wogma rating: Beg or borrow, but do watch (?)
A remarkably nostalgic documentary about the life of film archivist P. K. Nair, the man who founded the National Film Archives of India, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Celluloid Man is pure love for cinema. If cinema is your life, you can’t miss this.Read more
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of the film viewing culture in India is how disinterested most of us are in documentaries. Most people equate documentaries with a yawn, perhaps. But if ever someone who loves cinema but doesn’t like documentaries needed an example of how gripping, emotional and narratively-strong a documentary can be, without venturing too far from their comfort zone, the film to show them would be Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s acclaimed documentary Celluloid Man.
The film is a deeply personal and nostalgic take on the life of P. K. Nair, the man almost wholly responsible for what is now known as the National Film Archives of India (NFAI), in Pune. And through the journey of the film, we also understand what true passion for cinema is; how someone can be so devoted to collecting and archiving films for posterity, because he understands what very few people do – that perhaps films offer the most comprehensive and indicative representation of the times, even if most of the films he collected and archived were ‘fiction’.
Shot by some of the foremost cinematographers in India - names like Santosh Thundiyil, K. U. Mohanan, Mahesh Aney, Vikas Sivaraman, Kiran Deohans and the likes – the film also looks at Mr. Nair’s life through the eyes of the some of the most respected names in Indian cinema; a number of them being former students of Mr. Nair from the Film & Television Institute of India. Through rich anecdotes and little stories that highlight the man’s tireless work and the result of it – prints of tens of thousands of film from across the world stored, the work of great masters worth many times their weight in gold - the film is a heartfelt ride that is inspiring and humbling at the same time.
Clocking in at a two and a half hours, the film still felt too short, for me; so beautifully engaging was the story of the man who, I must shamefully admit, I didn’t know of before I heard about this film in late 2012. While primarily being about the life of P. K. Nair, through his journey, the film also touches upon so many little-known facts of India’s film history and the people behind it. Just the mere names of some of the legends mentioned – Ritwik Ghatak, for example - gave me goosebumps.
Then, to hear of how highly these stalwarts of Indian cinema regarded Mr. Nair, aptly sums up his immeasurable contribution to the documentation of the history of Indian cinema. The painstaking manner in which he went about acquiring and restoring prints, the way in which he encouraged his students to view cinema the way it must be viewed, the little joys he experienced when acquiring a particular print brought with it it’s own little highs and lows – we live all of this and so much more through the film.
If there were any problems I found, they were more with directorial choices than anything else. So, one can disagree with them, but one can’t fault with them. They were, after all, choices made by the director, ones that he was completely entitled to. For example, the manner in which certain scenes involving Mr. Nair were ‘staged’ for the documentary; they were quite obviously shot for visual appeal and to propel the story forward, even though they aren’t a part of Mr. Nair’s routine. Or even those interludes with the director’s own voiceover used to bring certain information to the fore. As I said, I can only disagree with them in their usage, but they can’t really be faulted.
Then, above all, the film is remarkable because it doesn’t just show you the importance of archiving cinema, but the importance of preserving memories of life, the importance of being passionate about what you do, the importance of understanding that your life will only be worthwhile if you do your best to ensure that it means something. Celluloid Man will move you, and will reinforce the fact that cinema is life.
This review is by guest reviewer Pradeep Menon. Pradeep is a filmmaker and a dreamer. He loves books, rain, winters, tea and his parents. Cinema, however, is the only truth he believes in. He breathes and bleeds film, mostly in hues of saffron, white, green and blue. You can watch his short films at www.youtube.com/cyberpradeep.
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