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Pan Nalin on premiering his film at the 20th Tribeca Festival, doffing his hat to the Lumiere Brothers and shooting in Gir and Kathiawad in a pandemic year

"Honestly, at first, art has no importance when you have people dying in the street... But someday when that suffering slows down, then your aching needs art."

May 16, 2021 / 08:07 AM IST
Gujarat-born independent filmmaker Pan Nalin is known for such films as 'Samsara', 'Valley of Flowers', 'Faith Connections' and 'Angry Indian Goddesses'.

Gujarat-born independent filmmaker Pan Nalin is known for such films as 'Samsara', 'Valley of Flowers', 'Faith Connections' and 'Angry Indian Goddesses'.

Independent filmmaker Pan Nalin's new Gujarati feature film, The Last Film Show (Chello Show), will open the Spotlight section of the 20th Tribeca Festival in New York next month.

The Paris-based Indian director's previous film, Angry Indian Goddesses, was first runner-up for the Toronto festival's People's Choice Award in 2015.

The Samsara, Valley of Flowers and Faith Connections director, an alumnus of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, talked about his new film, the transition from celluloid to digital, and how it is his own childhood story as well as an homage to filmmakers who have influenced him in an interview. Excerpts:

'The Last Film Show' is opening the Spotlight section of the Tribeca festival, a physical event this year. How important is the occasion for you as a filmmaker who has struggled to complete the film during the pandemic?

For an independent filmmaker to continue film production and post-production through the pandemic is suicidal. Add to the trouble, almost all festivals have gone virtual. When you watch the movie you’ll understand we could not have gone virtual because our entire movie is an ode to cinema. So needless to say when Tribeca told us they loved the movie, and they will set it up to open the Spotlight at their main outdoor venue on Pier 76 Hudson River Park, in the heart of New York city, and that too an in-person show, the news came like rays of hope, a dream come true. Given the suffering around us, and most cinema halls across the world remain shut, some altogether disappeared, we could not have asked for anything better.

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On top of that, the founders of this film festival, Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, would be celebrating 20 years of Tribeca by expanding the festival all over New York City with six outdoor venues, to its boroughs, drive-ins, and special home viewing across the USA. And it also feels great the The Last Film Show was sold out (at the festival) in flat 40 minutes!

What were the major challenges in the making of the film?

Each time I make a movie, I face the same problems. I am a relentless storyteller, and I am an outsider, meaning I fit nowhere, neither in Bollywood nor in Hollywood – and I hate terms “art-house” cinema or “indie” movies. I just want films to be films.

Whether you like it or not the very essence of cinema is commercial. The way we make it, market it, distribute it, and consume it. Top film festivals, too, have to deal with their share of financial concerns. So each time the challenges are the same; how to finance it, and how to market and distribute it. For the rest of the moviemaking process and production, I’m the master!

And once I decided The Last Film Show would be in Gujarati language all financiers ran away! Add to that lead role is being played by a kid, that sealed the fate for any kind of financing.

Unlike many countries in the world, we have almost no public-financing support in India. So I had to make the first move; I decided to sell my home, my apartment (in Mumbai). From what I got, I knew I still couldn’t make the movie. Add to that nearly 35% of the amount went into taxes. India’s dynamic young producer Dheer Momaya from Jugaad Motion Pictures came forward with some part of funding.

Then came so much of good karma and goodwill from cinematographers Swapnil S. Sonawane (Angry Indian Goddesses, Newton, Sacred Games) and Linesh Desai, casting director Dilip Shankar (Life of Pi, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag), my chief assistant director Subhadra Mahajan and many other team members decided to defer their 100% fees, meaning they did not get paid at all. Their support was so encouraging, it gave me the courage to fight – and thanks to them the film exists today.

Scene from 'The Last Film Show'. Scene from 'The Last Film Show', with Bhavin Rabari in the lead role.

What is 'The Last Film Show' about? How personal is the story of the film set in Gujarat, your home state?

I was desperate to make a film where we celebrate lightness and innocence. Where we go back to a natural, organic, and timeless way of living. A very simple story of a simple hero who owns nothing, thus he has nothing to lose. His age is tender, 8-9 years, so no one takes him seriously anyway. But when you have nothing, you often dream big or make others dream big. So when our hero Samay discovers movies, his life turns upside down – he is haunted and mesmerized by movies.

The Last Film Show is very personal and autobiographical. Samay and his gang’s adventure in the movie is what I did as a kid with my gang of friends. My father sold tea at a remote railway station – a station that was nobody’s destination. There was nothing except vast fields and open skies. Besides trains, there were airplanes far in the sky, and that was our only connection with the rest of the world. My mother too was an excellent cook. My father became poorer and poorer as he saw his land, then his cows, and lastly his home being snatched away by his own brothers, leaving him with nothing but a tiny tea stall at the railway station. So I had never been to the movies till I was about eight. And the day I saw one, I was enlightened before I turned nine. The Last Film Show is also filmed on many real locations close to my native place in Gir and in Kathiawad where I grew up. We even resurrected the abandoned cinema hall where I had seen my very first movie, and that too became one of the main locations in the movie.

Being the biggest film buff in the universe, how can I hold myself back from paying tribute or homage or as the French would say clin d’oeil (flash) to some of the filmmakers who have left a deep impact on my life, and my work. So it’s subtle, and integrated in the cinematic treatment and if you’re not a cinephile, you might not notice anything at all while watching the movie. But that was the idea; I did not want people to easily notice homages to filmmakers integrated into the narrative.

Via Wikimedia Commons Via Wikimedia Commons

The most obvious one is in the opening sequence; we see a shot of a train arriving towards us, which starts in black and white and slowly, transforms into colour. So this is clearly my tribute to the Lumiere brothers and their Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. That little film changed the storyteller’s world forever.

Then there is (English photographer) Eadweard Muybridge in our hero Samay’s school lab, for a few seconds, we see an image of a horse running through a praxinoscope. Muybridge pioneered photographic motion, creating the illusion of motion picture.

Then we jump to Stanley Kubrick; while Samay is in the projection booth the 2001: A Space Odyssey pattern flashes on his face and evaporates. Soon after, Samay is in the field, he strikes a match and contemplates its flame, that is Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. The final homage is my all-time favourite Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, where the camera tracks the faces of the three travellers as they ride a trolley along the railway track into the 'Zone'.

When did you begin writing the script? How different was the process as you were going to turn the camera on yourself this time?

At the beginning, there was no script as such, just a series of notes written over the years. A collection of memories as narrated by my parents and friends. I did not think it was anything exceptional to tell the story of a chaiwala becoming a filmmaker, it sounded like poverty-porn, though I never knew what is it to be poor till I came to the city of Baroda. However, about ten years ago, when the transition from celluloid to digital arrived, something snapped within me – then I knew, now I have to script it and tell the story.

When you turn the camera on yourself, every decision you make seems redundant, of no interest at all. Or it becomes arty and pretentious with an unbearable static camera and the slow movements and so on. It was big trouble. So finally I decided to go Zen, literally Zen; simple, innocent, refreshing, and emotional.

The film is a parable, almost like the (Buddhist) ox herder Zen story; searching for the light, sighting of 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.

What are the film's main locations? Who are the main cast and crew?

It was mainly filmed in and around Gir forest region, near Dhari, Bagasara, Amreli and Lathi (all in Amreli district of Gujarat). We also have a meter-gauge train line, which is one of the main characters in the movie, and the railway stations of Bhader, Chalala, and the defunct Jetalvad. The main adult cast is Reecha Mina, Bhavesh Shrimali and Dipen Raval. And the lead cast is Bhavin Rabari, who plays the main role of Samay along with five other kids who make up the Lala Gang of Chalala.

It took screening of about 3,000 kids because one thing was certain, Samay and his gang had to be from the same remote part of Kathiawad where I grew up, so that I will naturally get the right body language. Also, these kids have the sense of growing up against vast empty spaces and open skies. They also speak the dialect. And above all, these kids come from modest families, they’re used to having ‘nothing’. Because of that they have an amazing sense of innovation and creation from nothing. All these qualities allowed me to focus on my characters and storytelling. They also came from very diverse communities like Rabari, Maldhhari, Siddis, Koli, and so on.

The crew comprised of many of my long associates from India and abroad; cinematographers Swapnil Sonawane and Linesh Desai, editors Shreyas Beltangdy and Pavan Bhat, casting director Dilip Shankar, hair and makeup artist Sara Menitra from Portugal, chief assistant director Subhadra Mahajan, sound recordist Harikumar M. Nair from Kerala and music composer Cyril Morin from Los Angeles. We also had many young and dynamic new crew members, like costume designer Sia Seth. Our producer Dheer Momaya put together an excellent production team of dynamic young producers like Yash Gonsai, Hemant Chaudhary and Shubham Pandya. And most of the post-production team was from Paris.

How important is art in these times when the world has been paralyzed by a devastating pandemic?

Honestly, at first, art has no importance when you have people dying in the street. Art has no importance while the world is in pain. Try telling people about art who are busy burying or burning their loved ones. But someday when that suffering slows down, then your aching needs art. Because art can heal some part of your loss. Art can make you appreciate life anew. And let’s hope art has that force to show us light.
Faizal Khan

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