This movie was very very well-made. And it managed to tell a familiar story in a new way. At least, familiar to me, since I’ve read a lot of books on film history and the same horribly depressing things always happen to the early filmmakers. Although, like I said, this film took a slightly new tack on it in a couple of ways.
Before I move on, how good did Prithviraj look in period clothing!?!? SO GOOD! And his hair looked nice too, sort of crimped up and curly, but brushed back hard. I honestly didn’t recognize him, and this is my third or fourth or fifth Prithviraj film.
On a less superficial level, I was fascinated by the new take on this familiar story. I just went to a talk yesterday on early filmmakers in Chicago (where I live). And it was the same old story, they were brilliant and inspired and broke new ground and were super popular and successful, and then time moved on and they were forgotten by history and lost all their money, and so on and so forth.
(Essanay Studios! Very very briefly, the international capital of film. And then completely forgotten)
Okay, the first time you hear this story, you think “Sad! That brilliant artists and brave entrepreneurs could be so forgotten!” And then about the 20th time you hear this story, you start to think “Wait, why should I care? What makes these guys so special? So they tried something new, were successful for a while, and then failed? Who hasn’t!!!!” And also, “Why is it always the educated white male artists who are the focus of these stories? Is it perhaps because these stories keep being told by white male artists who think there is nothing worse than someone like them being forgotten?”
Like, did you know one of the most important early filmmakers in America was a woman? Alice Guy-Blache, founded a movie studio in New Jersey, was one of the first people to make narrative films, and possible the director of the Life of Christ which Dadsaheb Phalke saw in Bombay in 1912, which inspired him to make India’s first film. I bet you didn’t know that, because I have two degrees in film and I didn’t know that until I heard about her at a talk at a conference a few years ago. Because she doesn’t have any big hagiographic biographies written about her, or touching biopics, or even a mention in film history textbooks. Because all the educated white men who write those things couldn’t relate to a female French-American divorcee.
Celluloid brilliantly nods to these stories, acknowledges that they are common, and then quietly shows why it is telling a different. It opens with our hero, JC Daniels, going to visit Phalke studios to ask for help. Later, it mentions that Phalke’s first film is saved in the Pune archives (I’ve been there! It wasn’t air conditioned. By day 2 of a visit to India, that is all I care about), but it doesn’t bother to mention that Phalke himself died in poverty, and his famous studio shown here was sold by his family after the government refused to make it a national heritage site. Because even Phalke, who has a whole award named for him, was forgotten in his lifetime.
(Essanay Studios is still around though, and IS a historic monument. I walk by it all the time on the way to the library)
It also doesn’t mention that, just as JC Daniels’ film was ignored in favor of one that better fit the narrative of the politicians, so is Phalke the “father of Indian film” only because the real first film of India doesn’t fit the narrative. The actual first film, Shree Pundalik, came out almost a full year before Phalke’s. But it was more a filmed stage play than an original work, which is an okay excuse for ignoring it. It is also probably easy to ignore it because it is a modern piece, based on a popular play. Whereas Phalke’s film, Raja Harischandra is solidly Indian, and Hindu, based on a nice myth. So that gets to be the “first Indian film”, while Shree Pundalik ends up a footnote in textbooks. And then Dadsaheb Torne, director of Shree Pundalik, went on to make India’s first sound film, Alam Ara, which also gets barely a mention. Because it was based on Arabian Nights fantasies, and again does not fit with the concept of “pure” Indian cinema. Oh, and Torne had only a few years of formal education and was raised in poverty while Phalke was raised in an upper class household and had advanced education and training.
Later, there is a discussion of how in Hollywood, the director D.W. Griffith, who basically invented the Hollywood narrative style, died in poverty unknown. They could have also mentioned George Melies in France, PC Barua in Calcutta, Guru Dutt in Bombay, or dozens of others. Because here’s a shocking fact: Brilliant forward thinking artists (in film or anything else)=Not That Good With Money!
So, that’s the story this movie could have been. A brilliant artist, unappreciated by the establishment, dies unknown and penniless, and then we can all pat ourselves on the back for being sensitive enough to appreciate him now. That’s still part of the story here, like maybe the B or C story of the film. But the A story is much more important, and a story that really needs to be told. And I guess this is where the SPOILERS would start? So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
I mentioned that the “brilliant misunderstood and forgotten geniuses” always happen to be white men. Of course, that’s just in America, in India it is Brahmin/Kshastriya men. Usually also Aryan. In America or in India, only telling the stories of the powerful community has two effects. First, it plays into the perception that only these people are capable of that kind of effort, only white men can be superheroes, only Brahmins/Kshastriyas can be brilliant leaders, and so on. And second, it ignores the social factors that might make it easier for these men to succeed and create and do things that are worthy of biopics.
Which is where Celluloid is SO MUCH BETTER!!! It’s not a “film” story, it’s a caste and prejudice and power story. It isn’t important that our hero was ignored by history, lots of people are ignored by history, it’s important WHY he was ignored.
In the beginning, I thought it was going to be a simply “Kerala is the BEST” story. JC Daniels (I’m not going to use actor’s names, because Prithviraj actually acts in this thing, he doesn’t just play “Prithviraj”) goes to Phalke’s studio and talks about his dream of making the first Malayalam film. He explains that he wants to deal with social issues in a real way (which is the special factor that sets Malayalam film apart to this day). We see his struggle and how the local community (religious actors, Christians and Hindus, etc.) all come together to help him. And then the triumph when he managed to complete his film.
I’m glad I didn’t wiki the plot, or the real person, before I watched the movie, because this whole part of the film, I was caught up in the excitement and hope and confidence just like the characters, because I didn’t know what was coming next, just like the characters. I was sure I was watching the birth of Malayalam cinema, that maybe later he would lose everything (just like all the other brilliant directors/studio founders), but first there would be a huge success, which would lead to hundreds of imitators and a flourishing Malayalam film system. And then the tragedy is that this brave man is forgotten by history which owes so much to him.
(Like the plot of Hugo. This is also why I never felt the need to see Hugo. Although the book is brilliant, more for its structure than its content)
Even when the heroine of his film is introduced, a Dalit Christian woman named Rosanna, I thought it would just be a nice little known fact to throw into the film. Kind of like the first Hindi film heroine being a man in drag. As we kept watching how she was treated by her co-workers and the Daniels family, I was even more sure. Because it was clearly unusual for someone like her to be around them, but not extremely so. “Johnson”, their contact in the Christian passion play community, knew her and had worked with her before. Daniels and his wife were kind to her, but not overly so. It just didn’t feel like this was a huge radical statement.
But it not feeling like a statement, WAS the statement! The second most radical statement of the film. That you can be a kind and decent person without making a big deal of it. That it really isn’t a big deal, it is just basic humanity to treat people like humans. You can let a sweet young girl borrow your jewelry and wear your nice clothes. You can invite her to eat with you. It’s not the end of the world and nothing bad happens.
Well, until something bad does happen. And that is the second most radical statement of the film, that Rosanna was right all along and the uppercaste people who told her she didn’t have to be afraid were wrong. There is a lovely scene early on when Daniels’ wife offers her nice clothes for her scene in the film. Rosanna resists it, saying that it wouldn’t be right to wear such things. Daniels’ wife doesn’t insult her by giving her a big lecture on the inequities of the caste system or anything like that, she just tells her that it isn’t her, “Rosanna”, wearing these clothes. It is her character in the film, who is uppercaste, who will be wearing them. So there is nothing wrong.
When I first saw these scene, I thought it was saying two things. First, that Daniels’ wife is a sweetheart who isn’t going to come over all “let me teach you, the victim of oppression, about oppression!”, but is just going to come up with a simple way to make Rosanna feel more comfortable. And secondly, that film has the power to change lives, to make people over into someone new. Which it does, in Bombay during this same period Rosie Meyers was becoming Sulochana and Mary Evans was becoming Nadia. And meanwhile, in Hollywood, Estelle Thompson, born in Bombay to a teenage mother with an unknown father, was becoming Merle Oberon, classy “British” actress.
(Yep, Merle Oberon was desi. At least a quarter or maybe a half-desi. Grew up in Bombay and then Calcutta. Then got to England and started acting and lying that she was from Australia)
But then the film went on, and the meaning of this scene changed. Rosanna was right and Daniels’ wife was wrong. No matter what character she was playing or what fiction they told her, she was a Dalit and must always remember that. Maybe these well-meaning people didn’t see it, and maybe the priest that encouraged her family to convert didn’t see it, and maybe the other people on the film set didn’t see it, but the rest of society did. It wasn’t up to her to change her attitude and forget her past, it was up to everyone else to learn to see beyond it. Film feels like magic, like it can fix everything. But that’s an allusion. All film can do is act as a mirror that shows us the problems that exist, it can’t fix them.
The tragedy of this story isn’t that Daniels wasn’t appreciated, that he was forgotten. It’s everything else that happened. That Rosanna was driven from her home and chased almost to death (I am SO GLAD they inserted a happy ending for her character! Even if it is totally unbelievable and maybe made-up, I don’t think I could have taken it if they made her tragic). That Daniels film is forgotten, not because he is an unappreciated artist but because he is part of the wrong community. Film was just a catalyst to reveal the deeper cracks and flaws in society, that the power of the landlords and uppercaste in the community was so strong, no one was brave enough to stand up to them and say “Enough!”
Speaking of film, the way this particular film was structured to convey this message is brilliant. I already talked about how the first hour feels so hopeful, like they are actually going to change things and make the world a better place and become rich and recognized. And then it is all torn away right before intermission, we are pulled forward in time to see Sreenivas (Sreenivas! I appreciate you so much more now than when I saw you in Arabikkatha!) talking to someone at a roadside stall, who mentions that old man who just left the stall made a movie once, as in the background the radio announces that the first National Award just went to a Malayalam movie. So we know that Daniels is now an old man, almost forgotten. But we still don’t know, for sure, what happened to the film he made.
And we don’t find out the full truth about that for quite some time. Again, very quickly, we meet up with Daniels again and learn that he and his wife are living penniless off the charity of relatives in Tamil Nadu. But we don’t know what happened to his film, why they are penniless, what happened to all those other people we saw in the first half. That is what keeps us watching.
The film keeps bending in on itself, answering one question only to bring up another. That the landlords objected and rioted in the theater when they learned the heroine was low-caste. That Rosanna fled and married a truck driver from outside the state (Thank God! I could not handle it if she had a sad ending). But, what happened to Daniels after that and his family? And once we learn the answer to that question, we are left with a new one, why his kids no longer care for him and have abandoned him? And once we learn the answer to that, we are given a new question, why is the film he kept so carefully preserved no longer available, why is all he has to prove that he made the first film in Kerala a couple of newspaper advertisements and a still photo?
That is the final question. And, I think, the answer is what explains the position of the film as a whole. This is a movie about filmmaking that rejects film. Rejects its importance as an object, rejects the idea that Art has a greatness beyond the value of human life. Rejects the idea that the pursuit of art and artistry is the noblest passion.
In the first half, this idea unfolds slowly. We begin thinking that the noble vision is simply Daniels dream to make a Malayalam film. But then the focus shifts more and more to Rosanna. Forget the film, the noble vision is that an untouchable woman can be happy and appreciated for a few brief moments. Which is why she gets the first song of the film (I think? Again, the films in Malayalam films are not like in Hindi, they don’t really stand out as much from the rest of the narrative, which makes it harder for me to remember where they happened), not about the wonders of being an actress or being in a movie, but simply about the wonder of feeling appreciated for herself, being allowed to dream.
In the second half of the film, the message that human life has a value above Art, that Art should serve humanity not the other way around, shows up over and over again, in rapid succession. First, how we see the riot at the film showing. We see Daniels sad about his film not being displayed. But the sequence focuses more on Rosanna. On her despair when she is unable to see her own performance onscreen. On her fear when the men come to kill her later. For me at least, and I think this is the effect they were going for, I wasn’t worried about Daniels failing or the film not being shown, I was thinking “If only Rosanna had been allowed to see herself onscreen!” I wanted Daniels to deny entrance to all those fancy powerful men and let Rosanna in alone. And it kind of feels like that was the lesson we were supposed to be seeing, that Daniels let his fear drive him in this moment, that he was wrong to give in and turn Rosanna away, and that all his failure afterwards was punishment for that choice. He should have put her human happiness over his artistic ambitions for his film.
Which is what happens in the next song. He and his family give up their ambitions. They move to the country, live simply, hide his dreams away in a trunk. And find happiness. This isn’t a song of bleak “what could have been”, this is a song of quiet joy in everyday life and love and family. The joys of connections and caring are as great, if not greater, than the joys of creation.
And it is selfishly ignoring these smaller joys that leads to Daniels’ punishment. He worked hard, he sacrificed, he cared for and loved his family. And, eventually, he found success and fulfillment again, studying dentistry and becoming a respected and successful dental surgeon. But then he was seduced by dreams of film again, not with a noble quest to make the first Malayalam film on a social issue as he was before, but because a Tamil superstar admired him and convinced him he could become famous in the Tamil industry. It is this vain and selfish desire that lead to his undoing.
His undoing comes not because it took all his money, or killed his dreams for ever, or even because it separated him from his family for 2 years while he tried to make a success of himself. His great sin is that it made him a bad father. His youngest child never connected with him, never understood him. Because Daniels didn’t even try to connect with his child, he came home a broken man and never managed to achieve that same level of happiness and contentment with smaller joys which he had before.
And that is why his film was destroyed, after decades of keeping it safe. Because he was an absent father who didn’t notice his child burning it. Or, more specifically, he was an absent father who allowed his child to burn it. This is the image that opens the film, a small child pulling open a trunk and unwinding a film reel, jumping on it, and finally burning it. And it is the image that closes the film, but now with a context.
The child is Daniels’ youngest son, who he abandoned as a newborn to pursue his film dreams. And the boy is not doing this unobserved, Daniels is sitting nearby, watching, with an unreadable expression. Earlier, in the happier times when they were a close family and he was an involved father, we saw him stop and gently reprimand a child for touching the film. But now, he does nothing. Is it that he no longer has the energy for even that much? Is it that he is lost in inward visions and doesn’t notice what is happening right in front of him? Or is it that he is accepting his punishment, recognizing that his art and his vision are less important than the human life in front of him, whether it is heartbroken Rosanna, or his abandoned child who is getting a brief moment of happiness from destroying his artwork.