sat 13/07/2024

Celluloid Man: Preserving the heritage of Indian cinema | reviews, news & interviews

Celluloid Man: Preserving the heritage of Indian cinema

Celluloid Man: Preserving the heritage of Indian cinema

Outstanding documentary tribute to living legend of film conservation, PK Nair

Reflections of the past: PK Nair in the vaults of India's National Film Archive

This April is proving the kindest month for cinephiles. Hot on the heels of Mark Cousins’ engrossing A Story of Children and Film comes another documentary about cinema of captivating, encyclopaedic interest, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Celluloid Man. The director’s immediate subject is PK Nair, the man who created India’s National Film Archive (NFA).

It’s thanks to Nair that many early classics of that nation’s film heritage – India is as cinema-centred a country as any in the world, with many of its national languages giving rise to distinct branches of the industry – have been preserved at all. Though, given the slowness to appreciate that film would prove a lasting cultural phenomenon rather than a passing entertainment product – a slowness evidenced everywhere in the world, not only in India – Celluloid Man is also by extension about what’s been lost, the perennial tribulation of the archivist-conservator.

But the wider context is Indian cinema itself, an entity of which film-lovers outside India know so little. There’s a name-check for the late Satyajit Ray in Celluloid Man, and Mrinal Sen appears in interview, as do a few other directors of whom I had heard, but the film features scores of cinema people of whom I hadn’t. You suspect many were new even for that master researcher of world cinema, Mark Cousins, who fittingly provides a foreword in the DVD booklet for this release from Second Run. His opening sentence captures the magic of Celluloid Man as well as anything: “Why write about this film, one of the best movies ever made about cinema? Out of excitement, certainly. Watching Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s gathering masterpiece is like being on an ocean liner gliding on a calm sea – you don’t want the slow grandeur to end.”

I spoke with Dungarpur (pictured right) in March in London, where he was visiting for discussions with the British Film Institute on both promotion of Indian film, and advice on film conservation; since completion of this film the director has established his Film Heritage Foundation, to preserve, restore and educate on film preservation in India. The BFI link is a natural one, since the Indian archive was created not least on the Institute's experience, particularly on that of Ernest Lindgren, the founder of Britain’s film archive (though it’s the shadow of the great, eccentric French cinéaste Henri Langlois, of the Cinémathèque Française, that really casts international presence here).

How did he come upon his subject? “PK Nair is the man single-handedly responsible for preserving India’s film heritage,” Dungarpur said. “And that is truly India – I don’t mean just Bollywood. He went around collecting films from different parts of India. We make films in 17 languages, over 1,000 a year. If you’re looking for someone who has united India cinematically, that’s PK Nair.”

He first encountered Nair in his first year at the Indian national film school in Pune in 1994, shortly before Nair's (semi-)retirement. The school and the archive were adjacent, and shared a cinema, where Nair (pictured left) would be in attendance morning to night, noting down technical details about film prints in a neat notebook. A visit more than a decade later to an Italian festival devoted to film restoration, and re-encounters with some of the films he had first seen at Pune, sent Dungarpur back to talk to Nair, whose attempt at retirement hadn’t come to much: he’d left his comfortable family home in the South to return to Pune, to be close to his “baby”, the archive.

That started Dungarpur on the journey that led to these 150 minutes of glorious cinema: “For three years we were following Nair Saab – it was a very organic process. Somewhere along the way I discovered myself through the film. I followed him and discovered what he was discovering.” It dots around the glorious landscapes of India (the visual poetry is hugely evocative), collecting Nair’s past experiences and the memories of his acquaintances, rather as in his decades at the archive Nair himself had retrieved rusting film cans from all over the country to bring home to Pune. Dungarpur worked with 11 cinematographers – all themselves graduates of the national film school, effectively Nair’s disciples, too – and every kind of stylistic variety, colour as well as black and white, 35 and 16 mm, and playful variations on dissolve shots. “The images were from different sources, different cameras, different media, different formats – so it made more sense to see it through the eyes of different people.”

These are anything but 'talking head' interviews (though there’s a lot of talking), rather fully-staged vignettes

There’s similar richness of material, from memories of a grandfather’s private collection of Chaplin 16mm prints, screened by a personal projectionist on an ancestral balcony, through to the nut farmers in a rural community in the South remembering, after an unexpected festival encounter, the impact of Ingmar Bergman (the two foreign films mentioned most frequently here are de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Kurosawa’s Rashomon). There are memories of unexpected screenings, like the Sunday morning viewings of “censored” episodes (they had to be deposited in the archive, so Nair had to see them, and invited students), to the song compilations to mark the festival of Holi, or the night when an eminent director woke Nair up at three in the morning demanding to see Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew: the projectionist was summoned, the film rolled, and the discussions went on until breakfast. These are anything but “talking head” interviews (though there’s a lot of talking), rather fully-staged vignettes which capture so much of histories and life stories that are moving into the past.

Because Celluloid Man has a strong element of sadness to it, not quite nostalgia, but a sense of time moving on. We see the rusting film cans, and the reels of celluloid being stripped for their silver content. There are the statistics which remind us that, for example, from one prolific generation of silent films from one of the South Indian film industries, only one work remains today out of dozens. There’s the fact that even today, India has a “mandatory archive deposit” practice only for films which win national awards – that’s roughly 30 films a year in a country that, as has been said, makes close to a thousand. Certainly the chances of their survival in some form are better now in the digital age, but that itself is another cause for reflection, on the loss of that wonderful “smell of film”, the richness of celluloid that digital lacks. Dungarpur speaks for himself: “The movie-going experience, the experience of celluloid was the reason I signed up to be a film-maker… And film is a reflection of our time, in which we live, an attempt to understand who we are, where we came from and where we are heading.”

And finally there is the sense of aging, as we watch Nair, now 82 and living in a one-bedroom flat in Pune, shuffle through the rooms, now effectively junk storage spaces, that had been in his time the scenes of his boundless activity. The wider context to this is that no one at the archive today seems to have anything like Nair’s energy or dedication, and that the collections in the vaults are not being kept in the condition they should be (PK Nair among his collection, main picture). Clearly his relations today with his former workplace leave something to be desired too, given that Dungarpur had to put considerable effort into receiving permission to film his subject on the territory of the archive itself at all.

I ask Dungapur how the great man himself received Celluloid Man, and his answer speaks volumes. “He is a man of very few words. Initially he was reluctant when I approached him about the idea. He said, ‘If the film is about preservation, okay, but if it is about me, no.’ So I lied to him. When the film was ready, he kept saying, ‘I’m very worried about the length of the film. Why so long a period of time?’ The first thing he said after seeing it was, ‘Shivendra, I think the length is fine.’”

If you’re looking for someone who has united India cinematically, that’s PK Nair

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters