May 09, 2013

Celluloid Man

I watched some of Sooraj Barjatya's films on YouTube last month. It has been made officially available there by Rajshri. I just had to spend about ten seconds and the movie was playing on my screen. If it were not available there, I could have (illegally) downloaded it, or hired a DVD from the nearest library. Watching films, in the age that we live, is as easy as that. The availability, mostly, is not an issue. Now let us go back to the late 60s. Can we, those living in this era, imagine how difficult it would have been to watch movies way back then? There was no DVD or VCR, and the only way to watch a movie was to wait for it be screened at a theatre near you. Perhaps, those from our generation will never be able to feel the longing and the joy that cinephiles experienced back then. Romance has definitely changed completely, with technology, and it includes the romance with films.

So when Sanjeev Kumar signed Satyajit Ray's 'Shatranj Ke Khiladi', and realised that he hadn't watched any of the master's films, he could not download it from the internet or order it from BigFlix. He did not have UTV World Movies on his TV. And he definitely did not want to face Ray without having any knowledge of his cinema - he was too embarrassed. So he went to Pune and contacted Mr. PK Nair, the founder and director of National Film Archive of India. The Archive had several of Ray's movies. Sanjeev Kumar rented a flat in Pune, stayed there for several weeks, and watched all these films, projected at the Archive auditorium. Imagine, what he would have done if there were no Ray movie there, or worse, there were no Archive!

The first Indian talkie, 'Alam Ara', was made in 1931. Today, the movie is untraceable. It is lost. That invaluable film of historic and aesthetic significance is not with us any more. Possibly its last print is buried in some abandoned junkyard, fungi growing over spools of a dream that its maker Ardeshir Irani had made possible, of a film that had driven the Indian audience crazy just because the characters on the screen had begun to talk! The state of India's first fiction film 'Raja Harishchandra' (1913) is much better. Of its 40 minutes, only about 16 minutes have been found and archived. At the film club in our medical college, we once had the screening of whatever has survived of that remarkable film - the precursor of what we call Indian Cinema.

We, Indians, have had a glorious past, but a very poor history. The West has had a significant past, but a very significant history. These lines from the documentary 'Celluloid Man' (2013) ring so true even with respect to our cinema. There is so much to regret about what has been lost - so much of dream and passion and hard work now gone forever. There is a scene in the documentary where spools of film are sold at the rate of some hundred rupees per kilo, and then silver is extracted out of the film, reducing the magic of motion picture written over it to uselessly non-biodegradable plastic - hauntingly blank and colourless, reminding me of the ghastly slaughterhouse scenes from the 1949 French documentary: 'The Song of the Beasts'. So yes, there is a lot to regret about. But what 'Celluloid Man' does manage to achieve is honour and thank and celebrate the efforts of Mr. Nair, who can be rightly called the custodian of the Indian film tradition.

It is a long documentary, two hours and forty minutes. And it has numerous references to films and film-makers from across the world. So, I don't know if I can recommend it to all. But for me, it was perhaps the best way to celebrate the Centenary of Indian Cinema. I hope you can feel my joy when I saw the villagers of a small Karnataka village talk about 'Bicycle Thieves' and 'Rashomon' - having watched them during the screenings held there from the prints archived at NFAI. Or the moment when Mr. Nair is mouthing the lines of Charles Kane, with the 'greatest movie ever made' playing on the screen behind him. Or the theme music of '8 1/2' rising in the background. Or Naseeruddin Shah talking about Vittorio Di Sicca. 'Celluloid Man' is a film its maker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur can be proud of. It is relevant, and it is moving, and I didn't want it to end. Of the powerful images from it, perhaps the most unforgettable and hair-raising would be the images of abandoned film cans, shrouded with cob-webs, neglected and ignored, and the unforgettable line from Ghatak's 'Meghe Dhaka Tara' (1960) - "Dada, aami baanchte chaayi" (I want to survive, brother!) echoing on the sound-track. It was a moment that made me feel helpless and sad, for all films that are lost today. If cinema is forever, it is only because of the tireless efforts by people like PK Nair, who unarguably is one of the biggest cinephiles this land has produced.


  1. The rating stars cannot do justice to this movie. As this is not a movie. It is a bitter truth about this unique job for which not even those care whose hard work is being take care by this man. Its a story of a man's dedication of his life to an art and a struggle which no one notices and no one cares for.

  2. Saw it at PVR Goregaon. The audi was less than half filled but everybody was totally engaged by it despite its length. Now am looking forward to Ship of Theseus among Indian films, which have been hearing about a lot and so glad that its finally getting a release. Also Dabba has been getting good feedback from Cannes i think.