Color, 2012, 150m.
Directed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
Starring P.K. Nair
Second Run (DVD) (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
The worldwide rise of film preservation took a long time to kick into gear, but its rewards in the past two decades have been a godsend for movie fans of all ages. One country with a particularly ragged history given the sheer quantity of its output is India, and the documentary Celluloid Man puts a fascinating spotlight on one of the saviors of its heritage, P.K. Nair.
A lifelong film lover, Nair truly functions as a kind of archaeologist piecing together fragments of the country's filmic history. That means many vital titles can only be salvaged in a reel or two at a time or even mere scraps, which makes the film a kind of affectionate detective story as well. His work has been ongoing in one form or another since 1964 when he started the film archive at the Film (and now Television) Institute of India, and here we see him at work traveling around the country attempting to salvage essential pieces of the puzzle. A number of other teachers, actors, filmmakers, and enthusiasts espouse the value of his work, but the real joy here lies in watching the restored footage itself. Enchanting slivers of salvaged dreams, these clips are woven into a larger picture of the Hollywood and international films that inspired Nair and set him on what still remains a fairly unique crusade.
Even with a running time as epic as many Indian epics, the film is a remarkably light and fluid piece of work with some beautiful images of Nair either at work or simply sitting in a theater enjoying his favorite art form. Interestingly, his handiwork extends well beyond India to other silent and talking films from all over the globe which remain in circulation for audiences around the country to enjoy. It's a tricky idea to convey visually but this film does it, showing a kind of stone skipping effect as each print saved becomes a part of a cultural mosaic accessible to thousands. There are also more than a few tragic ripples in there as well, with a couple of grim twists of fate leaving his handiwork less than secure.
Making its first release on DVD anywhere in the world, the UK disc from Second Run looks excellent given the fact that the film cobbles together a number of sources in varying conditions. The new documentary footage obviously looks great (with amber used to particularly good visual effect), and the English subtitles appear to be accurate. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track isn't strained too much since it mainly involves music, but the presentation is impressive all the way.
The sole video extra is a new video interview with Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, who talks about how he decided to tackle the project and utilize his own personal film fanaticism to mount what could have been an overwhelming challenge. The enclosed booklet also has an essay about this film's journey by author Mark Cousins as well as some pertinent, touching diary entries written by the director while working on this unique, richly rewarding film.
Reviewed on June 12, 2014.