Celluloid Man

Celluloid Man


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's debut documentary has appreciation and respect stitched into its very fabric. In addition to the 160-minute runtime being devoted to the work of film archivist Paramesh Krishnan Nair, a consideration of his achievements and what would have been lost without him, Dungarpur is a former student and the 11 directors of photography who worked on the film were all volunteers from the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, where Nair began his career and where his legacy is, perhaps, most greatly understood.

Possibly the biggest tribute of all, however, is the way that Dungarpur's film is also a celebration of what Nair's archive contains, bringing segments of it to a worldwide audience who may be unfamiliar with these gems of Indian cinema. Yet it also contains a warning about the importance of curation, suggesting that much of the work that Nair did to preserve his country's cinematic history could now be in danger.

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PK Nair may not be as much of a household name as French film curator Henri Langlois but if you've ever seen an early Indian film, it's a good chance it's thanks to him. After falling in love with cinema as a child - and amassing a healthy collection of ticket stubs, he decided he wanted to become a filmmaker. But upon heading to Mumbai, he found that his passion for curation ran more deeply than his passion for creation, so he joined the Film and Television Institute. It was here that his idea for an archive first took shape and he began what became the National Film Archive. When you consider that of the 1,700 silent films made in India the nine that survive only do so thanks to Nair, it puts the importance of his years of dedication into perspective. As memories were being bulldozed by progress, with film left to rot or deteriorate, Nair was carefully picking his way round the country, acquiring what he could.

Despite his overwhelming passion for film, however, he is not a curator who just wishes to lock them up to keep them safe. It's clear through the interviews with Nair and anecdotes from a roll call of the great and the good of Indian cinema, that he believes in the art form as a living, breathing thing that should be used to entertain and to educate. This is, no doubt, why he allowed the young director K Hariharan to take away a copy of Battleship Potemkin so he could watch it a hundred times and why he screened Passolini in the middle of the night for a youthful, keen John Abraham. He was also that rare sort of archivist who didn't discriminate between films on the grounds of 'artistic' ability, seeing that a film could hold a cultural value beyond the way in which it was shot.

A film about film history may sound dry, but the stories captured here crackle with life and enthusiasm. These include the twinkly way Nair responds with tales of devious horse trading when asked with regards to prints sent from abroad "did you steal films?", to the fond recollections of villagers in a remote part of the country who were brought classics such as Rashomon and Bicylce Thieves courtesy of a festival Nair founded, to stories from directors who used to get up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday just to be able to watch the cuttings of movie's 'censored scenes' which were sent to Nair for the archive.

Dungarpur also captures the air of fear regarding the manner in which the archive has been maintained since Nair's retirement in 1991, although the examination of why things seem to be in decline is a little light. However, the sight elsewhere of rolls and rolls of celluloid being stripped of their images to reclaim the silver, leaving nothing but empty plastic behind, a particularly powerful demonstration of how quickly something so precious can be lost. The film is a warm and fitting tribute that makes good use of its extended runtime to explore the multifaceted nature of both Nair and film curation itself and has plenty to say about the importance of archives across the globe. That Dungarpur is himself now a keen archivist, having been involved in recent restoration of Hitchcock's The Lodger and Indian film Kalpana, is along with this film a fitting demonstration of Nair's legacy being passed to a new generation.

Reviewed on: 25 Jul 2013
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Celluloid Man packshot
The story of extraordinary cinema archivist PK Nair.

Director: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

Starring: PK Nair

Year: 2012

Runtime: 164 minutes

Country: India

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