Gujarati film Chhello Show is charmingly personal cinema

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Bhavin Rabari plays the protagonist in Pan Nalin’s semi-autobiographical and Oscar-nominated Gujarati film, Chhello Show Photo: Tree-Shul Media

This, indeed, is very personal cinema. I am told it is semi-autobiographical and there is a minimum, possibly coincidental, similarity to the acclaimed Italian film Cinema Paradiso—the friendship between a small boy and a theatre projectionist. The boy in this film is the reel version of writer-producer-director Pan Nalin, real name Nalin Kumar Pandya, who was born in a traditional, upper caste Gujarati family in a small village. His father sold tea at a village railway station and Nalin helped him after school hours.

In the film, Samay (played Bhavin Rabari), name probably given as a metaphor as the story shows the importance of Time (samay) in all aspects of life, has an expert cook in caring mother, Baa (Richa Meena) and a not-very-strict yet fastidious father, Bapuji (Dipen Raval). Samay is taken with his sister and mom to watch a religious film (all others are bad and unfit for them, he is told) and is smitten by the lights and the images.

Though Samay attends school, he soon begins to bunk classes and watch movies. Unable to afford the price of a ticket, he is helped by projectionist Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali) who allows him into the projection room of the dingy movie hall every day in exchange for food from Samay’s lunchbox that always contains delicious meals. Baa even wonders how her son has suddenly begun to eat and demand a vegetable he did not earlier relish, not knowing that it is Fazal’s favorite!

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So many incidents, best watched in this simple film with some art film-like flourishes, happen in Samay’s life as his fascination for movie images spirals. With his cronies, he soon devises a primitive projection room with some ingenious experiments with light and images in an abandoned place. A room where movie cans are stored becomes a form of El Dorado for the kids, despite the cops stumbling upon them.

The father reluctantly accepts his son’s frequent absence from school and later, his addiction to images. The schoolteacher advises Samay to follow his heart and the projectionist provides him with the basic fundamentals of storytelling in cinema. Samay, with the acquiescence of his parents, then leaves his village to follow his dream.

By now, the cinema theatre has been updated, the projector and reels taken away as junk that will be recycled, and even Samay’s father is under threat of losing his livelihood as the broad gauge railway tracks are set to replace the existing narrow gauge and the faster trains will no longer halt at the small village. Samay thus leaves for better prospects and his life’s passion on samay (time).

This fascinating picture of Time’s supremacy and a young boy’s aspirations is feelingly brought out by the writer-filmmaker and the irony is not lost on how new technology can replace older one in an instant, so to speak, whether it is railways or cinema! One of the most poignant sequences seen is in how the celluloid raw stock is soon industrially converted into multicolored bangles, showing how incredibly the world changes in front of our very eyes.

The director extracts incredible performances from barely-known or unknown names among actors, and everyone, especially Samay and his kids, his father, Fazal the projectionist and especially his mother, comes across as very, very real because they have no set images. Bhavin Rabari has everything perfect, from his grimy looks to his passionate eyes and his rustic agility. Bhavesh Shrimali as the nostalgia-laden projectionist is an absolute delight, while Richa Meena as Samay’s mother is topnotch.

Swapnil S. Sonavane is the behind-the-scene wonder of this riveting film, carving wonderful frames in this film abouit love for cinema, though Shreyas Beltangdy and Pavan Bhat could have been a shade sharper in the editing, as some sequences tend to drag.

There are some minor flaws in the film as well and such licenses with logic do not suit serious cinema that has subtle messages within and is not a logic-less entertainer in the Manmohan Desai mold. ]

How, for example, was Samay allowed to enter the factories alone to see what happens to the plastic in the movie reels or to the metallic contents of the projection room? How and what was Fazal eating at lunch before he met Samay? We are even told that he is married. How come the station authorities or cops do not cotton on the lock of the room being broken and from where the movie cans that they store are being repeatedly purloined? How can a village cinema hall repeatedly show a commercially average Hindi film (I would not like to mention the movie here) when even blockbusters get limited screenings in small towns and villages?

Had these points been thought about and ironed out, Chhello Show could have emerged a classic slice-of-life film. What it comes across now is a sweet, quite indulgently personal voyage of a child venturing into the hypnotic world of cinema. And if it travels after its nomination to the Oscars and wins, it will be a triumph for Indian movies.

Rating: ***

Chhello Show LLP, Monsoon Films, Jugaad Motion Pictures, Virginie Films, Incognito Films & Roy Kapur Films present Chhello Show (Gujarati)  Produced by: Pan Nalin, Dheer Momaya, Siddharth Roy Kapur, Virginie Lacombe, Eric Dupont & Marc Duale Written & directed by: Pan Nalin  Music: Cyril Morin Starring: Bhavin Rabari, Bhavesh Shrimali, Richa Meena, Dipen Raval, Paresh Mehta, Vikas Bata, Rahul Koli, Shoban Makwa, Kishan Parmar, Vijay Mer, Alpesh Tank, Tia Sebastien, Jasmin Joshi & others

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