Shivendra Singh Dungarpur talks about ‘Celluloid Man’, a fitting tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema and P.K. Nair who helped archive rare, forgotten films

Among the National Award winners for 2012 is a gem called ‘Celluloid Man’ directed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. The film is a tribute to P.K. Nair, founder of National Film Archives of India and through Nair, it presents fascinating glimpses of the history of Indian cinema. The film won the Rajat Kamal for the Best Biographical/Historical Reconstruction and also fetched Irene Dhar Malik the National Award for Best Editing. Excerpts from an interview with Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, FTII alumnus and an advertising professional who was also instrumental in restoration of Uday Shankar’s ‘Kalpana’ (1948).

Celluloid Man is scheduled to release this May. Apart from the recognition at international film festivals, will the two National Awards help the film get a wider release?

Celluloid Man’s release date (May 3, 2013) coincides with the day the first Indian film Raja Harishchandra was released in 1913, exactly 100 years ago. The film is a tribute to Mr. Nair, without whose efforts we wouldn’t be able to watch Dadasaheb Phalke’s films today. As Gulzarsaheb says in my film, “Nair made Phalke into History…”

The film has travelled to over 20 festivals around the world and not a day goes by where I don’t receive enquiries from film festivals or universities like Sorbonne or JNU asking for the film. I hope the National Awards will help draw audiences into cinema halls and create awareness about the importance of preserving films.

What triggered a film on P.K. Nair?

I always had an interest in preservation — something I learnt from my father. In an interview of Martin Scorsese, I learnt about the ‘II Cinema Ritrovato Festival’ in Bologna, Italy, where they screened restored films. I attended the festival and was inspired to meet P.K. Nair in Pune. I felt I had to do something to preserve our cinematic heritage. He was still staying just outside the Archive. This meeting brought back memories of the time I spent at the Film Institute, Pune, when Mr. Nair had shown us so many wonderful films.

I took him to see the vault at the Archive. The films were kept in wrong temperatures conditions and there was nobody to look after the films. Then I got to know Nair was not allowed to enter the Archive. I was questioned as to how I took him into the vault. These films which Nair collected painstakingly and showed us were lying abandoned and the fact that the founder of the Archive was not allowed access to the Archive made me angry. I thought I could shoot some footage about the condition of the Archive and share it with the press or government authorities. In my first schedule, I was denied permission to shoot at the Archive. After almost five months I attempted to shoot at the Archive with Nair and was immediately asked to leave the premises as Nair was not allowed. I got permission after Saeed Mirza intervened. I still remember the date when Nair finally came back home (to the Archives) — May 14, 2011. I had never intended to make it into a film but as I went along, it organically developed into a film.

The documentary highlights how the NFAI helped save a few reels of ‘Raja Harishchandra’ from destruction. Can you elaborate on this?

In 1965, Nair managed to get the first reel of Raja Harishchandra from Phalke’s daughter, Mandakini Phalke (the first child artiste and main lead in his film Kaliya Mardan). The last reel was given to him by Phalke’s son Neelkanth Phalke. Even though Raja Harishchandra is a six-reel film, Nair only managed to get the first and last reel. The other had been destroyed. The only complete Phalke six-reel film is Kaliya Mardan (1919). The story of how he got the film, travelling to Nasik to meet Prabhakar Phalke, Dadasaheb Phalke’s other son, to collect the nitrate films and travel overnight back to Pune in a paper taxi is covered in my film. When Nair opened the cans he found the film in bits and pieces. He was fortunate to find a diary of Dadasaheb Phalke in the same trunk explaining the order of shots which helped him piece the film back together. Thanks to Nair, we have the complete film at the NFAI.

By the time the Archive started in 1964, the Indian film industry was 50 years old and almost 70 per cent of the films made before 1950 had vanished. Out of 1700 silent films, Nair was only able to salvage nine or ten and out of these only a few were complete.

The film also provides glimpses into history of Indian cinema. You would have had more material than you could fit in. How did you decide what needs to be told and what could be left out?

It was a real challenge. Nair preserved films from all the different Indian film industries — Assamese, Oriya, Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and, of course, the Hindi film industry. Each industry had its own history besides which filmmakers from all over India had a close relationship with Nair and had been greatly influenced by him. He was not just a collector of films. He wanted to share his love for cinema by showing films not just to the students, but to the locals as well as villagers. One of my best experiences while shooting was in Heggodu. Nair and Satish Bahadur were invited by K.V. Subbanna, theatre activist, to screen films like Pather Panchali, Rashomon, Incident at Owl Creek on 16 mm for the local areca nut farmers. When we shot there, these farmers spoke about the impact these films had had on them. I couldn’t believe it — how films could break cultural, linguistic and social barriers. Honestly, I didn’t want an end to the film as the film was a journey during which I had discovered myself.

Restoring classics is time consuming and funds are not easy to come by. How do you work around this?

I have never thought of it as a business, but as a passion where money and time should not be considerations. I have put my own funds towards restoration projects like Hitchcock’s Lodger and the outstanding restoration work done by L’Immagine Ritrovata lab in Bologna. I also manage to take time out to collaborate with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation (WCF) to restore films like Kalpana and now the eminent Sri Lankan filmmaker Dr. Lester James Peries’ film Nidhanaya. I plan to start my own foundation that will work towards restoring and archiving Indian cinema.

Did the screening of the restored version of Kalpana at Cannes make it easier for you to take on more restoration projects?

When I heard Scorsese was trying to restore Kalpana and that he was having difficulty with the red tape, I was determined to help the WCF restore the film. I knew that once Kalpana was restored, it would open the doors for other Indian films to be restored. One can feel the impact as several organisations now want to restore their films. Still, a lot of work needs to be done. What is lost is gone; what is there needs to be preserved. This principle should be applied to other arts too.

You had also mentioned your intention to find and restore Alam Ara. Has there been any progress on that front?

P.K. Nair went to meet Ardeshir Irani, the producer of Alam Ara, the first Indian talkie at Imperial Studio, which was then situated near Kennedy Bridge in Mumbai. He was hoping to get a print of the film for the NFAI. He was told by Mr. Irani that there might be a few cans lying around that he was welcome to take. But his son Shapoor told Mr. Nair that he had sold those cans a long time ago to extract silver from them.

When I was assisting Gulzarsaheb, he told us the story of the first song ever sung in a Hindi film. That was De de khuda ke naam sung by Wazir Mohammed Khan. Of course, the song has been lost along with the film. Ever since that time I have been fascinated by the thought of finding this historic film and even created a lobby card for Celluloid Man about this.

Years after they were made, John Ford’s films were found in New Zealand and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was found in Buenos Aires. So I’m convinced that Alam Ara cannot be lost forever and that we will find the film in some corner of the world.