Director: Pan Nalin
Writer: Pan Nalin
Cast: Bhavin Rabari, Bhavesh Shrimali, Dipen Raval, Richa Meena
It’s hard to be sane about something you love. For instance, I love writing very much, so I occasionally tend to go overboard with the tools of language. (In other words: “too much English”). Formula One legend Niki Lauda loved racing so much that he was often guilty of overanalysing it. The dreamy nine-year-old protagonist of Chhello Show (The Last Film Show), Samay, shares a similar affliction, albeit in a different context. He falls in love with the movies. So he bunks school. He lies to his parents. He nicks cash from his father’s tea stall to buy movie tickets. He frequents the single-screen theatre’s projection booth by bribing the projectionist. He even intercepts city-bound film reels stored in his town’s railway station, and steals them. Samay is too mesmerised by cinema – the interplay of sound and light, the storytelling, the strips of celluloid film, the magic and madness of it all – to be rational about it. That he’s a (semi-autobiographical) stand-in for director Pan Nalin is evident from the manner of the film at hand.
Nalin’s 111-minute Gujarati feature is pretty, but a bit too performative. You get an impression that it likes admiring its own reflection in the mirror. Swapnil Sonawane’s camerawork is the hero, but the film’s striking visual grammar functions as both cultural and aesthetic bait. For example, betting on lions is introduced as an idyllic activity for Samay and his friends in the Gir-skirting Saurashtrian village. In a shot straight out of The Gods Must Be Crazy, the kids observe the big cats from close quarters, tilting their heads in unison. The montages of Samay and his friends trying to ‘catch light’ rapidly go from cute to cutesy; some of the images (shadows, optical illusions, kids wearing strips of film as shades) look more synthetic than spontaneous. The elaborate homages – to everything from Cinema Paradiso to 2001 Space Odyssey to Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge – start to feel like overkill after the first thirty minutes.
Perhaps the only one that works is the Tarantino-inspired track of Samay’s mother cooking delicious Kathiawari dishes. Samay barters his lunchbox for precious time in the projection booth, and the woman senses that her food is being savoured by an adult stranger. (The projectionist being Muslim, then, is not entirely decorative). Consequently, the shots of her cooking express the intuition of a mother silently fuelling her son’s dreams. Not to mention the fact that it completes the sensory experience of art – adding taste, touch and smell to the seeing and hearing of film. As a result, even the stylized look of her humble kitchen – featuring rustically arranged spice jars (more suited to an Outback episode of Masterchef Australia) – doesn’t look all that cosmetic. It ties into the film’s eventual linking of cinema to both food and feminine texture.
Unfortunately, the rest of the nostalgia – unlike the kitchen – is so lyrical that it feels curated. The first of many train shots in Chhello Show fleetingly appears in black and white, a tribute to the Lumiere Brothers’ pioneering 1896 short. The story itself occurs during India’s transition from film to digital; a half-hearted parallel is drawn to the father’s livelihood at a railway station that’s slated to be demolished with the onset of electric trains. The opening credit (“A Pan Nalin flight”) is a prelude to the self-conscious design of the narrative. When Samay is asked about his name – which translates to “time” – his answer sounds more like a lofty character note than a curious child’s musings: “My parents were jobless, and they had only ‘time’ when they made me.” A teacher tells Samay that the only two castes in the world feature those who can speak English and those who cannot. Some of the lines – “movies were invented to con people”, “storytelling is the art of lying” or “audiences don’t realise that they’re actually watching darkness” – sound too embellished, almost as if they were written with the sole purpose to impress.
A lot of these problems are rooted in the film’s own identity crisis: Is this the fictional story of a boy against the backdrop of film-to-digital change? Or is this a melancholic docudrama about a definitive period in film seen through the lens of a restless boy? It’s hard to tell. There are times when Samay is almost an afterthought in the frame – like in the projection booth when every click and whir of the machine is romanticised, or during a PSA-style final act that condenses the weeks-long journey of scrap metal into a single day. The lament about film might have been moving if it wasn’t shoehorned into the origin story of an artist (and vice versa). All of which means that Bhavin Rabari’s sprightly lead turn as Samay is undone by a movie that’s more mesmerised with the idea of film-making than the act itself. The rest of the performances are nothing to write home about; the sincerity looks too produced to be disarming. This artifice is typical of a title that sets out to be a personal ode to films only to become an excessive ode to films about films. There is a difference. One stems from the mind, the other from the heart: Memories can be edited, but feelings cannot.