A week after its release, we sit down with Pan Nalin to discuss Chhello Show or The Last Film Show—India’s official entry to the Oscars. Excerpts:
The film can be a great introduction to the cinema of our cinema-crazy nation. Did you have the Oscars in mind while making this movie?
Absolutely not. I need to fall in love with the story first. Then I just work towards bringing it alive on screen. Then the aim is to reach the maximum number of audiences. I don’t have the luxury of Rs10/20 crores available for marketing my films. So, I go to film festivals and international film markets. But I don’t make a film keeping any festival or awards in mind.
In fact, while I was making Last Film Show, I was concerned if it will ever get a release. People were so negative about the film being in Gujarati—it is an expensive movie, the Gujarati film industry is hardly that big, and there are no songs or stars, or even any known actors–nobody agreed to finance it. I sold my Borivali house and became the first investor. Then my producer, Dheer Momaya, joined me and Marc Duale came in.
There are scenes that remind one of the classics of cinema. It is only fair that a film about cinema would pay homage to cinema. But how does it feel to even respond to Cinema Paradiso comparisons? Did you expect this?
In my heart, I always knew The Last Film Show is my story and totally different from Cinema Paradiso. (which I absolutely love).
Being a film buff how can I hold myself back from paying a tribute or homage to some of the filmmakers who have left a deep impact on my life, and my work? So, it’s subtle, and it is integrated into the cinematic treatment of Last Film Show. If you’re not a cinephile, you might not notice anything at all. But that was the idea; I did not want people to easily notice the homages.
Your protagonist hails from a poor family living in a remote village. But the movie never becomes a ‘poverty porn’—the approach most filmmakers take to sell India to the world audience. Instead, your film is a celebration of life, food, and cinema. The setting never overpowers the story although it enhances it. You handle the subject with a certain levity that makes it such a fun watch. The gaze seems to be that of a person who has lived that life instead of an outsider fetishizing that life. Is it because it is autobiographical?
You can have poverty that evokes pity or misery, there are levels and perceptions of poverty. Sadness or the sense of not having something comes when you have something to compare it with. If you have seen the luxuries money can bring, you might miss those if you don’t have the means to afford them. But we had no such reference points. While growing up, I and my friends never thought that we were poor…we had a house to live in, and we had great food as the vegetables or spices or fruits were fresh and of the fields and there were mind-blowing varieties in those, we had our roti, kapda, aur makaan sorted. There were no big desires to get televisions or cars, smartphones didn’t exist. Life was simple and there was a constant sense of joy and bliss. When you travel to a city, that realization and the need for money comes.
In this movie you see the world through rose-tinted glass, just like your protagonist often sees it through film negatives or broken glass bottles which are essentially colorful filters. But everything remains very real, you ensure it with the detailing. You have also made a lot of documentaries. How does that experience help in creating such a world?
The magic of cinema is that you can see the same story through different lenses. You can tell the same story, but your perspective, the filter you are using to tell that story, can make it unique. The stories are important, but HOW you tell them is more so.
There is an energetic exchange between the limitations of documentaries and the liberty movies give. I love switching from fiction to non-fiction. I have made a lot of documentaries. I love the liberty movies give. But I also love the challenges the restrictions of documentaries throw up where you can just switch on and switch off the camera. I can just decide on an angle and the character I want to follow. The non-fiction world is built essentially on the editing table. But when I am doing fiction, I have a constant check to keep it in the realms of the realistic. My experience in shooting documentaries helps in the detailing when I write or shoot fiction. Similarly, fictions help me decide which characters would be interesting enough to draw the audience to their stories.
In the movie, Samay trades his home-cooked tiffin for the coveted seat in the projection room to watch movies. What food is for the body, cinema can be for the soul…was this an intentional metaphor?
It is an intentional metaphor in the Last Film Show. To win hearts one of the ways is through the stomach. Also, I personally love everything about food: the way it is cultivated, the soil, seeds, harvest, then ultimately the cooking. Every time I fall in love with one country’s culture and arts; often that country happens to have great culinary traditions.
How much does this movie have an influence of Italian Neorealism, if any?
Italian neo-realism was created by masters like Visconti, Ingrao, Zavattini, and others to fulfill the need of the time, which was Post World War-II Italy. We live in a different era and our ‘perceived reality is totally different. Add to that our ‘Indian Reality’ is equally unique. So, for Last Film Show I had to find a style that is close to magical realism.
It has some delicious intertextuality. Can you tell us something about that?
The day I conceived the Last Film Show, there were inherent multilayered and intertextual qualities to it. The first layer is Samay and his coming-of-age story driven by his dreams. The second layer, is the story of Cinema, now this layer must remain somewhat invisible where I do pay conscious and unconscious homages to films and filmmakers. The third layer is about celebrating nature and how we can live in harmony with the rains, lightning, lakes, or lions. It’s an organic experience. The fourth and final layer is the story of light, and that layer is totally INVISIBLE or rather unnoticeable to spectators; Last Film Show is a parable almost like OxHerder Zen story; searching for the light, sighting the light, perceiving the light, catching the light, taming the light, projecting the light, the light transcended, both Light and Self transcended, reaching the source, and return to society.
Trains in cinema almost always work as an escape to freedom from a claustrophobic mundane existence starting from the Lumiere Brothers The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station to Satayjit Ray’s Pather Panchali to Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Was setting a major part of the story at a train station also an ode to the cinema?
Yes! Buster Keaton and John Huston made some great movies with trains as an integral part. If you look at all the classical Westerns, trains are a huge element, where someone is either trying to arrive or leave to or from a strange remote town to somewhere unknown. The hero’s journey has been repeated in every part of the world. So, yes, trains have been a strong motif in cinema.
The train station was an integral part of my growing up as well. When I was a child, my father had a tea stall at the Khijadiya Junction, it is now a broad-gauge railway. It was then a station that didn’t take you to any village or town. It was a station where passengers would get off to board another train. It was a clean and very pretty station with banyan trees and open vistas, and it was mostly empty except for a handful of railway staff and stall owners.
My friends and I used to spend a lot of time at that station; it was our own little world, our playground. We would go to the train yard and sometimes even ransack mirrors and bulbs from the abandoned train coaches; it was as if those trains belonged to us (laughs). Even from our village, we would have to take a train to school. In fact, we have even stolen film reels from the trains like Samay and his gang and got into a lot of trouble. Since this movie is part autobiographical, I tried to rebuild that world.
What happened to the kid after he boarded that train? How did he become an international filmmaker?
That’s a long long story, maybe I will need about a dozen more Last Film Shows to tell it!