Getting down to brass tacks, Celluloid attempts to provide a slice of Malayalam film history: The early half deals with the making of Kerala's first film Vigathakumaran aka The Lost Child, a 1930 silent by J.C. Daniel (played by Prithviraj Sukumaran), and the second half deals with the aftermath of the film's release and subsequent events on Daniel's life.
The first part feels a fair bit like Paresh Mokashi's charming little film on Dadasaheb Phalke, Harischandrachi Factory (in a nice bit of continuity, when an enthusiastic Daniel meets Phalke to learn from him about movie-making, we see the same actor Nandu Madhav playing the part). While Phalke had to rely on men to play the female roles in his early films, women had started to appear onscreen when Daniel started out. Female actors were still highly uncommon though, and the profession was regarded as one for loose women, which is why Daniel has to opt for a lower-caste Christian convert Rosamma aka Rosy (Chandini, to me one of the best performances in this film) to play the role of an upper-caste Brahmin woman in his film. In the film, Daniel's personal outlook to the caste system is very progressive. Significant footage is devoted to the making of Vigathakumaran (a routine melodrama, frankly), treading similar ground as the Phalke biopic, therefore less interesting. A more grounded non-theatrical approach here would have done a lot to differentiate it from the previous film and allowed for a better segue into latter events. The major emotional crux in this segment comes at the film's release when the local Brahmin community violently reacts against the idea of an “untouchable” woman role-playing one of their caste. Rosamma disappears, and the film's commercial failure costs Daniel dearly.
In its second half Celluloid abruptly swings into retrospective mode, with a journalist Gopalakrishnan (Sreenivasan, based on an actual person that wrote a book on JC Daniel), investigating into Daniel's history, wanting to know about Daniel's life. By way of flashbacks from an aging Daniel and his faithful wife Janet (Mamtha Mohandas), Gopalakrishnan (and the audience) learns about the ups and downs in their life post-Vigathakumaran that culminated in them leading an abandoned impoverished existence in a small town in Tamil Nadu.
I can understand Celluloid was walking a line between doing justice to its subject matter and avoiding the arthouse label, but a lot of it feels routine. If Daniel had been anybody other than the founding father of the motion picture in Kerala, this would be one of numerous passable middle-of-the-road melodramas Malayalam cinema churns out. Especially in the second half, a lot of Daniel's life is given short shrift – his career as a dentist, his attempt to make a second film – focusing more on Gopalakrishnan's attempts to provide legitimacy to Daniel's pioneer status; there's some irony in that. We never feel privy to the workings of the protagonist's mind, his attachment for the moving image that repeatedly pulls him away from a stable life, and for a biopic that's a serious flaw. To my mind the film would have been much stronger in dispensing with the wearisome awkwardly fitted flashback structure.
Technically, it's a mixed bag. Some scenes are striking in their framing and/or camera movements, but several others are routine flat mid-range full-bright shots, and in general, not enough thought has been given to imaginative use of lighting and shadow, which would have been nice for a film narrating a chapter from cinematic history. In my mind I compare this with Madhusudhanan's Bioscope, also related to early film history and one of the most gorgeously captured films I've seen, and wonder what could have been if some of that vision had been incorporated. As is, Celluloid is an intermittently interesting but overall disappointing movie with little repeat value for me.
That's about the movie, a short note on the blu-ray from Horizon Audio-Video: What do you know, this is pretty decent. The image is sharp and colorful and looks faithful to the makers' intentions. One casualty is that the mediocre-to-amateurish green screen work sticks out. Needlessly, two lossless surround tracks, one DTS-HD MA, and one Dolby TrueHD, have been provided. Apart from volume differences, they sound similar at least on my analog stereo setup. One would have appreciated some special features, at least a short introduction / interview with director Kamal, but none are provided. The blu-ray package also includes a DVD of the film to use as backup or gift your friends.