I WANT TO BECOME films,” says Samay, the young daydreamer at the heart of Pan Nalin’s new film. Samay has been skipping school and stealing money from his dad’s chai shop to fund his newfound obsession. For anyone who discovered cinema at a budding age, their love for the medium transcends to a point where they eat, sleep and breathe movies. It did for Nalin too. So, he turns back the clock for a fictionalised self-portrait beset by memories of his own childhood. As the title plainly suggests, Last Film Show is also an elegy to a lost era of celluloid magic.
Angry Indian Goddesses, the previous film Nalin wrote and directed, had its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2015. Last Film Show began its journey at the recent Tribeca Film Festival in New York (June 9th to 20th). Going back to his roots, Nalin creates an almost mythic sense of place in his recreation of the rural Gujarat where he grew up. Talking to Nalin, it becomes obvious where much of his infectious love and imaginative zeal for cinema comes from. An enriching encounter with the angriest Indian goddess in an obscure mythological film called Jai Mahakali (1979) was the launchpad for Nalin’s cinematic journey. Samay, played by newcomer Bhavin Rabari, hypnotised by the colour, the sound and the masala, brings to life Nalin’s childhood memories.
Last Film Show is a memory piece on how we interact with cinema as children. Samay’s coming-of-age story strikes a universal chord because it’s essentially about a young boy who imagines a better world for himself than the one he’s born into. His father (Dipen Raval) believes films will corrupt him. Instead, they awaken him. Shooting the film thus felt like a time capsule for Nalin. His father, much like Samay’s, was a chaiwala at a railway station. The first time Nalin saw a movie, his father took him and the family to the nearby town, which was a train journey away. Nalin was eight-and-a-half years old then, but he still remembers his first movie. “The theatre was one of those art deco-type single screens with wooden chairs and a balcony with pigeons flying all over. That day, I fell in love with cinema,” he recalls with boyish enthusiasm. “Travelling back home after watching the movie, I told my parents that all I want to do is become films. It was only later my teacher corrected me: ‘You can become an engineer. You can become a doctor, but you don’t become films. Say: you want to make films.’” This naïve but heartfelt moment is recreated in Last Film Show. The teacher also advises him to learn how to speak English and get out of the village if he wants to pursue a career in filmmaking.
“We didn’t have any toys. So, we would put up a saree and use the torch to create shadow plays. Somewhere unconsciously, the light was a fascinating part of my childhood. The torchlight in the night, and the sunlight in the daytime became an integral part of my storytelling,” says Pan Nalin, director and writer
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Nalin did exactly that. He first studied Fine Arts at Vadodara’s MS University before enrolling at Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design. It was here Nalin got his first taste of cinema beyond Bollywood. As president of the college film club, he familiarised himself with what is the Cinephilia 101 syllabus: French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, etcetera. These movies, which inspired Nalin to become a filmmaker, become the lens through which he views the many formative memories and lasting friendships in Last Film Show.
Film history is weaved into the heart of the story. Echoing the Lumière brothers’ 1895 film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, Last Film Show in fact opens with a train drawing towards us. For Nalin, the train station was his childhood playground. “While studying film history, when I heard one of the first movies ever made was a train arriving at the station, it reminded me instantly of my childhood and nothing else,” he says. Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, which famously opens 2001: A Space Odyssey, becomes a soundtrack to the start of Samay’s love affair with cinema. Nalin’s keen fascination with storytelling streams through each frame. We see Samay make up stories with the cover art on matchboxes.
Samay’s understanding of cinema goes beyond the cosmetic on meeting Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali), the projectionist at Galaxy Cinema in the neighbouring town. The two begin a transactional relationship where Samay offers his lunchbox in exchange for unrestricted entry into the projection room so he can watch movies every day. Over time, it turns into a tender friendship. Fazal also becomes Samay’s first film school of sorts, offering him lessons on the medium’s origins in lighting and lying. Nalin calls Fazal’s real-life counterpart, Mohammad bhai (who is now 78 and still lives in the same village), his “Yoda,” adding, “He had a huge impression on me as a kid. My parents aside, he was teaching me everything I did not know about the world. He had a great sense of humour and pride about his work, and I was learning from him what I wouldn’t learn at home or in school.”
Lighting is a character in itself in Last Film Show, and Director of Photography Swapnil S Sonawane plays up its metatextual role. The first filmmaking lesson the children receive is on the power of light and shadow. “We didn’t have any toys. So, we would put up a saree and use the torch to create shadow plays. Somewhere unconsciously, the light was a fascinating part of my childhood. The torchlight in the night, and the sunlight in the daytime became an integral part of my storytelling,” says Nalin. When Fazal explains the concept of the shutter to Samay, he says to make films is to lie to your audience. “When we watch a three-hour movie in celluloid 35mm, you spend some time in the darkness. In the reel, there’s a black bar separating each frame. Cut those bars and join them together, you will be sitting quite a few minutes in darkness. That revelation just blew my mind about the power of light. What light is creating is the kinetic illusion of motion picture. Capturing light thus became kind of a Zen parable for me,” says Nalin, who waxes philosophical at this point. “Everything is born out of light in a way. If there is no light, there’s no life. And if there is no life, there’ll be no stories. And if there are no stories, there are no films. And if there are no films, how will I dream?”
Nalin named his protagonist “Samay” deliberately. Samay was one of his childhood friends, but it’s symbolic too. Time is, after all, inextricably bound to cinema. “If you watch a two-hour movie about a character, you have witnessed that person’s life and gone through his or her emotional journey. So that notion of time—how we are able to magically create an illusion of a story, which could happen over 10-20 years in just 90 minutes—was a mystery to me. How cinema gives you the power to shrink or expand time. Every time I discovered a new filmmaker, I discovered a new world, a new time which I had not known before,” says Nalin.
FOOD IS ALSO an indelible part of Last Film Show. Swapping food for film cements the friendship between Samay and Fazal. Nalin’s overhead shots of Samay’s mom (Richa Meena) making stuffed brinjal and okra are so evocative, you can smell the coriander. “As a filmmaker, cinema is about light and time. But as an Indian filmmaker, I wanted to add masala, that spice element too,” he quips.
To find his Samay, Nalin worked with frequent collaborator Dilip Shankar and hired six casting associates to go deep into the Kathiawad region. From 3,000 children, 200 were shortlisted out of which 60 were called to a resort near Gir forest for a workshop. Ultimately, they found their star in Bhavin Rabari, a boy from the village of Vasai whose father is a bus driver.
The sheer pleasures of moviegoing are key to the appeal of Last Film Show, whose gang of children embark upon their cinematic adventures with a DIY ethos. To capture this authentically, the production team designed the makeshift projector from scratch. “I told them that all the material must come from the real junkyards of Dharai and Amreli,” says Nalin. Namra Parikh, who was an assistant director in Life of Pi, then took to assembling it with Nalin’s guidelines on how he and his friends built their own projector as children. “I remember we had a wheel, but we didn’t know what we did for the shutter,” he says. “Or how the belt came? Did we use a car battery to light the lamp? So we had to figure all that out but now, it’s a working projector.”
The film’s tone is at times elegiac. In a powerful scene, Samay watches the projector and reel being turned into spoons and bangles, respectively, in a factory. But Nalin isn’t an unwavering celluloid apologist compared to peers like Christopher Nolan. “That organic process of Samay seeing the whole transformation was similar to the way I saw myself. I used to shoot my movies on 35mm film with Samsara (2001) and Valley of Flowers (2006). And I saw the change coming, and I had to embrace digital. It’s not that I stopped being a filmmaker. Once I used to paint with watercolours and then the world told me, use oil paint. For me, it’s a way of saying the stories will continue, even if the means of storytelling may change,” he says. “It’s the idea of stories being reborn, and storytellers have to embrace any change.”