Chhello Show:- Cast: Bhavin Rabari, Bhavesh Shrimali, Richa Meena, Dipen Raval, Paresh Mehta, Vikas Bata, Rahul Koli, Shoban Makwa, Kishan Parmar, Vijay Mer, Alpesh Tank and Tia Sebastien
Director: Pan Nalin
Rating: Four stars ( out of 5)
Light and the magic that it can create combine to serve as the leitmotif of Chhello Show (Last Film Show), Pan Nalin’s deftly crafted Gujarati-language film about a nine-year-old boy in a remote Saurashtra village who falls under the spell of cinema and finds his metier.
To answer the question that is on many minds, India’s official entry to the Best International Feature Film category of the Academy Awards deserves the nod, buzz or no buzz, more than any other title that might have been in the running.
But for a single strand of the story drawn from the filmmaker’s own growing up years, Chhello Show has nothing in common with Cinema Paradiso or with any other film about films.
A significant part of Chhello Show does rest on the young protagonist’s bond with a projectionist, but the film goes well beyond that aspect of the plot. It interlaces a nuanced, evocative portrayal of a place, time and culture with the instantly affecting tale of child’s life-altering discovery of the movies.
The film revolves around the encounters and adventures that shape the boy’s imagination. It is helped along by a cast of actors – no recognisable faces here – who merge completely with the milieu and enhance the enticing tangibility of the characters they play and the rural and urban spaces they inhabit.
The visually arresting, emotionally engaging coming-of-age tale plays out in the course of a summer about a decade ago and hinges on two decisive turning points – one that opens a door for the young protagonist, and one that changes the way films are made and delivered.
Samay (Bhavin Rabari), son of a tea-seller (Dipen Raval) whose livelihood depends on the trains that stop at a railway station, seeks to escape his monotonous existence. He tells stories to his friends using, among other things, stickers on matchboxes as visual cues. His fertile imagination is ignited as he begins to notice the power of light.
In a world of reflections, shadows and flights of fancy, Samay loses himself in the images he conjures in his head, sees on the big screen in a rundown theatre, creates on makeshift surfaces and grasps in the world around him.
The story of his life – neither hopeless nor distressing – has its share of challenges and reverses. His ingenuity keeps him going as he tackles the impediments in his path. None is more daunting than the cane that his father wields when Samay crosses the line.
The boy filches money from the tea stall to buy a movie ticket and steals film cans – these are stored at the station on their way to cities across the state – to create his own projection set-up in an abandoned building in a nearby ghost village.
Samay offers a jocular story about how and why he got the name, but time is indeed a key component of the medium that ensnares him and of the escapades that frequently land him in trouble, especially with his father who believes that films are not meant for an upper caste boy.
Samay and his friends, who take a train and then ride bicycles to school, are in a constant race against time. Whether it is getting to school, making it to the rail station to hawk cups of tea when a passenger train chugs in or scrambling to catch the train back home after he has skipped classes to watch a film, the ticking clock always looms large over him although time, in a general sense, seems to stand still in the village.
Regardless of the mishaps sparked by his actions, Samay never stops dreaming of and taking shots at the impossible, aided and abetted by his spunky friends who stand by him no matter what.
Barring the darkness that descends at show time on a crumbling cinema hall in the town of Amreli and the dim lighting in the projection booth, Chhello Show, shot with great flair by cinematographer Swapnil Sonawane, is bathed in a bright glow and a riot of colours.
The film derives its colour palette from the bewitching, sparsely populated rustic Kathiawari landscape. It also stems from the dishes that Samay’s mother (Richa Meena) rustles up. Her exceptional culinary skills – she has an array of traditional recipes in her repertoire – help Samay gain access to the movie hall’s sanctum sanctorum that Fazal the projectionist (Bhavesh Shrimali) lords over.
The latter takes Samay under his wings in return for the finger-licking, lip-smacking food that he brings from home. Chhello Show explores film, food, friendship and freedom with deep, palpable sense of nostalgia. The film clips that its employs to underscore Samay’s engagement with a make-believe universe that is well outside his own immediate environs are informed with a trance-like air, which in turn is accentuated by Fazal’s fascination for Sufi dervishes.
Scenes and songs from Jodhaa Akbar and Aks dominate. Footage from the director’s own films – Valley of Flowers and Angry Indian Goddesses – also find their way in. As the films playing in Amreli’s Galaxy theatre unspool, Fazal teaches Samay how to mount reels on the projector and splice torn strips of film.
“I want to study light. From light come stories and from stories come movies,” the enthused boy says after he figures out how the projector shutter works. While it is at it, Chhello Show takes a playful jibe at the Godardian notion of cinema as “truth 24 times a second”. Averring that “the future belongs to storytellers”, Fazal asserts that the game rests on knowing how to tell lies. Samay replies: “To tell the truth, I am good at telling lies.”
The boy’s lies are necessitated by the need to pursue his passion and to conceal it from the world of adults that does not take kindly to the things that he does to satiate his curiosity.
Chhello Show has two distinct tones that merge with each other almost imperceptibly. The past, the present and the future intermingle on a malleable canvas that celebrates the creativity and effervescence of childhood while it laments the death of film caused by the inexorable march of time and technology.
An abrupt transition affects Samay’s family, too. His father is in danger of being forced out of work owing to a move that threatens to render the tea stall redundant. The tea-seller’s predicament anticipates the fate that is about to befall Fazal.
The disarmingly simple film begins by thanking the Lumiere Brothers, Eadweard Muybridge, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky “for illuminating the path”. It ends with acknowledging a host of other filmmakers (from Manmohan Desai to Maya Deren, as wide a spectrum as any that an Indian movie lover can imagine).
Chhello Show brings out the opposites that cinema thrives on: truth and lies, light and shade, sound and silence, the visual and the temporal, the complex and the simple, inveiglement and contemplation, stasis and movement, the miraculous and the mundane, and the soaring and the sobering.
Chhello Show is a gem that is both rooted and universal. It captures a point of departure in the history of the seventh art, ruing what has been lost while revelling in what has been left behind for posterity and, hopefully, in perpetuity.