Watchdog of Indian cinema

After a casual conversation with a few friends over numerous cups of coffee at CCI club, Churchgate and 11 trips to Pune’s National Film Archive of India for permissions, in May 2010, ad-film maker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur began making a docu-drama on PK Nair, the 79 year-old who put together India’s film archive starting in 1964.

Celluloid Man, on PK Nair Pic courtesy/ dungarpur films

This May, Dungarpur put finishing touches to Celluloid Man. “Nair saab can tell you which scene of a particular film is stored in which film can.  Being a student of the Film Institute of India in Pune, I watched him work closely,” says Dungarpur, who is in Telluride, Colorado for the Telluride Film Festival where the documentary is being screened. The documentary has also been selected for the 50th New York Film Festival, and you can catch it at the 14th Mumbai Film Festival organised by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI) in October. 

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur has made a film Pic/Satyajit Desai

The 164 minute-film is in black and white as well as colour with English subtitles. “When I first pitched the idea of making a film on him, he told me clearly that he was ready to be a part of the project only if the film’s real focus was the archives and he was just a part of it,” says Dungarpur, adding that they shot at locations that Nair saab visited to collect and archive films.  “Few are aware that 1,700 silent films were made in India, of which only nine survive, thanks to Nair saab’s efforts. He travelled to remote parts of India to collect and save cans of rare films. 

The poster of the film

The fact that Dadasaheb Phalke is recognised 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,” says Dungarpur, adding that the film features the voices of renowned names in cinema such as Jaya Bachchan, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Rajkumar Hirani and Shabana Azmi.  “When we think cinema, we only think of Bollywood. Nair saab has resurrected regional films as well,” adds Dungarpur. 

When we called Nair, a polished, crisp and deep voice answered the phone. “Today, the archives need a technical man who has knowledge about archiving. Most people in the industry are just concerned about money.  They are worried about returns, not preservation.” When asked about the documentary, he said in wonderment, “It was like watching a film of all the memories and hard work I have put it.” He hopes that the film will be used as a tool to spread awareness among government officials, the film industry and the public.  Today, even after retirement, he stays across the road from the building. “He is like a watchdog, looking over his legacy even today,” Durgarpur concludes. 

Films archived
Dadasaheb Phalke’s Kaliya Mardan; Achhut Kanya and Kismet of Bombay Talkies’ President and Devdas of New Theatres; Uday Shankar’s Kalpana; Sant Tukaram and Prabhat Studios’ Amrit Manthan 

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