We all know the first
full-length Indian film ever made was the silent movie Raja
Harischandra, by Dadasaheb Phalke. We are all familiar with the extravagant
drum dance from Chandralekha. We have seen the grainy footage of
Ashok Kumar as a young man, of the first actresses who replaced men in drag, of
Fearless Nadia, of the earliest talkies filmed in this country. We have spent nostalgic
weekend afternoons watching special shows on the cinema of the forties and
fifties on television. But before Celluloid Man was made, few
of us knew about the man responsible for preserving that precious footage—P. K.
Nair or “Nair Saab” as he is known among his friends and students. The
archivist is a legend in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII),
Pune, to which he dedicated nearly all his working years.
Award-winning filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, an alumnus of FTII, decided to do some archiving of his own—immortalising Nair Saab’s contribution to cinema. The film won two National Awards but more importantly, established Nair’s place in history. In this interview, he speaks about the challenges involved in making the film, the hurdles he encountered, and the emotional ride that the process was.
You’ve made such an incredible film. It picked up two National Awards, and there’s been a lot of critical acclaim. But why did it have such a limited run in theatres? It disappeared from screens before many of us knew about it.
Honestly, PVR Cinemas killed the film. See, a lot of people do not know about PVR’s activities. They feel that through Director’s Rare [a venture that is branded as a forum for independent cinema], PVR is doing something very noble. Today, every company is forced to do two per cent CSR [corporate social responsibility]. So PVR puts this down as a CSR activity. But they don’t do any marketing or publicity for these films. Except for Bombay and Bangalore, they gave me the worst timings everywhere. Then they cancelled my shows in Calcutta and Hyderabad to accommodate some other film. And ticket prices in Delhi were absurd, some 1200 bucks. At the same time, you were getting Shootout at Wadala and Bombay Talkies for Rs.400-500—why would people watch this?
Now, this film was not made with the intention of making a lot of money. It was made with the intention of reaching out to people, and making sure they heard about Mr. P. K. Nair. I wanted that, in Mr. Nair’s lifetime, at least one film be released on his contribution to cinema. He is someone whom the government has continuously denied the Phalke Award, in fact any sort of recognition, including the Padma awards. My idea was to bring Nair Saab into the limelight, and 100 years of India cinema seemed the best occasion. But sadly, PVR took the film on and damaged it more than I could have imagined; not only did they spend nothing on it, they took nearly Rs.4 lakh from me to release the film.
I know the film has done the festival rounds, but are you planning to screen it again on the circuit?
Well, it’s already done 25 international film festivals. We screened it in Mumbai in 2012. Chennai rejected it saying they don’t take documentaries, which is just sad. But Bangalore, Trivandrum, Calcutta, Bombay have all shown it. The truth is that, by the time the film got its due and people started talking about it, it had already gone from a lot of places. And it picked up majorly only when we started getting foreign recognition.
I do wish we’d managed to release the film the way it should have been; I wish it had reached out. But now I’m okay sending it to various film clubs and people who missed out to watch it for free. I’m not interested in any sort of market orientation on this film. I’m happy to show it for free, at any point, anywhere.
The Aurobindo Ashram is screening the film this month. I believe somebody happened to talk about it, and they said they wanted to show this particular film to all the ashram’s followers—I was a bit surprised, but they said they have a huge auditorium, and they will get that many people and they’ve given me a date. They want to show it on 35mm. Also, someone from Madurai wrote to me saying people there want to see it. I never wrote to any of these places, but they have approached me.
I’m surprised that the
Chennai International Film Festival refused to screen it. A large part of Celluloid
Man is about the Tamil film industry.
Exactly. I’ve written to them a number of times, but the festival organisers didn’t even want to see it. Many people from there, of course, have written features on it, including Baradwaj Rangan of The Hindu. And what’s sad is that a large part of the film is about productions from there—Balu Mahendra is featured in it, and we talk about S. S. Vasan’s films, and Nair Saab’s relationship with the filmmakers. And, of course, there’s a section on Chandralekha. We also featured a small segment which we didn’t elaborate on, about an American director responsible for the careers of MGR and Karunanidhi and lots of others—Ellis R. Dungan, who made Meera with M. S. Subbulakshmi, and Ambikapathy and all of those. I think Mani (Ratnam) touched upon the fact that Dungan is the one who found MGR, in his film, Iruvar.
What gave you the idea for the documentary? In Celluloid Man, there are clippings from the film Jacques Richard made on Henri Langlois. Did watching that film make you think about India’s own archivist, or did you always know you wanted to make a film on Nair Saab?
No, the Jacques Richard documentary was used only to look at Langlois’ achievement with his work on the archives in France, as compared to P. K. Nair. But the idea for the film was initially not film and Nair Saab. It was about the condition of the archive, what happens to the films lying there, what is the future of these films, what is the government going to do about these films, what next, because they might be destroyed the way things are going. This thought occurred to me when I went to the archive and saw the condition in which films were kept. I was pretty upset they had sort of neglected what is India’s cinema past. There was no personalised care—it was like pick up these cans, put it here, put it there. And I think the people running it didn’t even know the names of films which were there. So I was initially interested in that aspect, and I wanted to bring Nair Saab to the archive he had built, and speak about this issue.
But then, I got to know that Nair Saab was not allowed back into the archive. He was this retired man, living just outside the archive, and forgotten, really. And I think that gave me the idea that something must be done about this man. Because even though I hardly interacted with him when I was in FTII as a student, he was an icon to us, this legend. He had an aura, and there were all these little myths about him. We used to see him come down to the theatre to show us films, to talk about films and basically, he created a world for us at the FTII: a world which was entirely of cinema. We lived, drank and ate cinema, thanks to Mr. P. K. Nair. So I was aghast to see how he was forgotten, left with no role to play anymore. And the very films he had acquired with so much difficulty and shown us were now lying abandoned.
So I think the combination of those factors, and the desire to get Mr. Nair recognition, was what made me want to do the documentary. The world he single-handedly created at FTII has affected us so deeply. And through his story, I also wanted to look at the history of Indian cinema, and the way it has developed. And very importantly, it had to be the history of Indian cinema, not just Bollywood. P. K. Nair was the man who collected cans and cans of film from all over India.
That idea was the strongest in the documentary—that he built this single-handedly, and that he opened your eyes to a world of cinema that you would otherwise not have had access to. But before you, no one seems to have completed a documentary on him, though he says people made attempts. Why do you think that is? Many of our best-recognised filmmakers are FTII graduates.
I think there were people who were contemplating doing something about him, but I think nobody got down to doing it. Because one thing is, it’s not easy to convince him to shoot with you. Second, I think, with this sort of topic, your way of looking at things is important. So unless you have a thought process which matches his in terms of the ideals of what he has set out to do, it would be difficult to see it through.
For me, Celluloid Man was a journey—it was not only about P. K. Nair, but also about how I discovered myself, for myself. Through the film, I learnt what I wanted to be, what I wanted to do. That’s why we kept it a very organic process. I did write a few things for the script, and I said we need to film certain things; I want these shots in and so on. But the rest of it came as we went along and shot, and that’s why we got into so many aspects of cinema.
The inspiration came from people, from places, from films, from P. K. Nair himself, and it was that process which was the most exciting—that you discover P. K. Nair completely, but in the process you discover yourself. In the sense, you’re already within that world that he has created, but what are you going to do next about it? Are you going to let go, or are you going to allow people to let go, or are you going to do something about it? The only way for me to go was to do something about it.
How do you see
yourself playing a role in the preservation of cinema, in future?
I think for me the biggest challenge in life is two things: one is, of course, cinema being such an integral aspect of my life, I believe the only way forward as far as India is concerned is to look back and preserve. Because when you preserve, you’re also creating; you’re mapping the future, the kind of films and the kind of works that will come out, that draw from the past.
What is lost is gone. But what is left should be preserved. So I look at my role as, for one, to try and change the way films are categorised. Cinema is not just entertainment, it is part of our cultural heritage. I want to convince people, to convince filmmakers, to not only preserve films, but the artefacts and anything else involved in making them. That’s one of the most important aspects of it for me. And I think we need to create viable ways of doing this, even from the government’s point of view. There is no law that says Phalke’s cinema should be preserved, or that the place where he lived, or where he shot his films, should be preserved.
I also think charge of cinema should be taken out from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, because there it is just seen as a form of entertainment. It should fall into the Ministry of Culture, where we start looking at all kinds of films—feature, non-feature, documentary—as an important aspect of our national heritage and culture, and formulate laws to preserve that heritage.
Do you think commercial cinema has taken the focus away from this heritage aspect? There have been many mainstream actors and directors who have been in positions of power in politics. But they don’t seem to have done anything for the preservation of the larger Indian cinema.
Yeah, I think that’s the really sad part, that none of them, whether it’s Bollywood or the actors in Chennai, have done anything for the preservation of cinema. Let me talk about regional cinema first: how many chief ministers have come from the film background in Tamil Nadu? You have MGR, you have Karunanidhi, you have Jayalalithaa—but is there even one film museum there? What happened to the first film ever made there? Nothing exists! A state which is so, so powerful in terms of its cinematic presence—three chief ministers from the industry—and it doesn’t have a film museum. It doesn’t have any way to project what even they have created. Andhra Pradesh had N. T. Rama Rao as chief minister, and Kannada actors like Rajkumar have had such a big influence in their state, but what have they done for the preservation of their cinema?
I think the overall perception of cinema has to change in the minds of the people, because right now, we’re only looking at the present. Once something has made us money, it’s over and gone. What we create, we throw. It’s only after 50 years that we realise oh, shit, it’s gone, we should have preserved it.
Another important thing is that we don’t say that only a niche kind of cinema merits preservation, and not commercial cinema. All cinema that is seen by people, liked by people, should be preserved. We do expect that people who are part of the creative process, whether in Bollywood, the Tamil industry, or the Telugu industry, have to take a far more important position in society, in terms of the preservation of their films. I believe Aamir Khan is very particular about that—he goes about preserving his films, his work, his heritage, and a few other filmmakers do too. But people who, as you said, are in positions of power have to get involved in the archiving and preservation of films, of making policy that is conducive to it.
In the documentary,
you said it took a year and 11 visits to convince P. K. Nair to shoot. Why was
it so hard?
Well, it wasn’t just convincing him. I had to make 11 visits to the National Film Archive. You see, what’s happened is he isn’t allowed into the archive, for reasons only the archive knows. I took a long time to convince them. There were constant trips by my assistant; there were constant trips by me. We had to write letters; we had to speak to the authorities about why we needed to shoot there. And that was really absurd, because this is the man who created the archive, who’s the founder of the archive, the father of the archive, and he’s suddenly prevented from entering the archive. We couldn’t understand that aspect of it, and it was very frustrating.
But, yes, the next challenge was Nair Saab, because he kept saying, “If the documentary is about film preservation, then I’m willing to be a part of it. But if the film is about me, then I don’t want to be a part of it.” So he wasn’t keen to make a film about himself—let it be about preservation, let it be about restoration, let it be about the important aspects of India’s cinematic history, and how we need to look after it, how we need to take it forward. That’s what took the time—we started in 2010, and finished in 2012, so it was three years in the making.
I look at my role as, for one, to try and change the way films are categorised. Cinema is not just entertainment, it is part of our cultural heritage. I want to convince filmmakers to not only preserve films, but the artefacts and everything else involved in making them.
For the film itself, there was so much travelling you had to do, so many people you had to contact, so many different permissions you needed to secure in order to shoot. Were you ever afraid that the film would not get made, that it would stay in the cans?
No, actually, I was just enjoying the journey. Like I said, I was discovering myself. So, for me, it was just a question of time until I figured this is enough, I’m going to end the film now. I didn’t think about whether it would stay in the cans, or how it would release. As I went along, I was creating new things, I was finding new things. Yeah, there were difficult moments: for example, when we needed to get footage from international film archives, like France. And then there were the mounting expenses—there was a lot of travelling; and we shot entirely on film, which is expensive. And I was spending my own money on it.
But I don’t think I ever thought about whether it would be complete. I just thought about where I should end it, what I should keep, what I should leave out. Even after ending the film where I did, I never felt it was over. I kept feeling I should have done this, and I should have done that. With this kind of film, it’s difficult to find a beginning and difficult to find an end. I think the key was just to enjoy the process, and to feel you learnt something. Some people have asked me if I intend to make a sequel to it. And I say, what is a sequel, I could have gone on and on with this forever.
I was surprised by how coherent the film seemed, because going by the enormity of what you have done and the time you spent on it, there must have been a whole lot you left out.
Oh, yeah, there’s a huge amount we left out. We left out chunks of interviews with Girish Kasaravalli, Ashutosh Gowariker, and several other scenes. We left out a lot of stuff because we couldn’t quite fit it in. And there were some things I wanted to get in which I couldn’t, because people wouldn’t allow me to shoot. The most difficult part of the industry was of course, Chennai. Though we do have Kamal Haasan and Balu Mahendra and others in the film, I also wanted to shoot in AVM and in Gemini Studios, in the office where Vasan used to sit. We couldn’t go anywhere with that. The people there were not helpful. We couldn’t get a lot of the prints—the sad part is, most of it is destroyed and gone. And everything has become so commercial. I don’t think they still realise the importance of preserving film. It was all we could do to go into the National Archive and formulate what would go into the film.
P. K. Nair isn’t allowed into the archive, for reasons only the archive knows. That was really absurd, because this man is the founder of the archive, the father of the archive, and he’s suddenly prevented from entering it. We couldn’t understand that aspect of it, and it was very frustrating.
One of the scenes I found most troubling was the one where you’re filming celluloid being stripped of silver to be used for bangles. How hard was it for you to actually watch these images being erased, and not say “Stop, I’ll pay you, I’ll buy all of this”?
It was very difficult to watch. And it was difficult to shoot too. First, it wasn’t easy to find this place, and convince them to shoot the process. We knew the area where this might happen. But we didn’t have a real lead. A lot of people said they do this in the night, they don’t do this in the day, and you can’t film it. So, when we found that place, one of the conditions we agreed on was that we would not show the faces of the workers, and another was that we would not disturb them in their work.
And for me, filming it was like ... see, it’s like when you shoot a hunter killing an animal, you shoot the whole hunting process and show it to people and make people aware of what goes on. The same way, for me to stop that process, to ask him to sell this film, would mean that he would not allow me to shoot it. So it was more important that we kept quiet and let people see what happens to these films, how they would remove silver from film. I had to leave it for the audience to figure out why this is wrong. That was a conscious decision.
There’s a rather amusing bit in the documentary when you ask Mr. P. K. Nair whether he stole films, and he gets very offended. Were you afraid he would walk out?
Yes. I was afraid. In fact, more than my being afraid he would walk out, it was a very difficult question to ask, because you don’t want to be rude, and you don’t want to cross that line with someone who has been your teacher. He wasn’t exactly my teacher, but he has contributed to who I am, to who all of us from FTII are.
But he has seen a lot of aspiring filmmakers, and he understood that when you’re making a documentary like this, you have to be upfront about it. And all of us who have ever been in FTII wanted to know the answer to that question. And I wanted to know. I used to hear the same story, about how he has these copies, these prints made in the lab and has them shown to us. And the first time I asked him, he didn’t say anything at all. So you’ll see that there’s a cut there. And then the second time, he answered—he said that it was not a good thing to ask an archivist, but he answered it. I think he was hurt, but he answered it fairly and honestly, and that’s incredible. I think that was the most important thing I captured.
What is your own
opinion of the legalities involved? Because rights are expensive, distribution
is a pain, and often, some of the best films made here have a limited run in
the theatres, because the mass audience doesn’t want them.
There are several things involved here. Yes, rights are very expensive, and screening international films can be complicated. But as far as our own films releasing and no one getting to know is concerned, I think the government is at least partly at fault. They give us National Awards, but don’t make provisions for the films to be released properly.
The government doesn’t
have a single theatre of its own where we can screen these films and show them
to the public at a lower price. They have left us to market vultures, like PVR,
who completely destroyed my film. They didn’t market it, they did nothing to
promote it, they released it for a few days, and took a huge amount of money
So a group of independent filmmakers are looking into this. We’re demanding from the government to give us a theatre where we can showcase independent films.
Secondly, like I said before, there should be a law that talks about films and film memorabilia as an important national and cultural heritage.
Thirdly, the NFAI should have a proper director—who loves film, who understands film, who is able to contribute—because the role of the NFAI has been long forgotten. It just exists, and they’re not contributing in any way to the preservation and the cultural aspect of film.
To get back to the film, the way you framed and shot the documentary reminded me of Cinema Paradiso. Part of it was the tribute-to-cinema aspect, but also this old man speaking while some of the greatest cinema made across the world plays in the background.
Yes. Filming it that way was a conscious decision. You know, the inspirations are so many, when you’re making a film like this. It’s very difficult to say what was inspired from where. But, yeah, being a man of cinema, who has been immersed in those images of films I’ve seen and which I’ve been shown by Nair Saab, I wanted him against that backdrop.
You chose to shoot the documentary on film, despite the higher expense it would entail.
Yes, this is a documentary on film. I think cinema has its own charm when you shoot on film, more than digital, that is irreplaceable ... the smell, the sound, the lighting, the feel, and we wanted to make sure we paid this tribute to Nair Saab. He is a man who collected film in cans and cans and cans across the country. How could you shoot him on digital when this man has spent his whole life in film? For him, everything revolves around celluloid, and that’s the way in which he thinks of his life. So I had to put him on celluloid.
However much one loves cinema, it’s a tedious job to do the sort of thing Mr Nair has done—to note down the details of every shot in a film, notes on the quality of the print, and so on. Do you see anyone being groomed to take over from him?
I think it has to come from within. Nair Saab was not trained to be an archivist. He had that within him. And India is a large country, so I don’t think it should be difficult to find somebody who is passionate about film, who will take care of our national heritage, our national pride and legacy Nair Saab left behind, which needs to be taken forward. I think one can find someone who is of the same mindset, but who is perhaps better than he is at taking cinema to the next generation, to the next century. Because it’s been 100 years. We want someone to see that our heritage is taken forward for the next 100 years, in a way that people will remember the archive ... that once there used to be a Nair Saab, who built this archive.
When you took him back to all those places, it was obvious that it was causing him a lot of heartbreak, to see that the places he had built so lovingly were maintained so poorly. Was it hard to be there while he went through that?
Yes, it was hard. At the same time, there were some very beautiful moments. We didn’t tell him where we were taking him. We’d just say come here. And a lot of times, he reacted as if he was seeing things, reliving his memories. And that was an emotional thing for us also. I mean, living these moments with him, we forgot we were shooting this. It was like we were inhabiting the same time and the same space with him. You should see the way he opens a can of film, and looks at a film. It’s as if a father is looking at his own child for the first time, you know, it’s exactly like that. These films in cans, they’re like his children. So it was very emotional.
What has happened to festivals like Cannes? Where have their ideals disappeared? What are they picking up? It's become very commercialised.
At what other points when you were filming did you feel most happy, or most sad, yourself? I’m guessing the worst part was watching all those films being washed off for their silver.
Yes, that was very tough. The happy part I think was when we went to Heggodu village in Karnataka, where the villagers, the farmers, would talk about the wonderful films which they saw (arranged by K. V. Subbanna, who had done a film appreciation course at the FTII and brought copies to the village). That was the exciting part.
There were lots of moments like that, but the sad part was when we got to know that very few silent films exist, that most of them had disappeared. The sad part was to see that the film cans were stored so badly at the archive. It was quite upsetting that they were not taking care of the places where these films were to be preserved for posterity. The sad part was to see Nair Saab come back to the archive and see what had become of it. The happy moments were to be with Nair Saab, to find out how he built the archive.
You also took the film beyond his career. A large part of Celluloid Man was preservation of film and what he has done for cinema. But you also spoke to Mr. Nair’s daughter, you looked at how little his family saw of him, and there’s a sense that they had to make a sacrifice too.
Yeah. I think in India, people don’t understand how much someone has dedicated themselves to their work, unless it goes beyond those timings, you know, to dominate every aspect of his life. Now, family is one of the most important aspects of one’s life. And it was important to look at how he went beyond his own family, in his passion for preserving film. Now, how do you show the alienation within his own family, the fact that he was so detached that the only thing that mattered was film? The only way to do that was to reach out to his family, to ask them what it was like, to be with someone who only talks about films, to whom the thing that matters most in the world is film. And we caught the emotional aspect of it: when his daughter was speaking, she began to cry. We didn’t keep that, because we didn’t want to make it melodramatic, but she did cry. For her, it was looking back and understanding those memories of where she had to struggle to be with him.
You spoke about how the film was made very organically. It must have been a nightmare when you got down to the editing.
Yeah, it was! My editor Irene Dhar Malik did an incredible job, and won a National Award for it. She had so much footage, so many versions—there was film footage, photographs, clippings from film, interviews, and all shot in different formats. How to bring all that together? I think she did a remarkable job.
It’s sad that the film didn’t make it to Cannes this year, because the Festival is celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema, and I don’t think any other film showcases it so beautifully.
That’s the problem. I’ve just, in fact, been writing a speech I’m to make in London, about how unfortunate it is that these festivals have turned so commercial. I’m not talking about my documentary alone. They showed Bombay Talkies in 100 years of Indian cinema but goddammit, there are so many other aspects of Indian cinema which exist, which films have looked at. What has happened to festivals like Cannes? Where have their ideals disappeared? What are they picking up? It’s become very commercialised.
Most people who come out of FTII have this leaning towards making their own feature films, rather than documentaries. But you have made documentary your preferred medium. Your next project is on Jiří Menzel, right?
That’s right. I’ve just finished shooting it, and I will be editing it, and hopefully it will be finished by the end of this year. To answer your question about choosing documentary, well, whether it’s P. K. Nair or Jiří Menzel, I think the lead is through films. It is films that led me to make documentaries on these personalities. Because I have been so influenced by the films one has shown, and the films the other has made. I don’t think I look at documentary as a different entity. I look at it as being part of cinema.
When these people showed me films, they are a part of these films, the films are extensions of them. And I look at it from that point of view.