Celluloid Man Review
Merely on the surface, a two and a half hour documentary about an elderly man who devoted his professional life to preserving films in India might be a bit of a tough sell to the average viewer. But Celluloid Man, the 2012 film directed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, has something very persuasive in its favor. In the process of telling this story about the dedication of one man to his cause it also serves as a kind of love letter to cinema itself. Those who are passionate about the art of film are absolutely the target audience here, and Celluloid Man should appeal to anyone with a strong interest in world cinema. As such, it's a perfect release for Second Run DVD. The kind of following and trust that Second Run has cultivated over the years with its selection of well-chosen titles means that something like Celluloid Man will be viewed by the exact demographic most likely to appreciate it.
It's a picture, too, that grows on you as it plays, with the time ticking by effortlessly. Its subject P.K. Nair comes across as somewhat uncharismatic, and perhaps crusty when on camera. Interviews with numerous figures of Indian cinema paint a more glowing portrait. Through these seemingly endless testimonials, we learn about Nair's massive contribution to film culture in India. Nair not only spent countless hours tracking down and obtaining prints of thousands of films for archival storage, he also passed on his love of pictures like Rashomon and Bicycle Thieves to students and future filmmakers. The cumulative influence of this one individual was enormous. Had it not been for Nair, the cinema of India past and future would be radically different. He gathered prints like they were food, and for him they sort of were.
Certainly they were fuel for his existence. Any tireless obsession like that would seem to leave little room for anything else. Near the end of the documentary Nair's home life is finally addressed. His daughter is interviewed, and she describes a father who was so consumed with cinema that family was never his main priority. Given what we've seen for the entirety of the picture previous, it's almost surprising Nair even had a wife and children.
A couple of other fleeting moments of conflict burst through the otherwise reverential, inspiring veneer. Closer scrutiny as to Nair having (unofficially) made duplicate prints of some of the films loaned temporarily for screening might have been interesting. That was a practice which was probably quite common but, with years of hindsight, parallels can be drawn to the internet piracy of modern day. Also explored only briefly in the film is how apparently unwelcome Nair is at the very place he played such a huge part in creating. He retired in 1991 but the relationship he has with the archive at the time of filming (2011, roughly) is portrayed as somewhat strained. The implication is that Nair's successors have not been quite as exacting with their standards of preservation, and he's been unafraid to point this out when given the opportunity. If that's the extent of it, blame would be tough to place on him and maybe more attention to the possible carelessness is a good thing.
Returning to the film itself, there's little need for complaint, even considering the somewhat scattershot, unstructured method in which we meet Mr. Nair. A more traditional explanation of his upbringing and subsequent interest in cinema probably wouldn't have grabbed the viewer's attention as well as the approach actually used. If the film goes on a bit long, with some indulgent clips from other movies near the end, then it at least feels earned by that point. The closing message is untarnished. Here is a fellow lover of cinema whose contributions to his country's film heritage and culture deserve to be celebrated. He is, as the film makes the connection, India's answer to Henri Langlois. Without P.K. Nair, the country's cinematic and artistic foundation would be weaker. Celluloid Man contains clips of a number of Indian movies which many people like myself wouldn't have even known existed without the documentary. But the point is that they perhaps would not exist without P.K. Nair's efforts to preserve them.
Second Run brings Celluloid Man to DVD in the UK. The region-free release is in the PAL format.
The film is presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions, on a dual-layered disc. The progressive transfer looks fine. Footage can be somewhat inconsistent across the picture, with one interview looking perhaps more crisp than another. Regardless, it's not a major concern. The clips taken from films frequently do vary but this is to be expected. There's nothing on the whole worth quibbling over in my estimation.
Audio options include both 2.0 stereo and 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks. The dominant language is English but things do slip into Hindi, Kannada, Bengali and Malayalam (according to the back cover) at times. Fixed English subtitles cover everything except the director's brief narration. The soundtrack is consistently clear and unbothered throughout the running time. Some speakers are easier to understand than others, hence the subtitles (which ideally would have still been optional, not forced).
The disc has an interview (12:34) with director Shivendra Singh Dungarpu in which he talks about his own path to the film and how P.K. Nair inspired him.
Inside the case is a 20-page booklet featuring a couple pages' worth of essay-type writing from Mark Cousins on the film. There are also several pages of diary excerpts penned by the director during production.