In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director - Alfred Hitchcock.
With due respect to Alfred Hitchcock's ideas, I dare say that here is a documentary which is far more relevant and heavier in content than most of the feature films where god is not the director. In fact, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's National Award winning documentary 'Celluloid Man' is a film appreciation course in itself.
The film attains more importance because 2013 is the 100th year of Indian cinema and 'Celluloid Man' is a documentation of the evolvement of a phenomenon called films in a country which draws its cultural references from celluloid.
The documentary revolves around the work of Paramesh Krishnan Nair, the man responsible for building the National Film Archive of India, and covers a span of almost 70 years.
'Celluloid Man' showcases the tradition of film archiving and showcasing in India and how films amalgamated in the daily lives of common Indians.
'Celluloid Man' can broadly be considered as a biography but it is multi-layered and deals with different forms of preserved history and the cultural artifacts which form the popular conscience towards an art form.
Unlike most of the audacious subjects of biographical documentaries, the subject is a man who is known for breaking the ceiling between the ideal and social environments. PK Nair recalls about his childhood and how he started to collect film related items at a tender age without falling into an unapologetic self-praise mode.
He understands the personalised nature of his work but seldom does he reveal the difficulties of his job as an individual. Nair never becomes translucent about the nature of a true archivist despite eminent film personalities showering tons of praise over him. He remains like a saint whose enthusiasm towards the art of archiving films knows no boundary, in fact, so much so that he accepts to call himself a film archivist despite wanting to be a filmmaker initially.
The film tries to bring PK Nair on par with Henri Langlois, the legendary founder of Cinematheque, but very soon establishes new standard bars for rest of the archivists across the globe. Shivendra Singh's painstaking research gets reflected in the number of commentators he has interviewed for the film. Shyam Benegal, Jaya Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah, Krysztof Zanussi, Gulzar, Saeed Mirza, Mahesh Bhatt, Kumar Sahani, Mrinal Sen, you just name it. Sometimes these notions look pre-conceived because how does everyone have a different story to tell, but the moment you take a look at Nair's contribution in arranging nearly 12,000 prints for NFAI, you know that you're not witnessing a man's journey but viewing history taking shape.
Further, 'Celluloid Man' is not merely a biography as its undertone brings forth a lot of burning questions. If nut farmers of a remote area can relate to Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' just because somebody shouldered the responsibility of showcasing them the film, how can the government be so oblivion towards the fast dying art of preserving prints. The creative epitomes of masters reached to provide the villagers a vision for the future only because people like Nair sacrificed their leisure to create a bank of film prints.
Had he not been there, people would have challenged whether 'Raja Harishchandar' was India's first story film or not!
The photogenic memory of Nair Saab, perfectly captured in the documentary, will force you to take his name with respect. The commentaries and imaginative visuals will make you think about red tapism, about the lost documents, about a selfless man, and about a teacher who created pupils who later evolved as the innovators of Indian cinema.
Both the content and the form lead 'Celluloid Man' to become a must watch. Apart from goosebump moments during rare footage of historical films, 'Celluloid Man' is directed with aplomb. The director has used metaphors that will wrench your heart, for example when he juxtaposes the shots of the rotting cans over the dialogue of a girl who doesn't want to die, you will feel a revulsion within yourself about the system.
The introductory black and white shots are superb and establish just the perfect mood. Thanks to its crisp editing, 'Celluloid Man' holds the audience's attention for 150 minutes, a noteworthy feat to achieve for a documentary based on just one principal character.
It's a must watch film even if you don't like documentaries, simply because a piece of art needs patrons to survive and then thrive.