A fascinating new documentary throws the spotlight on an indefatigable preserver of Indian cinema

Who is PK Nair? The release of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Celluloid Man should answer this question for a general audience — at least, the audience that gets around to seeing two-and-a-half hour documentaries. A word about the form, first. Thanks to the well-intentioned but hilariously inept documentaries produced by Films Division, a certain generation of Indian viewers is eternally wary of the non-fiction feature — but Celluloid Man is as dramatic, as emotionally resonant as any fiction film.

The drama comes from the cinema, which Nair spent his working life trying to hoard. He founded the National Film Archive of India in 1964 — it’s located in Pune, near the FTII campus — and by the time he retired, in 1991, he had amassed more than 12,000 films, of which some 8,000 were Indian titles. The Sri Lankan filmmaker Lester James Peries says, “He is the custodian of Indian cinema... not merely an archivist. He was also a historian because if you don’t have an archivist you don’t have a history of the cinema.”

Celluloid Man tells us about Nair’s life, his efforts to acquire all those films, and it pays tribute to the man through the many luminaries who passed through the halls of FTII. A typical segment runs like this: Adoor Gopalakrishnan in Trivandrum talks about how the only extant print of Marthanda Varma, the second film made in Malayalam, was salvaged from a rusty box at Kamalalaya Book Depot. (The first film, whose making is chronicled in the award-winning Malayalam film Celluloid, has been lost entirely.)

Gopalarishnan, who got to know about the print from a journalist friend, says, “It was lying in the cellar of the building. In fact, nobody would go near that box. They were afraid... It was treated like dynamite.” The print was sent to Pune. It was highly inflammable and could not be run in a projector, so Nair devised a system by which he could copy the film frame by frame. Thus, today, we see, among other things, the frame where a legend declares: “Ardent votaries in the temple of love”.

There was a bonus. When the film was finally pieced together, they found valuable footage of the spectacular aaraattu procession that the Maharaja of the time, Sri Chitra Tirunal, undertook with all his cavalry. A sample title card reads: “Well caparisoned State Elephants with decorated houdas.” Gopalakrishnan says, “Obviously, [the director’s] idea was to make it... an additional attraction to attract people to the Capitol theatre, where [Marthanda Varma] was being screened.”

Elsewhere, we learn how Nair went about putting together Kaliya-Mardan, the only complete film of Dadasaheb Phalke’s in the Archive, and how he exchanged with the British Archive a print of Sant Tukaram for a copy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail. As contrast to these preservation efforts, we see what typically happens to celluloid film. In a scene that couldn’t be more sickening if it depicted slaughter in an abattoir, an old man removes film rolls from spools and strips them of silver. “Our filmmakers never treat whatever they do [as something that is of] some historical consequence and a part of the country’s heritage,” says Nair.

Hence his egalitarianism about the films he rescues. Nothing is too low to find a place in the Archive. “Even though we were making films right from the turn of the 20th Century,” Nair says, “nobody thought that cinema or films being made in this country are part of our cultural heritage. They treated cinema merely as a commodity or a means of leisure-time entertainment for the so-called illiterate masses. If you don’t consider films as a part of your cultural history, then you are eliminating a whole lot; of course, how do you study the tastes of the audience in the ‘20s and the ‘30s?”

Kumar Shahani adds, “The spirit of the Archive has always been that of giving every expression the kind of respect that it deserves. You never know what particular form of expression... today, you might consider it a form of pidgin, but tomorrow it might be transformed into the greatest, highest form of literature.” From an archival viewpoint, a Fearless Nadia stunt film is as important as a movie made by Satyajit Ray.

Such commitment to cinema — Nair can apparently recite Citizen Kane dialogues from memory — was bound to take a toll, and among the most poignant passages of Celluloid Man are the reminiscences of Nair’s daughter Beena. He used to leave at 9 a.m., but there was no guarantee when he’d return. It’s only after his retirement that he has been able to spend time with his children. She says, “It was only after we crossed a certain age and we learnt a lot that we realised that it was not because he didn’t like anyone of us or it was not because he didn’t want to be with us... but it was his passion for work. It was his love for cinema that kept him away from us.”

But he had time for everyone else, even the villagers of Heggodu in Karnataka, who became beneficiaries of Nair’s decision to show archived films to the public. Hear G. Ananthappa, a retired school peon, expound on the importance of Rashomon and Pather Panchali, and you realise that Nair’s family’s loss was the nation’s gain.


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