A popular attraction at the Centenary Film Festival at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium last week was a makeshift tent, decked out with benches, which screened silent films from the first decades of Indian cinema. With an intentionally misspelt ‘Housh Full’ sign and unstable benches providing authenticity, the films — digitally projected to keep pace with the times — were accompanied not by live music, but occasionally by running commentary that resembled Doordarshan sporting events more than Cahiers du Cinéma (“In those times, this sort of fighting was called mallayuddha,” the portly man said during a climactic sword fight in Fall of Slavery). Nevertheless, the tent was usually full of film buffs relishing a rare opportunity to watch Raja Harishchandra or Kaliya Mardan, or at least, those parts that remain of the films.
The fact that these films could be shown — or, for that matter, that any films from the first 50 years of Indian cinema survive — is the result of one man’s life-long passion for preserving what remains of our cinematic heritage. Of the over 1,200 silent films made in India, only nine survive. The ones that do, were hunted down by PK Nair, the subject of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s excellent documentary Celluloid Man, which received a limited release (though not in Hyderabad or Kolkata, where it was bumped off screens by Iron Man 3), who spent decades single-handedly building the National Film Archive of India. It was when Dungarpur learned that Nair had, after retiring, been banned from entering the archive, that he decided to make this film. And such was Nair’s abiding influence on Indian cinema that no less than 11 cinematographers wanted to be part of the film. Unwilling or unable to choose, Dungarpur hired them all.
On the face of it, Celluloid Man is a montage of rare film clips interspersed with some of Indian cinema’s great luminaries talking about the debt they owe Nairsaab. And they are luminaries; names like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Naseeruddin Shah, Rajkumar Hirani, Jaya Bachchan, even the late Yash Chopra, chime in to talk about their memories of the archivist at the Film Institute (now FTII) who introduced these pre-Internet kids to the best of world cinema, who was always willing to let an inquisitive filmmaker watch Breathless again just to figure out how Godard smoothened his jump cuts, who could recite from memory the precise can and roll of an obscure print where a particular piece of dialogue could be found.
But this is no mere tale of a tireless librarian with superhuman powers of recall. Much like Herzog’s documentaries about people in obscure professions, it is at its heart, a love story. Nair’s passion for archiving stemmed from an almost fanatical love for cinema, to the extent that he wouldn’t even throw away ticket stubs as a child. His family resigned itself to playing second fiddle to his job, and even after retiring in 1991, he couldn’t bear to live apart from his precious archive (his vocal anger at the mismanagement of the NFAI was the primary reason he was banned from entering its premises). Because you are completely invested in his passion, irrespective of how you feel about cinema, you will cringe at the sight of film reels being leached for silver, or at the thought of rare negatives being gutted in a fire.
With his 11 cinematographers — each of them accomplished in their profession — in tow, Dungarpur has experimented with stock and shooting techniques to create a visual treat. He says it’s merely coincidence that the film was finally released on the 100th anniversary of Raja Harishchandra’s release. Considering it’s about the man who is responsible for the film still existing, it’s practically divine intervention. Or a celluloid dream coming true.