Director Pan Nalin’s The Last Film Show (2021), is an echo of the filmmaker’s childhood. Playful nine-year-old Samay (Bhavin Rabari) is seduced by the magic of cinema. His dream to make films is discouraged by his father, who believes the film industry to be dirty and unworthy of his son. He befriends Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali), the projectionist of a run-down movie house. In exchange for his mother’s home-cooked food, Samay is allowed to watch films from Fazal’s booth. The young boy’s love of cinema and friendship with Fazal begins a journey that will not be without pain and heartbreak.
Nalin’s previous work includes Samsara (2011), a love triangle set against the backdrop of enlightenment and spirituality, the Himalayan epic Valley of Flowers (2012), and the comedy-drama Angry Indian Goddesses (2015). He has also directed documentaries for the BBC, Discovery, and other leading networks.
In conversation with PopMatters, Nalin talks about the filmmakers in his life, forging a path to tell his story, and returning to childhood memories.
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
Like in The Last Film Show, I was eight or nine years old when I saw my first film. I’d gone with my parents to watch an Indian mythological film. Until then I’d heard about cinema, but I wasn’t very curious. We would hear songs on TV, but it was mainly the popular Bollywood type of entertainment.
The film was called Jai Dhakshineshwari Kali Maa (Soni, 1996), who is an Indian Hindu Goddess. She takes a ferocious form, with her tongue out and skulls hanging from her. I was blown away, I almost had a Lumière brothers type of experience. In one moment I literally hid under the chair.
It was a 90- minute to two-hour train ride home. I remember there was complete silence within me. The first line I spoke was to my mother. I told her I wanted to make films.
In the Indian countryside you’d always talk about who was going to become a doctor or an engineer. Even though I was a child, I can still clearly remember never wanting to do anything else. There wasn’t even the briefest thought of doing something else.
When I started making movies, my sister and brother used to tease me. “You’re going to make movies, the one who hid under his chair.” They didn’t believe I’d ever be able to make a film.
At the beginning of the film, you thank certain filmmakers for lighting the way. Why do you give particular mention to the Lumière brothers, Eadweard Muybridge, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky?
The Lumière brothers and Eadweard Muybridge changed the way motion and picture were united. They changed the way time flows, and they changed our lives. Every time you watch a movie, it’s an enriching experience. They didn’t even know what they were doing with their contributions, and how transformative a gardener watering a flower, or a train coming into the station, were going to be.
I grew up on a railway platform, where my father used to sell tea. I was fascinated by the perspective of the rail track – the way it disappears deep in the horizon. I used to enjoy looking out the window at the landscapes that were floating by. The train had so many cinematic qualities, and the way the sun rose and set directly in the window, I’d watch the shadows play on the ceiling of the coach.
We roamed those tracks as children, that was our universe. When I learned about cinema history much later on, and the film by the Lumière brothers of the train arriving at the station, I thought it was crazy [laughs]. I wouldn’t have told my story had those pioneers not done their magical shadow play.
I’d only watched Bollywood movies until I went to college when my friends were going to watch Hollywood movies. They’d be in English and I’d never seen those. I saw a couple of westerns, but there was a special re-release of Lawrence of Arabia (Lean 1962), and that did it. The film kept playing in my mind. I must have seen it every day at the 6pm evening show until it was no longer playing.
I love author driven cinema, whether it’s the French New Wave, Italian Neorealism or German Expressionism, but I’ve always believed that each story must be borne with it’s own cinematic style. You can’t apply one style to every movie, so I enjoy authors who can do that. Those that can do that are talented because I couldn’t do it.
Once I know the story, I want to know what the cinema treatment will be. What will the sound and the colour palette be? Will there be a static or a handheld camera? I like to find the soul of the story. …Whether it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968), and from there The Shining (Kubrick, 1980), to Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, 1999), I can’t believe that these films could be from the same director.
… This chameleon type of approach had a huge impact on me. I went to the Kubrick exhibition in London, and he kept all these diaries. Knowing his movies, you’d expect there would be big philosophical essays, observations on renaissance paintings and classical music, but there’s nothing. It’s pure mathematics and production. He had such an insight into the economical side of the filmmaking, and that’s how he managed to always get what he wanted. He knew exactly where he wanted to put the money, and that’s why there’s a Kubrick.
I’d only seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975) and I’d read his book, Sculpting in Time (1984). I was impressed with Mirror, but the concept of the book blew me away. I started discovering many of his movies. During that time I was looking to my roots, asking how could I bring my spiritual root to my films, and being born Hindu without involving religion.
Tarkovsky had this deep spiritual element. I was blown away by Stalker (1979). The sound design, the value of the silences and the long takes, I’d never seen this before. There was something original and authentic. He had one of the best slow-motion cameras. Until then I never thought I’d use slow motion because it looked gimmicky.
When I watched the films of these filmmakers, they took me back to my childhood memories. Like the way the grass is blowing in a Tarkovsky movie, I used to see that as a kid. I never had an idea that it would make a magnificent shot in a movie.
These are some of the filmmakers who have given me an introspection.
Listening to you speak about how a shot in a Tarkovsky film can reconnect you to your childhood, do viewers misunderstand the reality of film? It’s fictional in one sense, but reality is an interaction that provokes an emotional response. Perhaps we need to look beyond our traditional interpretation of reality, to appreciate that fiction is an emotional reality.
… I do a lot of non-fiction work, and it’s interesting when I go from fiction to non-fiction. You’re in this constant struggle between what’s real and what’s not.
When I’m doing a documentary I’m left with two choices: when to switch the camera on and when to switch it off, as well as the angle of the shot. I control nothing in front of the camera. I don’t know what the subjects will say, whether they will walk left or right.
Then when I’m writing fiction, those experiences come back to me. It’s an internal conflict within me as I keep moving from fiction to non-fiction. I’m glad I do that because I find inspiration in my non-fiction work. When I’m doing non-fiction [fiction] is influential.
I’ll start looking for the story, but I’ll start seeing the fictional angle in the reality that’s unfolding. Sometimes I realise we do that in fiction. Reality in a film is fascinating and emotion is the key thing. When we feel something is when we believe it’s real, otherwise we wouldn’t laugh or cry.
The Last Film Show is an acknowledgement of the joy we experience discovering cinema in our youth. There’s nothing wrong with critiquing and developing an understanding of cinema, but it takes us away from this simple and innocent magic. As adults, we should not forget the importance of rekindling the way we once experienced films.
Making this movie, it was very tough to not go overboard because I’ve watched so much cinema. It was a huge learning process to go back to the Lumière brothers and the simplicity of the train coming into the station. I struggled. Anything I did seemed too big and pretentious. I wanted to find the simplicity and the innocence.
… In the early days [of cinema] there was an innocence, but then it became a craft, a business and commercialised, then the universities started teaching film. It depends on who’s going to teach you what, and then it’s the mass manufacturing of entertainment and the content for storytelling.
The worst part is the manipulation of human emotion, rather than being real. Audiences are force fed manufactured entertainment where everything is provoked by how to create the experience. I wanted to go back to the simplicity I saw in Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. I knew I had to become a child to see Samay’s point-of-view of the world. Then I was able to find a way to put Kubrick and Tarkovsky in, but in a childish way.
I didn’t want to pay homage or tribute to anyone. They were simply a part of my life before I even knew it. I had far more dialogue in the original script, and I got rid of 60 percent of it because it was pretentious, and it didn’t make any sense. I knew it was coming from my modern education about cinema, rather than from Samay, who is an innocent kid playing with broken pieces of glass, or matchboxes, on a railway track.
Speaking honestly, it was a liberating experience and so much unlearning happened while making this movie.