Celluloid Man

celluloid-man-poster
Celluloid Man
Release date: May 3, 2013
Directed by: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
Cast: P.K. Nair, Krzysztof Zanussi, Naseeruddin Shah, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Jaya Bachchan, Rajkumar Hirani, Jahnu Barua, Balu Mahendra, Basu Chatterjee, Mrinal Sen, Santosh Sivan, Kumar Shahani, Ketan Mehta, Shyam Benegal, Girish Kasaravalli, Yash Chopra, Kamal Haasan, Ramesh Sippy, Mahesh Bhatt, Gulzar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Hariharan

Celluloid Man is about Paramesh Krishnan Nair’s undying passion for preserving India’s earliest films and going to unknown extents to acquire that one particular print of a forgotten movie. His said love wasn’t limited to the smell of nitrate films, it was way more intimate.

As Nair walks into the opening frame with his walking stick, he describes the years that have passed on in terms of his cinematic journey. He calls his initial fascination as a wonderment at the magic of moving images; his working years driven by an obsession and how he’s learnt to understand people better with his knowledge of cinema. He cuts a soft-spoken yet no-nonsense figure. And that’s how his students/friends have always known him to be.

Interspersed with clips from Hindi film industry’s earliest marvels – be it Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra and Kaliya Mardan, or Bombay Talkies features like Jeevan Naiyya, Achhut Kanya and Kismet or S.S. Vasan’s Chandralekha – all of these being his acquisitions for the National Archives, a visual evolution of Indian cinema is on display along with Nair’s personal course. Not only the specifically relevant ones, but also the “C films” find a place here. Just how the man says it, you can have a rich past only when you have a rich history.

Jaya Bachchan reminisces the time when she was the only girl allowed to sit for the late night screenings with a handful of others in FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) Pune because she was the only one who’d actually attend the screenings and not go around gallivanting. Naseeruddin Shah has more than just one tale to tell. Balu Mahendra cherishes the times when he got to sit for the early morning first viewings of the newly brought in world cinema reels, “I would be watching a Norwegian film with the toothbrush in my mouth.” The personal anecdotes and experiences by stalwarts and Nair’s admirers are numerous and beautifully interesting.

The biographical documentary soon turned into a relatable story for me as I have the same habit as that of Nair’s, that is of collecting movie tickets as souvenirs. Dungarpur uses a lot of scenes from various films archives to resonate the feelings of the situations and facts in his film. Echoing screams of “I want to live” in Bengali from Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara superimposed on stills of cobwebs hanging around celluloid reels in a lonely section of the archives, thus creating a deafening metaphor.

The Heggodu Movement begun by theater activist KV Subanna for the purpose of making the disconnected rural audiences familiar with the magnificence of Bicycle Thieves and Rashomon is also vividly recalled by the members of the participating audience members. A short montage in the later timeline depicts major themes like song, dance, action, romance and brace yourselves, members of the self-righteous moral police, full frontal Kissing from the films of black and white days. The most grande scene is perhaps the one with Nair mouthing off lines from Citizen Kane while the film plays on the screen behind him.

Just like how Mr. Nair didn’t discriminate on any basis while collecting films for the archive, Celluloid Man is an important film from a historical and cultural standpoint. It weaves his larger than life affair with cinema, simultaneously painting a picture of the sorry state of archiving as a wholly neglected activity in India. May 3, 2013 marks hundred years of Indian cinema and this film makes for compulsory viewing from every person who’s ever enjoyed a moment of theatrical magic in any form.

My rating: **** (4 out of 5 stars)

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