DOCUMENTARY “Celluloid Man” is a tribute to P.K. Nair, and his pioneering efforts in film preservation. BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA

On May 3, it is going to be exactly 100 years since the release of Dadasaheb Phalke’s “Raja Harishchandra”. Not uncharacteristically, it has occasioned numerous commemorative events and celebrations. But the man who put Phalke in film history remains unheard of.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s “Celluloid Man”, a recipient of two National Awards, is a tribute to P.K. Nair, a former director of the National Film Archives of India (NFAI), Pune. When NFAI was established in 1964, Indian cinema was more than 50 years old. According to Dungarpur, almost 70 per cent of the films made before 1950 had vanished already. Of the nearly 1,700 silent films, Nair was able to salvage nine, including Phalke’s “Raja Harishchandra” and “Kaliya Mardan”. He was a passionate collector, who travelled far and wide to also preserve films from regional film industries — Assamese, Oriya, Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Unlike most collectors, Nair was characterised by a generosity of spirit, and didn’t miss any opportunity to share his wealth.

Dungarpur got introduced to Nair while he was studying in Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). “Nair saab would bring those films from the archive to FTII. He would share these films by the masters with us students and that’s how we were formed as filmmakers. A huge number of filmmakers, cinematographers and actors owe such a huge part of their lives and what they are today to Nair saab .”

Many of them, including Shyam Benegal, Gulzar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Rajkumar Hirani, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Sriram Raghavan, Shabana Azmi, Kundan Shah, Kumar Shahani, Saeed Mirza and Jaya Bachchan, come forward to acknowledge their debt to P.K. Nair. “When ‘Mughal-E-Azam’ released, Dilip Kumar did not see the film because he was having issues with K. Asif. It was Nair saab who showed him the film in the ‘70s,” the director informs.

Dungarpur is frank enough to admit that he had forgotten about P.K. Nair. After graduating from FTII, and the disappointment of an unfinished first film, he started his own company, which has produced commercials and independent films. The trigger for the documentary came in the form of an interview he read. “It was an interview with Martin Scorsese about the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna where they show restored films from all over the world. They have a lab there, and some of the great classics are restored and screened there. It made me think of the films that Nair saab collected and showed us, and what happened to those films.”

Dungarpur returned to Pune to meet him, and to revisit the archives. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw. The archive had fallen into neglect, and Nair had been banished from its premises. Although weakened by an accident, Nair soldiered on to be involved with films.

It took the director 11 months to secure permission to shoot in the archives, but the greater challenge perhaps lay in Nair’s own reticence. “He wanted the film to be about preservation only, and not about him,” Dungarpur says. But the two are inextricable. Through the tribute to Nair emerges a passionate plea for preservation. As the director says, “You progress by looking at the past. And you look at the past by preserving it. Preservation is necessary for, and as important as, creation.”

“Celluloid Man” releases on May 3 in PVR Cinemas in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pune.