Celluloid Man is a wakeup call to preserve and archive films. Director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur tells it as the story of P.K. Nair, founder of the National Film Archive of India

We are a dynamite combination — we are a nation obsessed with its past, always celebrating nostalgia, and thrive on watching cinema. But when these factors are fused together, the result is a not a bang, but a whimper.

For one of the oldest film industries in the world, our country doesn’t have a film museum, points out filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. Our first “talkie” film with the first-ever playback recorded song, Alam Ara, made in 1931 by Ardeshir Irani, is lost because his son sold off the film’s negatives to extract silver, says a rather upset Dungarpur.

A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Dungarpur set up a company to make ad-films. But a chance re-visit to his alma mater and the adjoining National Film Archive of India in a state of neglect, ticked him off. He wanted to retrace the journey of one man who has cared for the country’s and world’s films with a passion that should put us all to shame. The Archive’s founder, P.K. Nair, is the subject of Dungarpur’s first feature-length documentary Celluloid Man. But in telling the story of P.K. Nair, Dungarpur hopes, also, to raise awareness about that much-neglected aspect of Indian cinema — film preservation, archiving, and restoration. “To move forward, you have to look back,” is the crux of the attitude, says Dungarpur. It’s a befitting film, then, to be released on the same day that India’s first film Raja Harishchandra released, a century ago.

Dungarpur recently facilitated the restoration of the 1948 Indian classic Uday Shankar’s Kalpana, through Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation (WCF), which was premiered in the Cannes Classic section in 2012. He is a patron of the British Film Institute and a donor for the restoration of Hitchcock’s silent classic The Lodger. By end-May, Dungarpur’s own foundation — Heritage of Moving Images – will work not only towards preserving cinema, but will create awareness in small towns and villages about recording what they create.

“We love our films, but don’t preserve them. We don’t have the concept of preservation in our culture. We don’t preserve anything — be it our monuments, music, paintings. We only look at art as something having a commercial value, rather than respecting it,” laments Dungarpur. He also talks of why our films didn’t get preserved… including the unbelievable quest for silver! “When the Archive was started in 1964 by P.K. Nair, the Indian industry was already 50 years ahead. We had already lost 70 to 80 per cent of our films. Earlier, the film’s negative was on nitrate, a highly inflammable material (needs to be stored in temperature-controlled vaults), so a lot of films got destroyed in fire. A majority of them were destroyed because they were sold for silver extraction! When colour came, people discovered the negative had a good chance for making colour dyes for bangles! Then in 2002, there was a major fire in the Archive, which destroyed many of the Silent Era films,” he says breathlessly. Out of 1,700 silent films, only 10 to 12 remain in the Archives.

Dungarpur also points out to the rather heartbreaking fact that filmmakers themselves didn’t care about their films. It was only when TV came to the forefront that they suddenly realised they will get revenue (from re-release); but by then, much was destroyed.

To further reiterate our attitude, especially that of the Indian government, he quotes Shyam Benegal who was looking for visuals of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi at the Film’s Division of India. “He said it was shocking. Can you imagine if a copy of the Dandi March is not preserved, what are they doing? Go to any country and they will be able to show their film on their national hero. This is the kind of irresponsibility we have displayed.” A government posting in the Archives division is looked upon as a “punishment posting” and people who land there are hardly those who understand cinema, insists Dungarpur. “After Nair retired, he was not even allowed on the premises because he would advise his successors how they should go about preserving films. But they were disgruntled people…why would they care about films?” It took about 11 months for Dungarpur to get permission to let Nair into the archives to shoot his film.

It is in the light of such attitude that P.K. Nair’s tireless efforts become all the more significant. It’s about a man’s passion, as former FTII director, writer, and filmmaker Girish Karnad points out in Celluloid Man. Nair was not on the FTII staff, but he made it a point to show students of cinema films that were not on the syllabus… a lot of learning happened there. Every film persona that Dungarpur has interviewed for the film, be it Rajkumar Hirani, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Kamal Hassan, Jaya Bachchan, Saeed Mirza, talk of how Nair showed them films that opened up their eyes to a whole new world of cinema that would have been inaccessible without him.

Despite this seamless opening up of minds that Nair conceived, yet again, Dungarpur laments, that while the country is celebrating 100 years of its cinema, the government seems to be concentrating only on the Hindi cinema coming out of Mumbai. “That’s the focus of the ministry – stars and Bollywood. What about regional cinema from all over the country? It’s all petty government policy. The maximum they will do is call Akshay Kumar to Goa and do a dance sequence for 100 years of Indian cinema,” he says, frustrated.

Celluloid Man has already travelled to 24 international film festivals and won P.K. Nair awards from Ukraine, UK, France, African countries. The film also won two national awards this year. “We all talk of Dadasaheb Phalke being the father of Indian cinema. But if not for Nair saab, Phalke would not have been found and safeguarded,” he reiterates.

(Celluloid Man releases today in 15 PVR theatres all over the country)