by Anmol AhujaJan 22, 2022
Indian filmmaker Nalin Kumar Pandya's, popularly known as Pan Nalin, 2021 film Last Film Show, or Chhello Show, is a semi-autobiographical tale that follows nine-year-old cinema enthusiasts in a unique coming of age story. While the narrative tells the story inspired by Nalin's own childhood, it also tells a parallel story of the transformation of the single-screen cinema in the day and age of the multiplex. With the rising popularity of superhero films and grand science-fiction and fantasy movies, there is a growing discourse on the impact of these blockbuster films. Nalin's film is an interesting response to this discourse. The movie explores the relationship between old cinema halls, with their projector rooms and physical film reels, and moviemaking as an art form. This love is not just for the narrative of a movie, but for the process of moviemaking itself. In addition to being an autobiography of the film director's own childhood, Last Film Show is also a biography of a soon-to-be-demolished single-screen cinema hall, its architecture, technology, and an inimitable interior spatial quality.
In a conversation with director Pan Nalin and producer Dheer Momaya, STIR explores the story behind the making of Last Film Show. Below is an edited excerpts from an interview with the duo.
Devanshi Shah: I think I would like to start our conversation by asking you about the correlation between the movie and the cinema hall.
Pan Nalin: Cinema halls are an integral part of Chhello Show, The Last Film Show. Not only as a building, but in our movie, it is a character. In the movie, it is a single screen, but it is also a cinema hall that has been there for a long time, designed for 35 mm projection. So, it has a different type of projection booth, sound system, even balcony seats. And when digital arrived, a lot of that changed, because with that came the surround sound system. When surround sound came, the patterns of making doors, ceilings and soundproofing changed, and slowly the cinema hall became compact boxes. In the movie, we went for more of a single-screen experience, because it is a country-side cinema hall and there were thousands across India. More than half have disappeared, the other half are in ruins. While going location scouting, with my producer Dheer Momaya and our cinematographer, Swapnil S. Sonawane, we went through quite a few places to find a very particular building.
It was very important because often these cinema halls have a bit of Gothic style of architecture with a fusion of Art Deco. For us, as a part of the so-called production design, finding this particular cinema hall, was very important. The spaces of the cinema hall were important to us. Where the doors, the entrances are, having a projection booth above, and then the staircase leading up to the projection room. These spaces, the whole architectural setting in itself becomes a character. In our movie, the facade is falling apart a little bit and the manager dreams that he will be able to paint it one day. It also goes through a character transformation, so one day the kids, to watch free movies, end up painting the whole façade. There is a linguistic joke around it; it becomes a character because the cinema hall in the movie is called Galaxy and the manager is a local guy who doesn't speak English. So even when they go and change the facade completely, they paint the galaxy and stars on the whole facade and he doesn't get it.
Dheer Momaya: To add to Nalin's point, I visited a lot of the single screen and Art Deco cinemas in Mumbai (Bombay). I did travel a little bit when I was younger, to Gujarat, where we visited this faux Art Deco, which is essentially what we shot in as well. Nalin's memory and I think Nalin's love for cinema has been so deep. P. K. Nair, the celluloid man, used to travel with these boxes of 35 mm reels and show them where ever he could. Nalin would be there screening films in the most bizarre locations since he was young, including what you see in the film because the film is partly autobiographical. In the film, the kids are trying to create their own 35 mm projectors and that is from Nalin’s childhood. Eventually, the kids screen the film in a small broken down train station, which is the meter gauge train line that still somewhat exists, in some capacity. Nalin himself would do these local screenings where it was just him with this handmade projector having these screenings. One does not need a big screening hall for stories to be told. Stories can be told anywhere. Cinema can be watched anywhere. I feel like Last Film Show is a testament to that story, and I think Nalin’s approach to all his films has been a testament to that. The amount of research done on cinema screens in India and the number of cinema screens we went through to find the perfect one. There is a great story there as well.
Nalin: Cinema has always been looking for a home. PK Nair, and then later people who are more passionate, like me, started calling it the Temple of Cinema. So, from home, it becomes a temple, while making a movie and showing movie architecture and design have always been a vital part of creation for me. I think it is also sort of important to state that I'm a self-taught filmmaker. Everything I have learned, I got from books, but I have very rarely read film books. The kind of books that are in my library, the true filmmaking learning experience was coming from somewhere else. My cinema is hugely influenced by Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building. It is not at all a book about cinema. Another book meant for engineering students is Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down. Now that book has nothing to do with cinema, it is about building bridges. But if you are a filmmaker and you read that book, you think, how can he know cinema? The author knew exactly how to make great cinema. There is a beautiful passage where he analyses the flight of the bird, the reason a bird can fly, and what is the structure within the wing of the bone. If you use this as a metaphor, this is exactly what you need as a filmmaker.
Devanshi: I think the way you have been discussing the earlier screenings, we imagine them in non-spaces: they were not in black cubes. There seems to be a much deeper connection between the idea of filmmaking, architecture, and the film itself.
Nalin: You will see that when you see many great filmmakers. The use of architecture, even as imaginary, comes from research in iconography. Whether you have Akira Kurosawa in Japan or Andrei Tarkovsky in Russia, he was a master of Orthodox Christianity and its architecture, you know, he's a filmmaker. When you look at all his movies, you can tell that he knew how to use the cathedrals. Like in Once Upon a Time in America, you see the characters running against Brooklyn bridge, but he [Sergio Leone] only used wide shots because it reduced the human scale to nothing in this giant city.
Devanshi: Could you expand on this idea of integrated production design?
Nalin: Today, you can count hundreds of series or movies where you feel, people are just placed like a puppet in a space. They have no connection to the space they are in. They are sitting in a drawing-room that they don't belong to. At the same time, some filmmakers are still consciously building the architectural design element into it.
Devanshi: Coming back to location-scouting, what was that process like?
Dheer: I think the story demanded a lot of authenticities. Since the story was set in a small village, in the Indian state of Gujarat, we were quite sure that we did not want to move away from filming in a small village. Essentially, it is autobiographical, so we wanted to do it in and around the village that Nalin grew up in. It is a part of the state that was lost to me. I had been to the cities, Ahmedabad, Surat, and even Gir Forest but not this part. It is its own universe by itself, completely different food, language, people, energy, flora, fauna - everything is slightly different from the rest of the state. We arrived there by train, as a lot of the film is set along the tracks. The kids travel up and down in a train and essentially it is the meter gauge train, which doesn't exist on any more lines in India, apart from that one single stretch. Like most villages in India, they're all frozen in time. Yet there was a sense of bustle and energy around here, an entrepreneurial spirit that you see when you look at the houses. Nalin had a nervous energy to film the movie in 2019 because a lot of those places were getting repurposed and modernised. Like the main cinema that we film in, the cost to recreate that as a set would've been impossible. There is already a discussion about how they want to tear the place down and put up a mall there.
Nalin: Yeah, that's true. I mean, even the railway station has already been transformed and was transformed while we were filming. We used two cinema halls for our movie. In Bagasara, there was a modern cinema built in 1955 – 60 which was very different from what was built before. But the projection room was frozen in. As if something happened and the room was locked and abandoned. It was shut for more than 20 years and everything was intact, even the splicer, the film. You will see that in the movie, we have shot extensively there, we cleaned it up and we called the guy who used to run the booth, and he helped us revive it. He could not believe that somebody was restarting all the machinery.
The film premiered at the 20th Tribeca Film Festival in 2021 and was the first Gujarati language film selected for the festival section. The film was nominated for the Tiantan Awards at the 11th Beijing International Film Festival and won the Golden Spike to Best Film at the 66th Valladolid Film Festival (Seminci) held in October 2021.