Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show is a Splendid and Inspiring Ode to Cinema

There has recently been a slew of directors reminiscing on their experience with cinema and art how it shaped them. From Spielberg’s self-lacerating The Fabelmans, to James Gray’s ‘portrait of the artist as a young man’ Armageddon Time, to Sam Mendes’ wildly misguided Empire of Light. Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show uses an avatar of himself, a nine-year-old boy named Samay (Bhavin Rabari) who breathes cinema despite the disapproval of his Brahmin father Bapuji (Dipen Raval) a chai seller on a dying rail station who views cinema as something beneath his family’s caste.

Nevertheless, one day Bapuji takes Samay and his family to a nationalist film at the Galaxy Theatre where Samay realises that his eye has always been cinematic. A child who runs wild on the train tracks using broken bottles as coloured gels through which to view the world is given the medium through which he can express his fascination with light and composition. Soon Samay is skipping school and sneaking into the cinema and forms a transactional based friendship with the cinema’s projectionist Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali) who teaches Samay about film and editing in exchange for the mouth-watering food Samay’s mother Ba (Richa Meena) prepares for her family.

The setup of course echoes the classic Cinema Paradiso but Nalin’s film is in no manner a clone of that wondrous film. It is specifically his, and specifically Indian. Nalin chose to set the film in 2010 because it heralded a seismic shift in how cinemas in India presented their films. Soon to be assigned to the dust bin of history were the massive spool film projectors and digital projection would become the norm. In part it is an elegy to a lost format and a commentary upon how India is now more split in terms of class via whether people speak English or not. Fazal will become irrelevant, just as Bapulji’s business will die as India modernises and Gujarat (the province where Samay and his family live) changes the way it is connected to metropolitan India.

Last Film Show is inevitably a “love letter to cinema” – although that descriptor seems to be tired and often misused. It is also a gorgeous coming of age story, a heist film, a triumph of adventure and invention. Samay, a natural storyteller, who had previously used brightly coloured Indian match boxes to captivate his wild coterie of friends steals old reels of films and creates a makeshift cinema of his own (these scenes are magical) as well as recreating the myriad of films he has seen via playing and “directing” his little gang.

Samay pays for his transgressions such as skipping school and being chased by the authorities over stolen film stock with harsh beatings from his father. Yet nothing will deter the young boy who “wants to be movies” – his rebellion is that of one who must find his voice regardless of the cost.

Nalin’s work is sentimental and based in a gritty reality. He does nothing to sugar coat Samay’s family’s poverty and their tenuous existence. What he does with the gorgeous cinematography of Swapnil S. Sonawane is recognise the inherent beauty of rural India and how the daily rituals such as cooking and running to catch the train or playing by a lake are shimmering moments that can be ecstatic despite the difficulties the community faces.

“The future belongs to storytellers,” Samay’s teacher Mr Dave says. India that has lost part of its identity due to industrialisation, but it is kept alive and vital through a film industry that rivals Hollywood. Not only did India produce auteurs such as Satyajit Ray, it created Bollywood which through its specific cultural genre mashes is endlessly profitable and recognisable. Nalin clearly loves everything from Bollywood, to Buster Keaton (there is a wonderful tribute to Keaton in the film), Sergio Leone, and a list of directors he credits within the film by name – including Jane Campion, Maya Deren, Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, Andrei Tarkovsky, David Lean, Věra Chytilová, and Martin Scorsese.

It is rare for a film to be such a heady and sincere journey into the world of movie magic and also keep its feet on the ground. Fazal is a projectionist who thinks cinema is a lie. He isn’t concerned with its transformative power, for him it is a job. For Samay and his small village it is something that can create a complete community as they create their own picture house in uninhabited ruins using materials they have scavenged through scrap yards. No sound? No problem. Have the children create the foley and dialogue. No working projector? A sewing machine will suffice. No light? A torch and a water filled lightbulb can filter the images.

Nalin’s film touches on aspects of magic realism to create its glory and there are scenes that are devastating despite of, or perhaps because of, his whimsical touch. What happens to the acres of film stock as it is repurposed? It becomes celluloid bracelets that are worn by women all over India. Samay can’t stop the film being destroyed, but he can still read the colour palettes of his favourite directors as they adorn the wrists of young women in a train carriage.

Many directors are contemplating cinema as a lost art form. Richard Linklater recently commented that cinema is being reduced to content and cinephiles are a dying breed. Nalin’s work is a reminder that cinema never dies – not for those who look for it. From the Lumière brothers and others that illuminated Nalin’s own path to becoming a director, there is wonder in the cinematic experience and the stories it gives people. Whether that be a precocious child from a small Indian village, or a person who sees the world anew through an eighty-year-old film, or a person who sees their own experience reflected on screen, or another audience member who gains empathy for another’s experience that they could not have understood in any other format.

Last Film Show is sincere, and despite some sentimental contrivances, it glows with adoration for what the medium of film means for so many. Pan Nalin’s splendid work is funny, melancholy, and inspiring. Last Film Show is a wondrous addition to the canon of films celebrating films and will have you cheering for young Samay and his passion to find the light.

Director: Pan Nalin

Cast: Bhavin Rabari, Richa Meena, Bhavesh Shrimali, Dipen Raval

Writer: Pan Nalin

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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