Chhello Show’s Oscar Journey: ‘It’s a Circus Out There’

Director Pan Nalin and producer Dheer Momaya are approaching the Oscar race with “monk-like patience”
Chhello Show’s Oscar Journey: ‘It’s a Circus Out There’

Filmmaker Pan Nalin received a call at around 2am from music composer Cyril Morin, that Chhello Show (The Last Film Show) had been shortlisted for the Best International Feature by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Nalin then called producer Dheer Momaya — only for the phone to ring endlessly. Momaya had decided to turn in early. He would eventually wake up to find 50 missed calls on his phone.

Although Momaya and producer Siddharth Roy Kapur have been serious about the Oscar race ever since Chhello Show was selected as India’s official entry for the Oscars, few expected the film to be shortlisted. Nalin lamented over the time they’d spent fighting trolls. “We were really late to join the campaign. Our first screenings were in the first week of November. Meanwhile, every other movie was showing there from mid-August and early-September. So, I think what we achieved in a short span of time is purely on the strength of the film and [Academy] members who watched it, loved it and started talking about it,” Nalin said. 

The next stage of their campaign is to try and ensure as many voting members see their film as possible. “We are just going to go [to Los Angeles] and show the movie to a maximum [number of] people,” said Nalin. “Honestly speaking, we are not a studio or streamer movie, which most of the competition is. It's a circus out there. People have no limit on money. We believe that we just have to keep showing the film, just staying away from false hype.”

For Momaya, the Oscar campaign is about finding a balance between “monk-like patience” and “being really aggressive trying to chase something down.” He’s also careful to temper his own expectations. “The more you imagine the outcome, the more depressing it can be because there's so little in your control,” said Momaya. Speaking about the challenges that his film faces, Nalin said, “The Western culture which is dominated by the Western way of cinematic grammar is very different.” Not many voters are well-versed with Indian cinema and its idioms, which could either make Chhello Show seem refreshing or unfamiliar. 

As far as opening up opportunities for unconventional stories, Nalin said he was unsure if even an Oscar win would make the kind of impact that is needed. “The problem lies in the Indian distribution and exhibition system,” he said. “The people who control are the exhibitors and distributors and they almost have their own assumption (of) what Indian people want to watch.” He recalled how he was asked to make the film, which is set in a remote village in Gujarat, in Hindi because that would make it more accessible to a wider range of audiences. “Most of the producers are still evaluating, ‘How do I get my money back?’, ‘What is my risk factor?’,” said Nalin. “When we tried to raise money for Chhello Show, we were told, ‘Why don't you make it in Hindi? Because if it is, we can put a star to play the projectionist. He could sing a song’,” he said. Ironically, one of the features that makes Chhello Show so distinctive is that it is rooted in a very particular region in India.  

At present, both Nalin and Momaya are looking ahead, rather than back into the past. Speaking about a potential Oscar win, Momaya said, “I'm obviously trying to manifest it, [but] really it's about trusting the process, putting your head down, doing what you're meant to do, and listening to your publicist [and] distributors.” He insisted that the journey so far has been rewarding enough. “I've met some really wonderful and incredible people along the way, found real champions for the work that we do. I have made connections and friends that would possibly last much longer than this campaign or this year's Oscars would,” Momaya said. 

As invested as he is in securing a win, Momaya pointed out that he doesn’t think Indian cinema needs the validation of an Oscar.  “We have a very vibrant and celebrated film industry, commercially also it's very large. It's not the be-all and end-all,” he said, speaking about the Oscars. “At the end of the day, it's an American award, voted by primarily international audiences. There are very few Indians in the Academy.” What Momaya does hope Chhello Show will do is help Indian cinema go global. “There's an opportunity for Indian films to crossover and go to global audiences. That's something that we have seen with our film,” he said. “We could have an international audience and I'm hoping that the nod from the Academy takes us one step further towards that.”

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