A Gujarati Film Goes to the Oscars
Pan Nalin's The Last Film Show, has made it to the race for the Best Foreign Film
Pan Nalin's The Last Film Show, made in Gujarati, has finally made it to the Oscars race for the Best Foreign Film. A soon as the news broke, a fiery controversy flooded the media based on two assumptions. One, that there were several films that were better contenders and no one could imagine a Gujarati film making it to the finals. And second, that the story and some treatment was lifted from the milestone Italian film Cinema Paradiso (1988) directed by Giuseppe Tornatore.
The posters of both The Last Film Show and Cinema Paradiso are similar in design and visuals. The former film was shot in Bagheria, Sicily, Giuseppe which was Tornatore's hometown. The director of Cinema Paradiso largely drew on Tornatore's childhood experiences as inspiration for the film.
The Last Film Show is quite different, though it does seem to have been strongly inspired by Cinema Paradiso. Director Pan Nalin said, "the film is inspired by my own life and how cinema changed it in a beautiful, unexpected and uplifting way. I have set it in a time before the advent of mobile phones, streaming platforms or access to film schools. Samay's journey captures the unadulterated joy of storytelling and cinematic creation." The original Gujarati name of the film is Chhello Show.
The only common denominator between the two films, Cinema Paradiso and Chhelo Show lies in that for both, the world of cinema is witnessed from the perspective of a small boy. The boy is passionate about cinema, about the magic that this window opens out to look at a different world. The intriguing ambience of the projection room is controlled by a much older man with whom the boys - Toto and Samay, develop a close relationship. The perspective of a child is universal across geography, culture and language counters the allegation of Chhello Show being "borrowed" from Cinema Paradiso.
Set against the backdrop of the disappearance of 35mm celluloid film and India's unique single-screen culture, the film acts as a nostalgic musing for a time when single screen cinema was the place for people to escape from the rigour of their daily lives through a communal yet personal transformative entertainment experience.
While Cinema Paradiso is aesthetically and technically, qualitatively a much better product than Chhello Show, given the lack of the technological advances that came later and the long span covering the life of the little Toto from boyhood to middle age, the latter deserves respect for the director's insistence on bestowing it with a distinct, Indian-Gujarati cultural and ethnic identity.
The film is set against the backdrop of the western region of Gujarat. Born in Adtala village in Lathi Taluka of Amreli district, Gujarat, and originally named Nalin Kumar Pandya, is the son of a tea vendor who owned a stall in Khijadiya railway station near Amreli. He made his feature directorial debut with Samsara in 2001. The film instantly put him in the limelight and was well received all over the world. He has also directed other films such as Valley of Flowers, Angry Indian Goddesses and Ayurveda: Art of Being.
A 10-year-old boy, named Samay (Bhavin Rabari), skips school to visit the sole single-screen theatre in his hometown. His father runs a tea stall right beside the local railway station. They live nearby in a shanty where Samay's mother is always busy cooking food for the family.
Samay helps his father sell tea to the train passengers. Samay also has a small sister who, for some reason or other, is kept on the sidelines of the story. Attempts to dissuade Samay, from flitting into the theatre to watch films and gain entry into the projection room, include frequent bashings from his frustrated father. The attempts fail, and Samay gives the goodies prepared by his mother to the projection man in exchange for access to the room.
Samay falls in love with those spools of celluloid, the circular tins they are stored in, boxes where the tins are stored, the projector. The projection man warms up to the little boy's endless curiosity for cinema. The screen uses umpteen clips from the film Jodha Akbar dotted with clips from lesser known films, item numbers, a small clip from an Akshay Kumar film and dirty films with glimpses of a crazy audience.
But unlike Cinema Paradiso's naughty boy Toto, Samay is slightly older, has long uncombed hair, wears dirty clothes, and gets five to six boys to join him in his desperate attempt to make a film. The boys experiment with sunlight, the play of shadows, and using an electric light bulb to create a semblance of a pin-hole camera to produce moving pictures on an indigenous screen. The struggle is endless.
As they move towards some semblance of success in their experiments, Samay's father's tea-shop is threatened with closure as the engine-drawn train running through that small station will be replaced by an electric express train that will not stop there. His small world where life is a constant struggle falls apart. But Samay is too young to understand all this. The theatre will be replaced with digital technology so the projector and the man who controls it will also become redundant.
After this point, the film shifts its focus to the impact of this technological change on the young boy who finds nothing, including his dreams of making films, is permanent. Samay now becomes a passive observer and is no longer the active protagonist.
Many of the celluloid reels are burnt down while many are carted away to some place and Samay follows every single one of these with sad but curious eyes. The circular boxes are melted down, reshaped and moulded into metal spoons. The celluloid reels that are spared from being burnt to cinders are melted down into long, colourful tubes and turned into plastic bangles.
This is the first time perhaps that we learn what happened to the massive amounts of celluloid film and their boxes when cinema went digital and projectors were turned to scrap. The projectionist is pushed into the job of a coolie.
Samay's father, unable to bear his tragedy, hands him a purse filled with currency notes and asks him to leave the small town and find his future as a filmmaker. The film closes on the voice-over of a grown Samay reeling out the names of the most outstanding filmmakers across the world ending with Satyajit Ray.
Chhelo Show is a filmmaker's delight, in terms of realising for the audience, life in a small-town place in Gujarat, fleshed out with simple and mostly poor people. The landscape flush with agricultural fields, greenery where the boys keep scouting for ideas to realise their dreams, makes the visuals throb with a life of their own.
The same, or perhaps much more, goes for the acoustics, the sound design filled with falling reels of celluloid, the projector going kaput now and again, and the sounds of the remnants of the theatre being dwindled down to its basics. The lovely rural songs on the soundtrack fill the cinematic space with rich visuals and sounds steering clear of any hint of glamour and romance or even a happy ending to a lovely, adorable film.
The trap Samay cages himself in, ensnared by the magic and science of celluloid film projection to create his own 35mm movie with his friends, does pay in the end. We cannot see it, but can feel it when our skin breaks out into goose pimples.
Yes, there might have been qualitatively better entries from India, but we do not know that, do we? Why not call this a cinematic tribute to Cinema Paradiso.