“Pain is temporary, film is forever” – Michael J. Fox
Unfortunately, it is not. And neither are memories, both die, if not carefully preserved. Without memories, the past is a blank slate, existing in a space where we cannot touch it. Without a past we are a blank slate, forever trapped in a present that makes little sense. Films, like all our art, keeps our past safe, for us to delve into and understand how we came this far and, more importantly, where to go from here.
P.K. Nair understood this and scraped together our largely dissipated past, bit by bit, literally from across the country’s landscape and even beyond. What I felt when I heard that was sheer awe. And awe-inspiring is everything about Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary, “Celluloid Man”.
The film is the centre of attention right now, thanks to a much-deserved release (a shout out to the rare PVR Rare!), the National Awards, the Cannes selection and especially the centenary of our much-maligned yet much-beloved Hindi Film Industry. Much has been written about it so I’d like to simply share what the film did to me instead.
I like watching documentaries in the theatre. Especially our Indian docus which, by default, generally have a rusty appeal that somehow get an exotic aura in the hall. I also like everything old and forgotten; its romance and nostalgia, and the bitter-sweet pain that memories always bring with them. Celluloid Man, smelling of museums and ruins, was tailor-made for me. I walked in with the same excitement, same anticipation I had while watching Hugo, except that this was a bit more personal. This was about history that was specifically ‘mine’.
I settled down and there was this old, decrepit man detailing first-hand, his journey of collecting films and teaching a stubborn India the importance of preserving its history. How he salvaged the print of Dadasaheb Phalke’s ‘Kaliya Mardan’ and put the film together with little besides Phalke’s small notebook and his own diligence. How he travelled to remote corners of the country to collect film negatives, even bits. How Ardeshir Irani’s son confessed to having sold his father’s negatives for silver extraction. How he made prints of films that came to FTII for screening without bothering about permission. How he bargained and bartered copies of Indian films for foreign ones. His meeting with Langlois of Paris’ Cinematheque (I particularly loved how unimpressed he was about the meeting with what seemed-like a rather stuffy Langlois purely from the way Nair saab relates the meeting). And how much he now misses being close to what was probably the only love of his life, films.
But that was not all. The legendary man has a legendary memory of the location of every scene in every film he has archived. The NFAI under him collected 12,000 films, 8000 Indian and 4000 foreign. The mind boggles, yes. But that is not all, as he walked around FTII he also recollected memories of the old Prabhat Studios effortlessly. Of a certain make-up room at the then Prabhat Studios and now FTII campus that was Madhubala’s favourite. Of a certain wooden floor having a tank underneath to convert it for outdoor water sequences. Of the sturdy equipment still in use. Of Prabhat Studios being modelled on the best of Hollywood indoor studios. His memory and appetite for trivia seemed as marvellous as his legacy.
Even more marvellous was to watch the number of lives he touched. Lives of the very people who have created our celluloid history. It was immensely humbling to watch each one of them speak ever-so-warmly about their association with him. Of Girish Kasavaralli recalling how his thoroughly neglected Ghattashraddha was restored and archived. Of Jahnua Barua talking of how Nair saab helped him out by giving him a much-need job which he suspects was an unofficial arrangement. Of an aged Jaya Bachchan recalling with the pride of a young student how she was the only girl allowed for night screenings because Nair saab vouched for her dedication. Of Naseeruddin Shah gleefully talking of surreptitious screenings of censored cuts. Of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s awe at being handed the print of Godard’s Breathless to study for as long as he wished. He came across as this strict Guru, dedicated to authentic instruction and learning, willing to go to any lengths to open up a student’s horizons if he sensed the hunger. And of Gulzar saab warmly (rightly) placing him next to Dadasaheb Phalke in importance to our film history.
The film packed in bytes with so many important film personalities, right from Sitara Devi, that it felt like some sort of a masterclass in itself. Maybe it is to accommodate their presence then, it has a loose structure. It pans out as a long-winded stroll down memory lane piecing together the painstaking effort of Nair saab’s work with the sole purpose of celebrating the man and his achievements through his and other’s eyes. I didn’t mind the rather meandering and sometimes repetitive narrative solely because this is one film that proves Roger Ebert wrong. The ‘what’ matters more than the ‘how’. Besides, where do you ever get to listen to the likes of Adoor Gopalkrishnan, Kumar Shahani, Gulzar saab, Saeed Mirza and Shyam Benegal at length, at one place?
The film is an unabashed ode, yet, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur takes care to include controversies surrounding the exclusion of Nair saab post his retirement. Neither does he shy away from asking him a tough question, framing his habit of making copies without permission as ‘stealing’. And keeping the camera rolling through an uncomfortable silence and a louder repetition of the question. It could have been edited out but it wasn’t.
He also goes beyond the purview of Nair saab’s work, into his personal life to give us a better glimpse of the man. Unacknowledged, but I was dreading this part. When have men with a singular passion ever had happy personal lives? What followed were long and touchingly forthcoming interviews with Beena Nair, his daughter who confessed how father was never available during her and her brother’s childhood. But now things had changed as she had accepted that it wasn’t lack of love for them but too much love for films that kept him away. I didn’t want to look at her face closely or read her emotions because it seemed like a preciously personal part of her past she was sharing, who am I to peek into someone’s pain? It touched a raw nerve nevertheless. Having an emotionally unavailable parent isn’t easy, I have one. Besides, there is this incident from childhood sharply imprinted on my memory that it sruck. My father is a huge fan of the Gujarati shayar/poet Mareez. He quotes him off-handedly at any point with a look of pure bliss. Once, he had the opportunity to meet him, that too at his home. My gushing dad asked Mareez to recite a few lines for him and Mareez saab obliged. After the recital, his daughter came forward and thanked my father and said something like, ‘Thanks to you we heard father’s poetry today. He never shares anything with us, ever. He is in his own world, it’s like we don’t exist.’ As a child I understood the girl, as an older person with a few insistent passions of her own, I understand Mareez and Nair saab too today. Passion does that. Separates you from everything. You are alone in it, because there you are already with that one thing you love, you don’t need anyone else.
In more than two hours, what I saw unfold onscreen was a meta experience. A while into the film and it became difficult for me to distinguish between Nair’s passion for films and Dungarpur’s for Nair saab’s work. Because, passion, after all has only one language and if you speak it you understand it and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur clearly does. It made me emotional to see that kind of drive for something considered unimportant and a mere commodity. Because, in my eyes, what the two men had done was save me a chunk of my history, not only as culture but as art via the very medium I love so much. How can I thank them enough for that?
I am leaving you with some of the quotes from the film that stayed with me. (might not be verbatim)
“You can see a hundred years from now; you can see a certain aspect of life which was there only at the time, on that day. It means a lot. It means more than Greek Tragedy where everything is heightened beyond compare. But those very small things get so beautifully manifest (on film). It is the very, I think, soul of art of any kind.” -Kumar Shahani
(It is important for us to preserve our past because) “We have a rich past but a very poor history, whereas the West has a significant past. (Perhaps) Not a rich past, but a very significant history.” – U. R. Ananthamurthy
“Before P.K.Nair, there was no one else. After P.K. Nair there is no one else.” – Shyam Benegal
“As an archivist I cannot accept that we have lost forever the print of Raja Harishchandra”. – P.K. Nair
As a film lover, I cannot accept that either. But at least we had Nair saab.
I don’t remember the last time I felt so raw while watching a film.