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Celluloid man - Documentary Archive

Posted on Feb 06, 03:29PM | IBNS

Legendary film archivist P.K. Nair gets his due in Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's telling documentary now being widely shown in international film festivals. Shoma A. Chatterji reports.

India has the distinction of making the most number of films in the world. But sadly, not much attention is paid to preservation of the prints and many benchmark films have apparently disappeared forever or too badly damaged to be restored. Even some films of Satyajit Ray were in a sorry state and would have been lost to posterity had it not been for efforts by film lovers abroad who took the initiative to restore them with advanced technology.

Restoration and preservation are of prime importance to P.K. Nair too, the founder-director of the National Film Archive in Pune. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's 164-minute-long documentary Celluloid Man - A Film on P.K. Nair looks at the man whose passion for cinema is well-known to film-lovers and ex-students.

Still - Celluloid Man

Dungarpur began his career as an assistant director to his mentor, writer-lyricist and director, Gulzar. He suggested that he should enroll himself at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, to study film direction and scriptwriting. After graduating from FTII, Shivendra launched himself as a producer-director under the banner "Dungarpur Films". He has directed about 400 commercials for top advertising agencies.

"I was always extremely interested in preservation - something I learnt from my father. I had read an interview with Martin Scorsese about the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy, where they screened restored films. The seeds of restoring and preserving films of importance as my life's mission were sowed there and then," he says.

This determination led Dungarpur to meet P.K. Nair. He had retired by then but he preferred to live close to the Archive at Pune though his family was in his home state, Kerala.

Dungarpur knew him well as a student at FTII. "I remembered 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," Dungarpur recalls.

The students were somewhat in awe of him. They had to muster up courage to climb the rickety wooden stairs to his office to ask if they could 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," he says.

"I was shocked when I was told that he was not allowed to enter the complex which housed the Archive!" the director says. When the authorities learnt that he wished to shoot within the Archive, they denied him permission. But even before that, without knowing all this, "I had already taken Nair to visit the vault at the Archive. I was questioned about how I had taken him to the vault."

Sadly, he found, the films were kept in temperatures not conducive to effective preservation. It took him more than ten meetings with the powers-that-be and one year and a half for the authorities to permit the team to shoot within the Archive, reveals Dungapur.

Dungarpur travels across the world to meet and interview on camera great masters of cinema for his personal archive. He is a patron of the British Film Institute and a donor for the restoration of Hitchcock's silent classic The Lodger.

Celluloid Man is his first feature length documentary. It is an outstanding film in every sense. It moves beyond a biographical documentary to a film on the history and evolution of Indian cinema.

Dungarpur has helped Martin Scorcese restore Uday Shankar's famous film Kalpana (1948) too. It was screened in the classics section at Cannes last year.

Recounting the experience, Dungarpur says, "When I had gone to Bologna, a Martin Scorsese aide asked me if I could help them procure Kalpana for restoration. I knew that if I could procure it in whatever way possible, this would shift the preservation focus to India."

Uday Shankar had given a dupe negative (rough cut) of the film to Nair in 1970. Though they managed to retrieve it from the archive, it was under litigation. The family members- wife Amala Shankar, daughter Mamata Shankar wanted to help the team but they did not own the film. The final print was with someone who did not want to part with it. After a year of running around, they managed to procure it Then, "We sent it to Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation in Bologna which restores Asian films," says Dungarpur.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur with P.K. Nair, NFAI

"Films are a part of our cultural history. I was shocked to discover that of the 1700 silent films were made in India of which only nine survive but that too thanks to the efforts of Nair. He travelled to remote parts of India to collect and save cans of rare films. He even took world cinema to the villages of India," Dungarpur says.

Indeed through Celluloid Man Dungarpur not only focuses on the man and his passion, but also contributes to the valuable archive of Indian cinema.

(Shoma A. Chatterji is an award winning film critic)