The germ of an idea took shape over two years ago in a casual conversation with fellow cinephiles discussing Mr. P.K. Nair, the founder of the National Film Archive of India. As a student at the Film Institute, Pune, I remembered Mr. Nair as a shadowy figure in the darkened theatre, scribbling industriously in a notebook by the light of a tiny torch – winding and unwinding reels of film, shouting instructions to the projectionist and always, always watching films. We were all a little in awe of him and had to muster up the courage to climb the creaking wooden stairs to his office to request to watch a particular film. He is the only person I know who can tell you exactly in which reel of a film a particular scene can be found.
Mr. Nair’s fascination with cinema began as a child and he watched his first few films lying on the white sand floor of a cinema in Trivandrum. He was a collector even then . . . collecting ticket stubs, lobby cards, even weighing machine tickets sporting pictures of the stars of the day. He grew up to be a great collector of films.
I decided to visit Mr. Nair who was living a retired life in Pune. I arrived to find that the Archive had been orphaned. I saw rusting cans lying in the grass, thick cobwebs hanging from the shelves in the vaults and Mr. Nair’s old office turned into a junkyard. I thought about this remarkable man who had devoted his life to collecting and saving these films and I was determined that his legacy should not be forgotten.
It took 11 trips to Pune to convince the authorities to let me film with Mr. Nair at the Archive. I started the film two years ago and what a journey of discovery it has been. I learned about the lost heritage of Indian cinema and how important it is to preserve and restore our films before it is too late.
Few are aware that 1700 silent films were made in India of which only 9 survive thanks to the efforts of Mr. Nair. He travelled to remote parts of India to collect and save cans of rare films. The fact that Dadasaheb Phalke is recognized today as the father of Indian cinema is Mr. Nair’s doing. He was truly democratic as an archivist trying to save any film that he could get his hands on be it world cinema, Hindi popular films or regional Indian cinema. He even took world cinema to the villages of India.
He has influenced generations of Indian film students especially the Indian New Wave filmmakers such as Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahane, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and John Abraham. As students, he opened our eyes to the world of cinema and gifted us the opportunity to watch films that otherwise we might never have had the chance to see. We found ourselves through these films that shaped our minds and made us aspire to be the next Tarkovsky, Fellini or Ray.
As Mr. Nair speaks, we see the history of Indian cinema unfold. What emerges is a portrait of a man so in love with cinema that even his family had to take a backseat to his obsession. Mr. Nair is not just the founder of the National Film Archive, but a living breathing museum of cinema. Even in retirement, he chooses to stay across the road from the Archive watching over his legacy. The fact that India has a cinematic heritage at all is the singlehanded achievement of this man. There will be no one like him again.
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur began his career as an assistant director to his mentor, writer-lyricist and director, Gulzar. It was on Gulzar’s suggestion that Shivendra enrolled in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune to study film direction and scriptwriting. After graduating from FTII, Shivendra launched himself as a producer-director in 2001 under the banner “Dungarpur Films”.
Shivendra has directed about 400 commercials for top advertising agencies like Lowe (India, Thailand, Egypt and Dubai), JWT, O&M, McCann Erikson, etc. for brands like Cadbury’s, Domino’s Pizza, DeBeers, HSBC, Nestle, Volkwagen amongst others. He has shot in locations all over India and in South Africa, Thailand, Malaysia, Dubai, Egypt and Lebanon. He has also produced public service campaigns for rural health programmes run by the Bill Gates Foundation and World Health Partners in India.
Shivendra is deeply committed to the preservation and restoration of cinema. He travels all over India looking for old film prints and film memorabilia to preserve and is actively campaigning with contemporary filmmakers to archive their film prints.
He facilitated the restoration of the 1948 Indian classic Uday Shankar’s “Kalpana” done by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation (WCF) that was premiered in the Cannes Classic section in 2012. He is presently working with the WCF on the restoration of “Nidhananaya”, a film directed by the award-winning Sri Lankan filmmaker, Lester James Peries. He is a patron of the British Film Institute and a donor for the restoration of Hitchcock’s silent classic “The Lodger”.
He travels the world to meet and extensively interview on camera great masters of cinema for his personal archive. He has spent time with Manoel de Oliveira in Porto and shot documentaries on Jiri Menzel and Raoul Coutard. He has also shot in-depth interviews with Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi in Warsaw, Miklós Jancsó and István Szabó in Budapest and Věra Chytilová, Juraj Herz and Jan Nemec in Prague.
“Celluloid Man” is his first feature length documentary which is a tribute to an extraordinary man, Mr. P.K. Nair who built up the National Film Archive of India can by can in a country where film preservation is completely disregarded.
The film has been screened in festivals in India and around the world. It premiered at the Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival in Bologna, Italy. It was then invited to the 39th Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and the 50th New York Film Festival. In India it has travelled to festivals in Mumbai, Kolkata, Goa, Kerala and Bangalore. In 2013, it will be screened at the international film festivals of Rotterdam, Goteborg, Hong Kong and Seattle.