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Celluloid Man, directed by Shivender Singh Dungarpur has already travelled as many as 24 film international festivals to much acclaim. But despite the global accolades, it is seeing only a subdued release in India. According to the director, the exhibitors who promised him generous shows at one point have backed off, reducing it to a meager 3 shows a day. It’s a painful irony that a film that documents the history and evolution of Indian cinema, scratch by scratch, doesn’t get a robust platform for the information to be adequately dispensed within its home-country.
Celluloid Man is a heartening documentary made with a lot of love. It tells the story of PK Nair, a man who came to Mumbai with the intention of being a filmmaker, but later joined the FTII’s archives department and went on to become an unrivaled conserver of cinema, probably the only force who single-handedly created a film heritage in a country that doesn’t value its cinematic culture. The documentary, with the help of interviews with renowned film directors, actors and technicians, many of them who are alumni of the FTII, shows the meticulous efforts Nair invested in founding the National Film Archive of India. His obsessive love for cinema makes him the undisputed king of the film fandom. His enormous knowledge and concern for film preservation and restoration reveals a rare entity who became a silent guardian of our cinematic history. Without him, scores of reels would have been permanently lost in the dungeons of oblivion and this includes works of Dadasaheb Phalke as well.
However, in saluting PK Nair, one must not overlook the efforts of director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and his team, who have tracked down with utmost precision, the complex history of our cinema with Nair as the superstar at the center. It is also a very skillfully made documentary, and one doesn’t mind it’s long running hours as there are so many invaluable lessons that are directed towards the viewer. Right from anecdotes of the temperamental Ghatak who famously disapproved many of Ray’ films, to how a copy of Hitchcock’s Blackmail was secured from the British Film Archive in exchange of Sant Tukaram, the film overflows with intricacies of an intriguing industry and its various mechanisms which we wouldn’t otherwise pay too much attention to.
It’s got some spectacular black-and-white shots filmed inside movie-theatres which inspire tear-soaked nostalgia. Reels of films play in the background even as Nair talks of his struggle to become the ultimate custodian of cinema. It’s truly fascinating as after a point, Celluloid Man becomes so immersive that the nature of the film overlaps with the form itself becoming a kaleidoscopic celebration of the art and craft of film itself. Like a historic film on the history of films. Beautiful is the experience which cannot be described in any other form but the one it is originally in: film.
We see, how in his elaborate tenure as the archivist, Nair’s devotion matched with encyclopedic knowledge of world cinema benefitted not only students of the institute like Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Jaya Bachchan and Mahesh Bhatt, but people as indigenous as nut farmers in the far-flung regions of South India.
Celluloid Man is an important film that not just rewards the legacy of PK Nair with the reverence that it deserves, but stresses on the urgent need of having the required logistics and sustainable infrastructure for film preservation, restoration and the necessity to develop a culture which values cinema not only for its tentative gain, but also for its long-term incentives.