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The temperature wasn’t right. And thus, Celluloid Man was born.

Advertising filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary on P. K .Nair, the legendary founder-director of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), wasn’t originally meant to be a 164-minute film. It started out a few years ago with a visit by Dungarpur and Nair to the government-run archive, which Nair set up in 1964. They realised that films reels were being stored at the wrong temperature levels. “I thought I would shoot something and show it to my pals in news channels," Dungarpur said. “I wanted to make a noise about the cans sitting there and rusting."

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The self-financed and self-produced documentary is Dungarpur’s archive of India’s pre-eminent archivist. The film braids together conversations between director and subject and interviews with eminent filmmakers, actors and scholars across the country.Nair reveals how he set up the archive from scratch, visiting the defunct studios and homes of the pioneers of Indian cinema to ask for reels and archival material. Dungarpur takes Nair back to Nashik, where the family of pioneering filmmaker Dhundiraj Govind Phalke lives and where the first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra , was shot.

The documentary includes clips of classic Indian films that Nair procured for the archive.“I am happy that through Nair, we are able to talk about the history of Indian cinema," the 43-year-old filmmaker said. “Nair said he would do the documentary only if I talked about the history and preservation of Indian cinema. When I was working on the film, he said to me, the film is tilting towards me, why are you doing this? He was worried about the length of the film. When he came for the first screening, however, he was very moved."

P K Nair at the National Film Archive of India (NFAI).
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P K Nair at the National Film Archive of India (NFAI).

The idea of preservation works on many levels in the film. Apart from Nair’s efforts and Dungarpur’s project to recognise those efforts, the documentary addresses the filmmaker’s concerns about the death of celluloid and its replacement with digital technology. Celluloid Man has been shot by an army of cinematographers on 16mm film stock. The audio track from the climax of Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara , in which its lead character cries out in Bengali, “I want to live", is laid over images of film cans. Dungarpur also throws in a sequence of workers melting film reels for scrap.

However, the film doesn’t delve into the science of film preservation. “We did shoot a bit about this, but I couldn’t include it because of the length," Dungarpur explained.

The heart wobbles at the sight of so many talking heads in a documentary that celebrates the moving image, but Dungarpur said the approach was necessary. “I was clear that I didn’t want to adopt any sort of form in making the documentary where the communication is not upfront," the 43-year-old filmmaker said. “I wanted the message to be drilled into people’s heads. I didn’t want visuals to overpower the communication. The conditions are so bad at the archive. We have only 8,000 films after a hundred years of cinema. I don’t think India has a sense or feel for restoring anything – films, structures, whatever. We don’t have a culture of preservation."

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Dungarpur’s interest in cinema was stoked by his grandparents, who screened old Hindi films and Hollywood classics for him at his home. In 1991, Dungarpur came to Mumbai after finishing his education in Delhi to assist Gulzar. The lyricist and filmmaker gave him a VHS tape of his first “different kind of film": Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali . Dungarpur’s exposure to international cinema deepened when he enrolled at the Film and Television Institute of India later that year. The NFAI office was a few doors down from the FTII campus, and regular screenings of films from the archive’s collection ensured a connection between both the institutes. “There, I was thrown open to the spectrum of cinema by Nair," Dungarpur said. “As Saeed Mirza says in my film, we found ourselves through the films Nair showed us. We understood what we wanted to do and what kind of films we wanted to make."

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What does remain of the 79-year-old’s archivist’s legacy is the urge to preserve cinemas for future generations – a task that Dungarpur is carrying out in his own fashion. Apart from helping the World Cinema Foundation preserve such films as Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (which will also be screened at the festival) and the films of Sri Lankan director Lester James Peries, Dungarpur has also been carrying out a solo project of audio-visual documentation over the past few years. He has been interviewing European masters about their films, including Miklós Jancsó, Istvan Szabo, Andrzej Wajda, Manoel de Oliveiraand Kryzstof Zanussi. Conversations with Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel will be distilled into a documentary later this year. “What I wanted to do is preserve films – after all, I have learnt from these masters by seeing their films," Dungarpur said.

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