P.K. Nair in Celluloid Man
Telluride to New York, Hong Kong to Gothenburg and now at the Calcutta Film Festival, Celluloid Man — a documentary on the need to preserve and restore films — has generated a lot of buzz. Adman-turned-filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, who was in town for the screenings, spoke to t2 on the challenges of making Celluloid Man and why Indians lack the culture of preservation.
Why and when did you decide to make Celluloid Man?
The idea came to me when I had gone for the Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna, Italy, and saw a series of restored films from all over the world. I thought, ‘If these films can be restored so beautifully, why not our films?’ At that time I was making ads (he has directed 400-odd commercials) and then one day, I took Mr P.K. Nair, the founder-director of the National Film Archive of India, to the archive vault where I discovered some of the great films that I had watched as a film student. They were not well looked after…. Nair’s legacy was fast diminishing and I remember a lot of people wanting to make a film on him because whatever has been preserved of our films is all thanks to this man. Nair collected films from all over India and I thought that though my film would talk about Nair, it would also unveil fascinating aspects of the history of Indian cinema. Like Raja Harishchandra, which is the first Indian film, like Alam Ara which was our first talkie and which has since been lost to us.
How much of our cinema has been preserved?
Out of the 1,700 silent films that were made, only nine or 10 are left. India must be one of the most unfortunate countries where we have lost such an important part of our cinema… a treasure-trove of silent films. Even the ones we have are not full films. The only complete Dadasaheb Phalke film available to us is Kaliya Mardan (1919). Of Raja Harishchandra we have just two reels — the first and the last. Not only are films of the silent era been lost, we also don’t have our first talkie, Alam Ara that was made in 1931. It was lost in the ’70s when Shahpur, the son of the film’s director Ardeshir Irani, sold it off to extract silver. Through Celluloid Man we are pleading to people all over the world that if you find Alam Ara, please give it back to us because you never know where it can be.
The documented history of Indian cinema begins with Raja Harishchandra but there were obviously earlier films too. There were makers who made films with foreign funds and foreign equipment, but we have only kept records of the first indigenous filmmaker and that was Dadasaheb Phalke. The first silent film from Kerala is lost but the second (Marthanda Varma) exists. We have one silent film from Calcutta called Jamai Babu which is a 1931 film directed by Kalipada Das. When Mrinal Sen was shooting Akaler Sandhane in a village in 1980, he met the owner of this house who told him that his father had some films lying under his bed. When they pulled it out, they found Jamai Babu!
How did your association with P.K. Nair begin?
When I was at FTII (Film and Television Institute, Pune), I always knew Mr Nair as this person so much in love with cinema. He had this small torch with which he would sit in a theatre, watch films and take copious notes. He really influenced us in terms of the kind of films he showed us. Many years later, when I decided to make Celluloid Man, our relationship deepened because the path that he took and the road that I was taking criss-crossed at some point. I felt that I needed to walk the path of preservation and restoration because in India we just don’t preserve anything… our films are lost, our architecture is falling to ruins… our art is not cared for. The first step is to teach people to preserve and then restore. What is lost is gone, what is there preserve it because 100 years from now even a Govinda and David Dhawan film can be looked upon as cult hits!
What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
That I had to differentiate between message and speech. It was also challenging to get Mr Nair on board because he didn’t want the film to be made on him. Right through the shoot, he didn’t know that the film was based on him! Another interesting aspect was that I needed to speak to Mrs Ritwik Ghatak for my film, but no one had ever managed to interview Surama Ghatak. At the first instance, she refused point-blank. I knew Mr Nair and Ritwik Ghatak had been good friends and also roommates in Pune. I called up Surama ji and pretended to be Mr Nair and requested her to be a part of the film! I had to do all this and more for the film because I knew it was for the greater good.
Despite being a documentary, there are big names associated with Celluloid Man…
There is Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mrinal Sen, Kamal Haasan, Shabana Azmi, Mrinal Sen, Ketan Mehta, Santosh Sivan, Jahnu Barua, Yash Chopra, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Rajkumar Hirani, Shyam Benegal, Shaji Karun, Ramesh Sippy and Naseeruddin Shah and so many others in the film. We also had the great Krzysztof Zanussi whom I filmed with in Warsaw and the legendary Sri Lankan filmmaker Lester James Peries who was a good friend of Satyajit Ray. Around 11 cinematographers have also worked on the film, including two from Calcutta — Ranjan Palit and Avik Mukhopadhyay. I shot it totally on 35mm and before I knew it, it became a film of two-and-a-half hours.
Which countries pay special attention to the preservation of their films?
Italy is number one. The Americans preserve everything. I have already got a call from George Eastman House in Rochester wanting a copy of my film. Even the Japanese are very conscious of preservation.
Has Celluloid Man and your efforts to restore Uday Shankar’s Kalpana with Martin Scorsese raised awareness about preservation here?
Everyone is at least now aware what preservation and restoration is all about. I have at least initiated it, but we need individual filmmakers to realise the importance of preservation of their prints. Unfortunately, no one is doing it yet. But after Kalpana, there has been a growing buzz. Kalpana has at least set the preservation-restoration ball rolling.