Celluloid Man: New York Film Festival Review

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's eye-opening doc is catnip for world-cinema buffs.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's documentary celebrates P.K. Nair, an archivist responsible for rescuing early Indian cinema from disintegration.

NEW YORK — An effective reminder that cinephilia needs more heroes than Henri Langlois, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's Celluloid Man celebrates P.K. Nair, an archivist responsible both for rescuing early Indian cinema from disintegration and introducing generations of his country's aspiring filmmakers to the work of auteurs from around the world. Tailor-made for venues like this festival, the doc will delight the most serious cineastes, especially those whose knowledge of Indian film reaches beyond a few Bollywood musical extravaganzas.

An exaggerated example of a familiar type of film buff, Nair spent his childhood collecting all the memorabilia he could and would sometimes watch a film four times back-to-back in a day. He offered his services to a Bombay film studio in 1955, but before long focused on collecting movies instead of making them, becoming director of the Film & Television Institute of India. We're told that of 1,700 silent films made in India, the nine that survive are Nair's work. Stories about junk-shop finds, bartering with other institutions and covertly duping borrowed prints are familiar stuff when it comes to collectors, but Nair emerges as a particularly dedicated archivist -- and one who believed his job was to preserve everything, letting scholars in a hundred years decide what was worth the effort and what wasn't.

STORY: CAA Signs Deal With India's Largest Talent Agency

Some of the doc's preservationist points are universal: laments over film-vault fires; short-sighted studios who couldn't be bothered storing something when they couldn't make money off it. Present-day footage of film recycling, with a poor man chemically stripping silver off celluloid and hanging the now-imageless clear film to dry, is heartbreaking.

But much of the doc is specific to its setting, with a long line of Indian directors, cinematographers and actors explaining how much their artistic worldviews owe to the man who, long before VHS and DVD, could show them masterworks like Rashomon on demand. We hear of a 3 a.m. Pasolini screening for director John Abraham; another director-to-be, believing he needed to watch a movie 100 times to understand film grammar, was given his own print of Battleship Potemkin. Nair was democratic about spreading movie love, setting up a rural festival where, to this day, nut farmers remember being moved by both Bicycle Thieves and Pather Panchali -- the Indian film hardly less exotic to them, since their homes were too remote for trips to the cinema.

Given its epic, nearly three-hour running time, the film could have spared a few minutes to explain what happened to the Archive after Nair retired. Returning to his old office, Nair finds it a cobwebby storage room, and Dungarpur shows piles of rusting, discarded film cans, suggesting a level of abandonment that may be misleading. Since this archive was almost the entirety of Nair's life (we briefly hear from the daughter who barely new him until he retired), a little more about its current state would have been appropriate.

Production Company: Dungarpur Films

Director: Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

Directors of photography: Santosh Thundiyil, K.U. Mohanan, Avik Mukhopadhyay, P.S. Vinod, H.M. Ramachandra, R.V. Ramani, Vikas Sivaraman, Mahesh Aney, Kiran Deohans, Ranjan Palit, V.Gopinath

Music: Ram Sampath

Editor: Irene Dhar Malik

No rating, 164 minutes