Cinematic fanaticism has been tackled in factual form before, perhaps most notably in Xan Cassavetes’ Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (a title which would equally befit this film). But while the subject of that feature, Jerry Harvey, proved to be a dark and ultimately tragic personality, the legendary lead figure in director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s fascinating 2012 debut Celluloid Man (released last year in India to tie in with the country’s centenary of home-grown cinema) proves to be both a heroic and endearing advocate of film conservation. Indian cinema is a hugely prolific industry, and that was also the case during the silent era, which saw several hundred titles churned out.
Tragically, a mere handful of the aforementioned releases actually remain in print. Step forward archivist P. K. Nair, the Indiana Jones of film discovery who has spent a career hunting down lost and forgotten titles, and has shown an unswerving dedication to collecting titles from India and all over the world. Like the grown-up protagonist in 1988’s Cinema Paradiso, Nair is often glimpsed at whilst bathed in the glow of a flickering cinema screen as the film depicts a man with an all-consuming passion. Clearly a labour of love for Dungarpur, the film takes an exhaustive look at the subject, and at close to two-and-a-half hours in length, it may prove challenging at times for even the most ardent cinéaste. Thankfully, the enthusiasm of Nair – now a retired 81-year-old – thankfully shows little sign of abating just yet.
He remains a fascinating guide as he takes the viewer on a journey around the once thriving production houses in his neighbourhood, and talks about his sometimes unethical means of ensuring copies of films were made for his collection. One fun anecdote sees Nair successfully negotiate a prized copy of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) from a visiting distributor, promising in exchange a print of the rare Satyajit Ray classic, 1955’s Pather Panchali. The film is populated with a number of interviews from prominent Indian critics and film-makers, their vivid recollections of watching one of Nair’s films, highlighting the important cultural exchange and communal experiences of the medium. One contributor early on makes a fitting analogy between the brief life of a butterfly and that of film, with the need for conservation and allowing future generations to discover what has come before. As physical film rapidly gives way to digital media, Celluloid Man’s illuminating and impassioned case for continual film preservation resonates deeply.