Pan Nalin's Last Film Show ("Chhello Show" in Gujarati) begins and ends on the railway track. It opens with young Samay (Bhavin Rabari) playing around a railway track in rural Gujarat, as a train approaches from the distance. Fitting really because cinema's birth itself can be traced to the locomotive pulling into a station. Since that LumiÃ¨re brothers' film, cinema and trains have shared a long, often romanticised, journey together. The train simulates the experience of movie-going even: sitting in a liminal space and looking out through the window, which becomes our own mobile screens. Michel Foucault once used the train to illustrate his concept of heterotropia. In similar vein, the train here symbolises different things: the window mimicking the cinematic experience, Samay's coming-of-age, and the means of transport which take him from Chalala to the neighbouring town, which houses the nearest cinema.
Home to a small rural community, Chalala is one of those forgotten stations where trains seldom stop. Them stopping is obviously the lifeblood of the adjacent economies. Like for Samay's dad (Dipen Raval), who sells garam chai on the station's platform. Cheated out of whatever wealth he had by his own brothers, he hopes Samay will be an "ideal boy" and improve the family's fortunes the traditional way: do well in school, and earn a decent income in an "honourable" profession. But Samay's gone and fallen in love with cinema, which his father doesn't consider "honourable" for a Brahmin. Not just caste but class prejudices too abound this tiny Gujarat commune, where the station master admonishes his boy for playing with the chaiwala's son. It doesn't stop Samay or his friends though. No matter what side of the tracks they live on, the other kids too become passengers on Samay's cinema journey.
Cinephilia strikes young for Samay so much so that he wants to become films, as he confesses in a wide-eyed moment to his science teacher. Stealing a note from his dad's till, he sneaks off from school to Galaxy Cinema to catch the matinee show. From here, comparisons to Cinema Paradiso are unavoidable as Samay befriends the kindly projectionist Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali), who offers to let Samay watch movies from the projection room in exchange for his mom's lovingly cooked lunch. Overhead shots of Richa Meena making stuffed baingan and okra are so flavourful, you can smell the coriander off the screen. What begins as a transactional relationship evolves into an unbreakable bond deepened by the magic of movies. Fazal becomes Samay's first film school, and also offers a life lesson or two. His role turns into that of a substitute father much like Alfredo was to Salvatore in the Giuseppe Tornatore film.
Playing truant to go watch movies becomes the framework for a winsome coming-of-age yarn, a nostalgic familiarity braided into its structure. There is an unstudied and infectious enthusiasm to Rabari as he captures the experience of a kid catching the cinebug to a point where it seeps itself right down to his scrawny bones. Cinema becomes an all-embracing refuge for Samay's daydreams. In his genius for trouble-making, he is also expanding his own imagination. The assembly of a makeshift projector offers one of the film's most ingenious moments. The boys unhook a ceiling fan from a train compartment, and collect a broken-down sewing machine and a variety of trash from the scrapyard to build their own apparatus. The final result is a testament to the boys' creative whims and the sweet delights of a friendship born of cinema. The scene makes us reconnect with our own inner child in a tangible way. It is also a perfect reflection of the indie spirit that allows movies like it to be made outside the studio-streamer system.
The name "Samay" (time) itself is deliberate. Time is made malleable in cinema, condensed and expanded as needed. Just as cinema asserts control over time, it has a formative effect on Samay. In his cinematic awakening, we see the genesis of a director's eye, slowly learning the syntax of a universal language. Samay is after all a stand-in for Nalin himself. The film is a hazy, impressionistic reflection of his own childhood. A key to this is the use of lighting which is almost meta-textual. During Samay's first movie experience (a mythological movie called Jai Mahakali), the light of the projector takes on a divine aura. A close-up shot shows an almost hypnotised Samay, his face bathed in its light. At the transformative moment when Samay falls in love with cinema, Richard Strauss's "Also sprach Zarathustra" wells up. Hope, like the sun in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, emerges from the darkness.
Nalin packs the film with references to his influences. If the homages to the LumiÃ¨re brothers and Kubrick are weaved into the film, a whole list of who's who is namedropped at the end. Drawing on his own fascination with the movies as a kid, Nalin crafts a well-timed elegy to what is the most democratic of life's finer things: cinema. It's a pleasure we haven't had access to for a while, making us pushovers for this kind of film. So, there is an aching wistfullness to this celebration of cinema as collective dreaming. Such films obviously can't avoid a certain degree of sentimentality, but Last Film Show doesn't suffer because of it. Because it is an honest film which explores the private world of a filmmaker in making.
Last Film Show is as much an ode to movie-going, as movie-making. Nalin romanticises the 35mm experience but stops short of decrying digitisation as the death of cinema. At one point, Nalin lets a scene play out which shows the projector being broken down and repurposed as spoons, and reels being melted and turned into bangles. It's a prolonged scene but a powerful one because it challenges the Nolan school of thought which has turned a democratic experience into an elitist one. By contast, the Nalin school of thought points out the absurdity of pumping up what are essentially photochemicals. For stories will continue to be told no matter how the medium evolves.
Last Film Show (Chhello Show) opened the Spotlight Narrative section at Tribeca Festival, which runs from 9-19 June this year.