India's Oscar entry an ode to cinema magic

The Gujarati film Chhello Show (Last Film Show), India's official entry for Oscars 2023, was born out of writer-director Pan Nalin's visit to his dad in Amreli city, Gujarat.

Chhello Show tells the story of a nine-year-old boy in rural Gujarat whose life-long love affair with cinema starts with a bribe into a rundown movie palace where he spends the summer watching movies from the projection booth.

During his visit, Nalin learnt from his father about Mohammad Bhai, a cinema projectionist eking out a living by selling vegetables. Bhai and Nalin's father were close childhood friends as they were both obsessed with cinema.

Most of Chhello Show was shot at Nalin's birthplace Amreli district.

"When I met Mohammad Bhai, he was selling vegetables on a pushcart," said Nalin, who has helmed award-winning movies such as Samsara, Valley of Flowers and Angry Indian Goddesses.

"I was really touched by what happened to him. This man spent his entire life in projection rooms and talking about cinema."

Hundreds of mechanical projector operators like Bhai, who lacked knowledge in the English language and computers, lost their jobs when movies went digital.

Bhai's story, along with Nalin's own childhood during which he often skipped school to watch movies, forms the main plot of the Oscar-bound film, which will be screened at Carnival Cinemas at Golden Mile Tower in Singapore on Sunday.

Nalin said there were several challenges in shooting the film, such as encounters with lions and leopards. Amreli district houses parts of the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.

The filmmaker had to organise a "how not to act" workshop for the child actors "because we did not want them to learn acting, we wanted them to really build the characters they were playing".

"But the biggest challenge was to find the lead character Samay, played by Bhavin Rabari," said Nalin.

"We went through 3,000 auditions to find Bhavin. The casting process also hit a snag when a casting director was beaten up by a mob that mistook him for a kidnapper."

All the six child actors in Chhello Show hail from underprivileged backgrounds - their fathers work as shoemakers, construction labourers or autorickshaw drivers.

"What struck me was that they were all extremely happy wherever they were. I had not seen such happiness in kids," said Nalin.

"The challenge was to make Bhavin carry the whole film on his shoulders along with the other kids. And that was not easy as the children had never acted. Our job was to put them at ease."

Rahul Koli, one of the child actors, died of blood cancer on Oct 2 - just days before the release of the movie. "I spoke to his father and the family felt Rahul had been immortalised through the movie," recalled Nalin.

"His character Manu is so good and touching. I am really happy that they see it in a positive way.

"We are going to help them all. All the kids have become family."

The film shoot was completed just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit but lockdowns everywhere kicked in rapidly in 2020.

"We were not even motivated to continue editing because we didn't know what the future would be like. No one was eager to finish the film," said Nalin.

All the post-production work was completed this year and the film was finally released in theatres on Oct 14.

Nalin decided against screening the film virtually because "it is a story of a cinema hall in a cinema, a film about films".

And he did not make the movie in the hopes of winning an Oscar or any other awards.

"I always make movies that appeal to people. My only hope was that Chhello Show would have a big release. That was my dream."

Indo-Asian News Service


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