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CNBC-TV18's Jude Sannith watches India's official entry to the Oscars with its director, Pan Nalin, who breaks down 'Chhello Show' while advocating the art of "imperfect" filmmaking
It's as simple as it gets: 'Chhello Show' (English: 'The Last Film Show'), India's official entry to the Oscars, is a movie about movies. However, you cannot help but wonder if it's fair to bracket Pan Nalin's latest Gujarati feature film into merely a movie, for it is so much more.
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'Chhello Show' is a poem on classical cinema; a lamentation of a simpler time involving film reels and vintage projectors; a song of praise for the joy that the movies would bring. The film is art in motion, one that harks back to the last days of film reels before digital film distribution killed an entire industry. And what a throwback it is.
Nalin's film is a startlingly simple story about boy named Samay (Bhavin Rabari is a revelation) who lives in a non-descript village called Chhalala in the Kathiawar region of Gujarat and falls in love with the movies. The only problem: this love is a forbidden one. His father, the local tea-seller, disapproves of his fledgling passion, often using the refrain that movies aren't an honourable profession. This leaves Samay to pursue his love, fascination and drive to make — or at least exhibit — movies of his own, on the sly.
In this journey, the young protagonist makes friends with the local cinema's projectionist (Bhavesh Shrimali as Fazal), discovers the magic of the cinema hall, watches classics like 'Jodhaa Akbar', falls in love with light and moving pictures, commits a bunch of juvenile misdemeanours with his partners in crime, and quite literally lives through the last days of classical cinema itself — all this so that he gets to make motion pictures of his own.
Watching his film with a select audience of film writers is Nalin himself, who chats up with CNBCTV18.com once the screening ends. As expected, the maker of notable film titles like 'Angry Indian Goddesses' and 'Valley Of Flowers' admits that the protagonist's story and his own are intertwined.
"I relate to Samay's character more now than before," he tells me with a smile, "Like every filmmaker, I went through the transition of loving popular cinema, Hollywood, the French New Wave, and Italian Neorealism. Now, there's the desire to become Samay again; there's something mesmerizing about falling in love with cinema in its simplest form."
To call 'Chhello Show' simple would be somewhat of an understatement. Conspicuous by their absence are modern cinematography techniques — there are no steadicam movements, crane shots or drone footage. What you see is good old camerawork. That was a conscious choice, apparently.
"We wanted to be organic and authentic," says Nalin, "We made decisions in cinematography and sound editing to ensure that we hear was all natural — we spent months recording natural sounds." He adds: "Our camera moves needed to answer the question of whose point of view we are looking through. There is so much pointless (camera) movement these days that we've forgotten the grammar of cinematographic language. It's as if we are writing literature and using complicated words to communicate something so simple."
In fact, near-religious adherences to classical camerawork see 'Chhello Show' display near-zero camera movement. Whatever movement the camera displays is often compelled by what Nalin calls "a moral decision" whose very existence must have a reason. In fact, he takes this rusticity a step further by using old film lenses on a modern ALEXA digital camera. The result is a series of out-of-focus shots that make you wonder if there's been an incident in the projector room before you realize that projectors don't even exist anymore, and it's all intentional. "We didn’t want to conform to the idea of shooting the movie in 8k imagery," Nalin says, "When our world is imperfect, why should our images be perfect?"
In going back to a simpler filmmaking style, the film delivers on aesthetics. Minimal camera movements mean you appreciate each frame of the film as a painting in itself, as you watch the protagonist fall more and more in love with film. Light is an ever-present character through 'Chhello Show', as it accompanies poetic frames of Samay playing with film, serving as the backdrop of this love story between boy and film.
Nalin's choice of using back-light to illuminate his frames is a glowing tribute to the style of filmmakers like Emmanuel Lubezki. The tributes don't end there. Top-angle shots of delicious Gujarati food have a smacking of Quentin Tarantino; the choice to use 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' as a musical score is a nod to his love for Kubrick who uses it in '2001: A Space Odyssey'; while an entire sequence of children on bicycles is a tribute to Steven Spielberg’s iconic climax in the film, 'ET'.
At its very core, 'Chhello Show' is a lamentation of the loss of classical film to digital cinema. Without giving away much, this transition is portrayed in a manner that aptly portrays how Nalin feels about the "violent" metamorphosis.
"I’m not against digitization of cinema — we all have to embrace the change," he says, "But when artists create, we deserve the right to choose the format we want to shoot in. The way classical film violently went away, however, is reflective of our loss. There are so many of our films that don’t have negatives unlike in countries like the US and Japan, where they are preserved."
As India's official entry to the Oscars in 2023, 'Chhello Show' will be reviewed by a jury at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If it does win, the film will be the first from India to win the Oscar for Best International Feature. For the love of classical cinema and a beautifully made film on love, nostalgia and loss, we hope it does.
First Published: Oct 8, 2022 3:50 PM IST