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It is somewhere towards the end of Celluloid Man that a farmer from Heggodu, Karnataka marvels about the travelling cinema/film appreciation experience they were exposed to courtesy Nair (our Celluloid Man) and his colleagues. The man responsible for India’s National Film Archive brought them Bergman, Kurosawa, Pather Panchali, he gushes. Imagine the world cinema we could watch in Heggodu, he finds it incredulous himself. Well, Indian, he quickly corrects himself, that one Pather Panchali is from here. But as he shrugs his shoulders, we realize that this may be no slip of the tongue. For us (our celluloid) past is another country; and if it was not for P.K. Nair, it would have been further still.
Nair, film archivist, the “preserver of butterflies” as one of the interviewees introduces his ilk—had taken upon himself to capture and protect something as ethereal and beautiful as the flickering film image. His journey begins from collecting the stubs of ‘floor tickets’ of movies he watched sitting in tent cinemas; he considers it an auspicious beginning, the shimmering white sand of Kerala at his feet a propitious kolam. That he is a man committed to preserving world cinema for India is obvious as the documentary unfolds. A colleague refers to Nair’s eccentric lifestyle with the ubiquitous lines of how he is a man living, dreaming, eating films. He was drinking films, he adds helpfully and the audience titters. But I don’t think anyone is laughing as we see Nair returning to the film archives he had set up (At one time in the documentary Dungarpur is heard asking why it took the National Film Archives of India eleven months to give permission to shoot with Nair in the archive premises. His request is evaded with a comment on Nair’s eccentric work habits). We see Nair walking through his former office turned godown, through corridors where films now come to die. As the camera cuts to images of film cans corroding under the open skies, a voice behind the camera speaks of the film archives being India’s children and our responsibility towards them. Spine chilling, if I were to conflate these words with the newspaper headlines this week.
Why should you watch this documentary? You must for the same reason why Nair pleads for an archive of our adventures with celluloid. Films tell a tale of us. The way we were, cinema and this particular documentary is a time capsule about what we ate, what we wore, what we watched. Has humor changed? And what hasn’t and enraptures us still?
They say a particular generation burnt their khimkhwab brocade for the gold thread that stayed behind, and a tapestry of time was lost to us forever. Watch yourself cringe when you hear what happens to film reels from Imperial Studios courtesy an impetuous decision on the part of Sapore Irani. Celluloid Man introduces you to a world of intrigue, of film reels being surreptiously exchanged, of unlikely friendships struck over our passion for films, and it will change the way you hear the word “dupe” forever.
If you have seen the promotion material for Celluloid Man you will know that it shares candid interviews with the Who’s Who (and some more) of Indian cinema. It is not all Nair the archivist when they speak to the camera, somewhere amongst these candid exchanges slips in stories about our story makers. So you will know that Guddi was always a good student, discover what made Sanjeev Kumar move mom and baggage to Pune for a month, and why it was not church that had a certain generation of FTII goers waking up early Sunday morning.
And that Dungarpur shoots Celluloid Man in 16mm film is the sweetest hat tip of all. Watch the documentary to understand why.