Rotterdam 2013: 'Celluloid Man' Director on His Quest to Honor Film Archivist

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur details his his long journey to telling the story of archivist P.K. Nair.

ROTTERDAM – Shivendra Singh Dungarpur hasn’t just made a documentary called Celluloid Man; the Indian filmmaker is fast becoming one himself.

While touring the festival circuit with his piece on film archivist P.K. Nair – the International Film Festival Rotterdam is the latest of the film’s 14 stops around the world – the 43-year-old director is also planning a restoration of Sri Lankan classic Nidhanaya. In addition, he's also finishing another documentary on Czech auteur Jiri Menzel.

And that’s not all: Dungarpur, who has already become a British Film Institute patron since his contributions to the restoration of The Lodger, will be starting his own film preservation foundation in March.

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The filmmaker, who hails from a royal household which once reigned over an area in what is now the Indian state of Rajasthan, said he is now working on copyright issues for Lester James Peries’ film, which was produced in 1970 and then won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival two years later. The movie stars Gamini Fonseka as a man who plots the murder of his wife (Malini Fonseka) to obtain a treasure hidden in a rock cave.

He is also working on a documentary on Menzel, who won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 1968 with Closely Observed Trains and the Berlin Film Festival’s top prize in 1990 with Larks on a String – 21 years after the film was completed and subsequently banned by the then-Communist government of Prague.

"I’d rather look at myself as someone who can contribute to the conservation of world cinema," he told The Hollywood Reporter at Rotterdam, “and that’s why I travel around the world to meet filmmakers like Manoel de Oliveira in Portugal, Andrzej Wajda in Poland, Menzel in Prague or [Istvan] Szabo in Hungary. I travel to spread the world in preservation and not just India.”

“But obviously I am first a filmmaker and that’s very important,” he continued. “Unless you’re a student of cinema you wouldn’t understand the long tradition of films and the history behind the films, and the emotions of so many people. It’s like memories, do you throw away photographs of your grandfather?”

Such thinking drives Dungarpur’s production of Celluloid Man, which chronicles the life of Nair, the founding director of the National Film Archive of India. The documentary took two years to make, and has been shown at the New York and Telluride festivals, among others, after its world premiere at Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna last June. The film will next be heading to the Hong Kong International Film Festival in late March.

“When I was a student at the Film Institute in Pune, Nair was the head of the [archive],” said Dungarpur, who began his career as an assistant director to Gulzar before starting his own production company in 2001. “I hardly knew him – he’s someone we looked up to and we were scared to visit him. He was living a retired life outside the archive. When I saw he was forgotten, and when we saw the terrible conditions of the archive, the initial idea was to shoot something to show journalists and people who can write about the condition of the archive and this person who was forgotten and his influence on future generations in India.”

Celluloid Man was born when Dungarpur discovered how Nair could not access the very archive he founded. “We realized he was not allowed into the archive because the government people there felt very insecure about his presence – the normal appointees are not nearly fascinated with films,” he said. “When I took him for the first time I didn’t know he wasn’t allowed. The [archive] director then called me and said, ‘How dare you take P.K. Nair there? How would I know you haven’t stolen some films?’

He was shocked that the man who created the archive "can by can" could not enter.

"The struggle, the 11 months where I took many trips to Pune from Bombay [Mumbai] where I lived, that struggle led me to make my beliefs stronger that I had to convert it into a film.”

Dungarpur said he will launch a foundation – out of his own pocket – in March, with the aim of collaborating with other film conservation institutions and archives.