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The cinephile on a mission

The restoration man

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LEADING MAN: A lot of red tape had to be cut to get the permission to shoot NFAI's founder, PK Nair (right), at the archives

He drove the campaign to salvage Uday Shankar's 'Kalpana' and is among those who funded the restoration of the silent Hitchcock classic, 'The Lodger', being screened next week in London. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur is a cinephile on a mission to save priceless bits of celluloid. Summer holidays in Dumraon in the '70s, the erstwhile zamindari state in Bihar, invariably meant a movie feast for Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. His grandmother, Usha Rani, would book the entire Sheila Talkies to keep the boy entertained. The theatre would be empty but for the two of them and they would watch films the whole day. Occasionally the two would travel to Buxar or Patna to watch two films back to back. Some evenings, the walls of the kothi's verandah would be turned into a screen and the family's own projectionist, Chandi Mistri, would show the twosome 16mm films of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, John Ford and Frank Capra.

These were Singh's first lessons in filmmaking. "I still remember the colourful images of Pakeezah and Meena Kumari dancing to Inhi logon ne, " he says. The magic of those lazy summer days probably also fired in Singh a deep love for vintage films and the desire to preserve them. "In India, where 1, 700 silent films were made in 36 years, only nine have survived. Our country does not have a culture of archiving or restoration of our heritage and that applies to everything, not just films, " he says.
Last month at Cannes Film Festival, Uday Shankar's classic dance film Kalpana was screened after Singh led a mission to salvage it from decay. He collaborated with World Cinema Foundation found by Martin Scorsese on this project.

Interestingly, Singh's engagement with restoration goes beyond India. He is one of the major donors to have funded the restoration of what is considered the first Hitchcockian classic, The Lodger, The Story of a London Fog (1926). This was the first film to carry typical Hitchcock motifs - his guest appearance for instance.

The film is being screened next Saturday, at the ongoing festival of lessknown Hitchcock films, The Genius of Hitchcock, organised by the British Film Institute (BFI). A brilliant whodunnit, its story revolves around a mysterious lodger who might also be a serial killer terrorising fog-shrouded London.

The film will be screened to live music composed by the versatile Nitin Sawhney. Singh donated to the restoration of this film in response to the BFI's 'Rescue the Hitchcock 9' campaign. "Being a Hitchcock fan, I decided that this was my chance to give back. The glass floor scene in the film (created by Hitchcock to convey how the suspicious lodger is visualised as pacing the floor by his terrified hosts) had a huge impact on me, " he says.

For his bread and butter, Singh runs an ad film agency, Dungarpur Films, but his passion is trawling for old films around chor bazars of cities, godowns, basements of old cinema offices, in fact, any place that could be hiding a film relic. "I travel all over the country, especially smaller towns, looking for films and have my own collection of old 35 mm prints. I managed to save a few from a Mumbai suburb where they extract silver from old black and white films and make bangles from colour films, " says Singh.
Hundreds of films have apparently been destroyed for silver extraction, including India's first talkie, Alam Ara. He recently chanced upon photographs of a rare silent film that no longer exists, starring Jairaj and Madhuri, Matrubhoomi (1932). When the century-old Elgin Talkies in Bangalore shut down he managed to procure the two projectors on which Alam Ara had been screened.

The man who actually led Singh to an informed awareness of the delights of these classics is the legendary PK Nair, the founder director of the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) at Pune. The two met when Singh was studying script writing at the FTII and he has, he says, imbibed all his lessons in film preservation from his guru. "I learnt from him that preserving film heritage should go beyond India and encompass the world, " he says. "My next project is liaising with the World Cinema Foundation and facilitating the restoration of the films of Sri Lankan director Lester James Peries. "

But Singh's fondest project to date is his cinematic ode to 80-year-old Nair, The Celluloid Man. "I wanted to show the immense contribution of Mr Nair in building the Archive and influencing generations of filmmakers as well as highlight the importance of preserving and restoring our national film heritage before its too late, " he says.

Back in the '80s when Singh was at the FTII, Nair was a towering, distant figure, the man who influenced generations of filmmakers with his encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema. He could tell exactly which reel of a film held a particular scene. After all, he had almost singlehandedly restored whatever was left of the nation's film heritage. He was also the man who made Dadasaheb Phalke a household name in India. "He would sit in a particular seat at every screening, with a little torch and a notebook making meticulous notes, winding and unwinding reels of film, shouting instructions to the projectionist and always, always watching films. We hardly spoke to him, except to approach him during Holi celebrations or request him to screen particular songs. "
But the incident that sparked in Singh something more than distant adoration for the living legend happened three years ago. He was visiting NFAI in connection with his research on Guru Dutt for a biopic. "The archive had been orphaned. I was shocked to see the condition of the films that Mr Nair had collected with so much dedication and passion. There were rusting cans lying in the grass, thick cobwebs hanging from the shelves in the vaults and Mr Nair's old office had turned into a junkyard, " Singh recalls.

He found out that Nair, who had retired from NFAI, however, still lived across the road from it, "like a watchdog". The bigger and sadder shock was yet to come. Singh asked the cinema historian, who is now '80, to walk across to the archive with him. "But the authorities did not allow him in! This upset me deeply - the man who had founded and built this institution was now being barred at the door, " says Singh.

This was when the filmmaker resolved to do something to tell the current generation of film lovers what Nair did for the legacy of cinema. Thus was born The Celluloid Man. It took Singh 11 trips to convince the establishment to let him shoot Nair at the archive.

The film, which has premiered at the Il Cinema Ritrovato (restored cinema) festival in Bologna, features tributes to Nair by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Santosh Sivan, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Kamal Hassan, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Rajkumar Hirani, Kundan Shah, Yash Chopra, Naseeruddin Shah and Jaya Bachchan.

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