Earlier this month, the Los Angeles (LA) Times’s Twitter handle announced, “@RRRMovie’s Oscar campaign is officially underway!” Indian films rarely get this much attention during the Oscar race, particularly from the non-Indian press, but thanks to its success on streaming platforms, RRR (2022) is now a global hit and it’s pitching itself to be nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Song and Best Actor. None of this bothers Dheer Momaya, who produced Chhello Show (Last Film Show, 2022), which is India’s official Oscar nominee for the Best Foreign Film category. “We have a dream team to take a film from being a country’s nomination to winning the nomination and hopefully the award,” said Momaya. His partners in this project include producers Siddharth Roy Kapur from India, Samuel Goldwyn Films in the United States of America and Orange Studio in France. Samuel Goldwyn Films’ backed Another Round (2020), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Feature in 2021. Orange Studio has also some experience in pushing dark horses through in the Oscar race, having championed The Artist (2011), which won five Oscars in its year, including best picture. “When they’re picking up a film and when they’re confident of the film, they know it’s going to speak to the core voting base of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” said Momaya of his partners.
It’s easy to see why Momaya feels confident about Chhello Show (2022), directed by Pan Nalin. The film tells the story of a pixie-faced boy named Samay, who falls in love with the movies after his father takes the family to watch a mythological film at a single-screen theatre. Mesmerised by the experience, Samay becomes so desperate to see more films that he bunks school and strikes up a friendship with the projectionist, bribing the man with the lunch that Samay’s mother packs for him. Sitting in the projectionist’s room, little Samay discovers light and storytelling. A cute kid as a protagonist; stunning shots of rural Gujarat; a sub-plot in which Gujarati food is filmed like it’s going to show up in an episode of television chef Nigella Lawson’s next show; and a story that’s not just about cinema, but also a love letter to celluloid film — Chhello Show feels like catnip for cinephiles, particularly those who love seeing the Indian heartland through a romanticised lens.
Chhello Show caught Samuel Goldwyn Films’s attention during the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last year, where it was nominated for the Audience Award. For director Pan Nalin, the whole point of playing his film at festivals is to make it accessible to audiences, which is why it’s exciting for the team that the film is getting a theatrical release in India. “We would have always given it a really big release, but the amount of attention we’ve managed to garner because of the fact that we’re India’s official selection leads to that much more curiosity about the film.” said Roy Kapur, who said watching the film brought back childhood memories of dragging his grandfather to watch whatever was playing at single-screen theatres in south Mumbai. He’s hopeful that this is just the kind of film that will bring audiences to theatres. “What we’re realising today is that people want to come in for a cinematic experience and while that cinematic experience was earlier defined as big stars, what we’re also seeing is that it’s not necessary that someone’s just going to come in for a big star anymore,” he said. “Our audiences have been exposed in the last two years, whether they liked it or not, to watch all kinds of content around the world and a lot of them actually took to it. The hope is that now we can get them in with obviously the big-ticket theatrical stuff, but also these interesting, charming movies.”
Nalin says much of Chhello Show is autobiographical — he discovered movies just like Samay did, and became obsessed with making films. His favourite teacher in school would tell him later, after Nalin had found his way to filmmaking, that as a boy, Nalin used a very particular turn of phrase. “Everyone else said they want to become engineers, they want to become doctors,” he told Nalin. “You never said you wanted to become a filmmaker, you said you wanted to become a film.” Now, with Chhello Show, Nalin has turned that childhood statement true. In the film, Samay bunks school, just like Nalin did, to watch movies and gets thrown out of the cinema for sneaking in without a ticket, like Nalin did as a boy. However, in Nalin’s case, the manager of the cinema had a problem for which Nalin had a solution. The theatre had a false ceiling and pigeons would roost there. “The problem was, every time they would have a movie, guns will fire and all the pigeons would be all over the place,” said Nalin. The manager told Nalin that if he made sure there were no pigeons in the rafters, he could watch films for free. “So my first job was kabootar catcher in the cinema hall,” said the director with a grin. It was while he was taking a break from shooing pigeons that Nalin met the projectionist Mohammed bhai who has become Fazal in Chhello Show. Filmed with a lush, dreamy beauty that is characteristic of Nalin’s filmmaking, Chhello Show is filled with little tributes to past films and filmmakers, which range from Pather Panchali (1955) to The Gods Must Be Crazy to the Lumiere Brothers’s Arrival of a Train (1895). There’s also an unmistakable narrative resemblance to Cinema Paradiso (1988), which coincidentally won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
“At one level, the story is just of a simple kid, dreaming about cinema,” said Nalin. “That was one, very simple track. Along with that, without disturbing that, how do I weave in a story about the celebration of cinema? People can ask me, who do you think you are to pay homage to Tarkovsky? So I had to find the right balance. People should not see the homage. The film should work at one level. If you’re a cinephile, go hunting for your Easter eggs.” Nalin’s also happy to accept that Chhello Show has its sentimental moments. “As a kid growing up in the countryside, you can’t leave out being sentimental about certain things,” he said unapologetically. Perhaps the most indulgent part of the film is towards the end when young Samay starts rattling off names of iconic film directors. The scene might have made logical sense if Samay named directors of pulpy Hindi films — which is what he has watched in the single-screen theatre — but Samay names the likes of Satyajit Ray, Andrei Tarkovsky and other filmmakers whom Nalin reveres. The director said he kept that scene because these filmmakers and their work signify all that is beautiful and magical about the world. “I wanted to leave the audience with hope,” he said.
In many ways, Chhello Show is a love letter to cinema, but also an exercise in mythmaking. What we see in the film isn’t an exact recreation of Nalin’s past — the film is set in and around 2010 — but rather, it’s a composite of memories. There are incidents and moments that Nalin remembers as well as stories he’s gathered from friends and family members. There are details that got added while shooting, like when the kids were imagining how they would behave in certain situations. Shooting Chhello Show also brought memories back for the projectionists that they hired for the shoot. “When we oiled and prepared the projector, a projectionist literally started crying. He was putting his gods back [in the projectionist’s room] and said, ‘I never thought I’d see the theatre come back to life, even for a day.’ He literally used to take the film and smell it and have tears in his eyes,” recalled Nalin. With all these pieces fitted into Nalin’s own story, Chhello Show becomes a capsule of sorts. It speaks of an Indian heartland that exists out of time, unaffected by the politics and conflicts of the world beyond. It celebrates cinema for the magic that it radiates and the dreams it inspires, and not as a cultural battleground that it is in India today. Perhaps Chhello Show, with these modest fantasies, is a more hopeful reflection of India than the testosterone-fuelled, macho spectacles that we’re coming to associate with Indian cinema.