The Celluloid Man

A dark, short woman with large, thoughtful eyes stares into the camera. Clad in an ill-fitted blouse and a sari that barely conceals her raw personality, she stands uncomfortably among the crowd, facing the massive camera, with a small lens attached to it. The year is 1928, and this is the shooting of the first-ever silent Malayalam film, titled Vigathakumaran, by legendary filmmaker JC Daniel.

Over eight decades later, the work and skill put in by Daniel has been revisited in a film titled Celluloid, by noted filmmaker Kamal. The film will be screened at the Pune International Film Festival (PIFF), to be held from January 9 to 16. It takes a look at the grim realities of Daniel's life, who is now considered the pioneer of the Malayalam film industry, but lived a life of hardships and died without any acclaim or recognition. Noted south Indian actor Prithviraj plays the role of Daniel in the film.

"Daniel's life was a long tale of struggles. While other filmmakers such as his contemporary Dadasaheb Phalke succeeded, he failed," says Kamal, who wrote and directed the film. Celluloid follows the journey of Daniel as a 28-year-old who understands and takes an interest in filmmaking, how he directed his only film, its release, the struggles of distribution, and finally, how he leaves the industry to pursue dentistry in Tamil Nadu.

Daniel had written, acted, directed, edited and produced Vigathakumaran (meaning "the lost child"). "He gave everything to that film. He even sold his land to cover the production and filming costs," says Kamal. He adds that one of the major roadblocks in the '20s for Daniel was to find a woman to act in his film. "He tried to hire a few theatre actresses, but they demanded too much money. He then chose a young Dalit girl, PK Rosie, as his heroine," he adds. That, according to Kamal, was one of the key factors the film did not work. "Word got out that a Dalit girl had played the character of a Nair woman in the film. It did not suit the sensibilities of those times," he says. Kamal adds that Rosie was prohibited from entering the movie halls where her own film was screened. "It was a traumatic experience for Daniel," he says. The lone surviving print was destroyed accidentally by Daniel's five-year-old son.

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