Tribeca Review: ‘Last Film Show’ is a bittersweet ode to cinema from the Indian countryside
Director Pan Nalin’s Gujarati language film from India, Last Film Show is filled with poignant, dramatic lines. The cinema-smitten Samay (an endearing Bhavin Rabari) is once told by a well-wisher, “As politicians tell stories to win votes, shopkeepers tell stories to sell their stuff, the rich tell stories to hide their wealth. The future belongs to storytellers.” However, the 9-year-old lad is not fascinated by the story side of cinema. He loves the technique. His mind is curious about how a set of machines can bring a moving image to life. He is clearly a little less moved by their tear-jerking, action-packed, and often titillating stories. Samay is a child who would go out and bring any story onto the celluloid.
Born to a tea-seller and his homemaker wife, Samay is a clever name for the protagonist in Last Film Show. One that translates to ‘time’, Samay once narrates how his parents had a lot of time that they gave birth to him. The line is one that reflects a child’s innocence aside from social reality. Samay is obsessed with cinema. He sneaks into an obsolete Galaxy theatre in the nearby town and develops an affection for film rolls, the projector, and, naturally, the man (a superb Bhavesh Shrimali as Fazal) who operates it. However, his name is also a metaphor for the outdated technology at Galaxy. Time was running out and Fazal wasn’t prepared for it.
A fine twist in the tale comes when Samay, along with his local friends, steals film rolls to execute the cinema set up – all by themselves. Now, I really enjoyed the activities of this bunch – bubbling with ideas, energy, and mischief. If not keeping bets over a pride of lions, the little guys are devising their own unique rail ride. It’s amusing when they uniquely recreate the cinema experience inside a rundown building.
Slowly equipping Samay in his feat is Fazal. All he needed in exchange was the lad’s delicious lunch box. Samay bunks school and learns the ropes of a technology that was on its verge of extinction. Without even realising, Samay nurtures a filmmaker deep within. In another powerful line, he declares to his authoritarian father (Dipen Raval), “I want to study light. Because of light comes stories. Because of stories come film.” One might find it is too profound a line for a 9-year-old to utter. But eventually, we comprehend it isn’t.
Aside from being a film about films, Nalin wants Last Film Show to be a low-key food fare. The delicious Indian dishes that Samay’s mother (Richa Meena, effective) cooks are shot with immaculate care. Nalin makes sure that it’s not just Fazal but we, the viewers, too are lured by the mesmerising sight of exotic vegetables being sliced and sautéed.
Last Film Show must have been a cinematographer’s delight on papers and it shows. Swapnil S. Sonawane’s camera lovingly captures the flavours of Gujarat, an Indian state. The frames are seldom overdone as they find a curious balance between the showy and functional sides of the story. Equally trippy is the editing (Shreyas Beltangdy, Pavan Bhat) which is not exactly invisible. We do observe where they have had cuts and why. However, there’s great style in the way they execute it. The roughness is intentional as it effectually captures the transitions in the story – life’s gritty reality versus cinema as well as the after-effects of digital technology invading cinema.
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Nalin’s film does not stay away from addressing the socio-cultural landscape of rural India. If Samay’s father looks down upon cinema as a medium that upper-caste Brahmins would never indulge in, the young boy is quick to question the caste pride that tea-selling brings along. The man is asked the same thing government officials who warn him how he shall soon be shutting shop. In a later scene, Samay is told how there are only two castes in modern-day India – those who know English and those who do not.
The final reels – a term that I use for extra effect – in Last Film Show is a little too dreamy for my taste. However, I do understand why the writer (Nalin) opted for it. It adds a great deal of drama into Samay’s story which is also survivalist in nature. The magnificent visual of film rolls being turned into multi-coloured bangles is shown with a kind of artfulness that averts us from looking at it as a mere manufacturing activity. Last Film Show analyses the science as well as the allegory behind it. While the semi-surrealist shot of Samay rolling within piled-up film rolls successfully conveys the film’s philosophy, Nalin does not make his protagonist a stuck-up relic. If the final stretch is anything to go by, Samay is going to make it big at some capacity in the world of cinema. This childlike optimism is what appeals the most in Last Film Show. Unsurprisingly, here is a film that a cinephile would watch with wide eyes and a wider smile on his or her face.
Rating: ★★★ 1/2
The film is being screened at the 2021 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival.