, among others; as well as prints from mainstream cinema and new Indian cinema.
Nair has influenced generations of Indian filmmakers and shown us new worlds through the prism of cinema. “As Nair speaks, we see the history of Indian cinema unfold,” says Dungarpur. “What emerges is a portrait of a man so in love with cinema that even his family had to take a back seat to his obsession. Although now retired, he chooses to stay across the road from the Archive, watching over his legacy. The man is a living breathing museum.”
Dungarpur began his career as an assistant director to his mentor Gulzar, a writer-lyricist-director-poet. On Gulzar’s suggestion, Dungarpur enrolled in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune to study film directing and scriptwriting. After graduating from FTII, he launched himself as a producer-director under the banner Dungarpur Films in 2001. Dungarpur has directed about 400 commercials for top advertising agencies and brands.
His idea for the documentary took shape about two years ago following a casual conversation with other cinephiles who were discussing Nair. Dungarpur decided to visit him and was dismayed with what he saw. The Archive was in a poor state with rusting cans lying in the grass, thick cobwebs hanging from the shelves in the vaults and Nair’s old office turned into a junkyard. Determined that this man’s legacy should not be forgotten, Dungarpur undertook almost a dozen visits to convince the authorities to let him film with Nair at the Archive. “One of the most memorable shoots for me,” Dungarpur recalls, “was when we traveled to a village in south India where Nair had enabled the screening of films and the local farmers were talking about Satyajit Ray and (Ingmar) Bergman.
“I used 11 directors of photography to shoot the documentary, most of whom had graduated from the Film Institute in Pune where I had studied filmmaking,” continues Dungarpur. “All these DPs wanted to be part of the project for the same reason as me; they all had the same sentiment for Nair.”
The film was shot on 16mm and 35mm, and printed to 35mm. The team used several stocks ranging from black-and-white 16mm to color negative film. “The documentary contains clips in various formats from the early days of cinema and I thought it would be interesting that as the history of cinema unfolds, I could use different stocks,” notes Dungarpur. “I was clear that this project had to be shot on film as Nair is a man who has devoted his entire life to collecting film cans and preserving actual films. I just love the smell of film, and in my days at the Institute we were constantly touching film either on the STEENBECK or in the projection room. So for me it had to be film, it couldn’t be anything else but film.”
Cinematographer Aveek Mukhopadhyay agrees. “Shivi (Dungarpur) dreamt this film and I joined in along with many others, primarily as a friend then as a cinematographer. I strongly feel only film can make a cinematic dream possible. In the tactile movement of the grain, one can see a dream come true. So, whenever I get a chance I use film as my image-making medium. Shivi also thinks the same way.”
Santosh Thundiyil, another DP on the project, echoes this sentiment. “We were documenting a person who has dedicated his life to film and the awareness of cinema, how could we use anything other than film? It is the only medium capable of archiving anything for a long time. We have seen hundreds of video and digital formats come and go over a period of time, but film has remained constant for over a century.
“We were documenting a person who has dedicated his life to film and the awareness of cinema, how could we use anything other than film? it’s the only medium capable of archiving anything for a long time.”
“Film also has its own unique universal language,” he continues. “For me, digital formats in whatever resolution lack the seriousness and thought processes of film. Before a film camera rolls, there is a moment of thoughtful silence which translates the light energy through complex chemical processes into each frame of love and affection of whatever you believe in.”
Cinematographer R.V. Ramani adds, “In Celluloid Man, the subject of the film is beautifully embedded in the choice of the format. The idea of doing this documentary on film emphasizes the status of film and reminds the audience of this particular format.”
Perhaps the final words are best left to Dungarpur who says, “Celluloid Man was screened at the Il Cinema Ritrovato (Cinema Re-discovered) Festival in Bologna, Italy, in June, and was very well received. I hope that this documentary will be seen by as many people as possible because it is not just about a man who loves films but also about the importance of preserving and restoring our cinematic heritage.”
Beyond Celluloid Man, Dungarpur continues his mission and commitment to the preservation and restoration of cinema in many ways. He travels the world to meet and conduct on-camera interviews with great masters of cinema for his personal archive. He is a patron of the British Film Institute and a donor for the restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent classic The Lodger. He also facilitated the restoration of Uday Shankar’s 1948 Indian classic Kalpana, a preservation effort of the World Cinema Foundation, which was co-founded by Martin Scorsese. The restored film screened in the classics section of 2012 Cannes Film Festival.