As Gujarati film 'Chhello Show' (‘Last Film Show’), India's official entry for the Oscars 2023, arrived in theatres on Friday, its writer-director Pan Nalin recalled how the project was born out of one of his visits to Amreli to meet his father when he learnt about a cinema projectionist eking out a living by selling vegetables.
'Chhello Show', which will represent India in the best international feature film category at the Oscars, is set in rural Gujarat and follows the story of a nine-year-old boy who begins a lifelong love affair with cinema when he bribes his way into a rundown movie palace and spends a summer watching movies from the projection booth.
Talking to reporters here, Nalin spoke out challenges that came in the way of shooting the film in natural locations in Amreli, including encounters with lions and leopards, and the process to find the lead character played by a child actor, Bhavin Rabari, that made them go through 3,000 auditions.
Amreli district houses parts of the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.
During his visit to Amreli around a decade back, Nalin's father told him about Mohammad Bhai, a cinema projector with whom he had struck a close companionship in his childhood due to his own obsession with cinema. Nalin was born in Amreli district where most of the film has been shot.
"When I met Mohammad Bhai, he was selling vegetables on a pushcart. I was really really touched by what happened to him. This man spent his entire life in projection rooms talking about cinema," said the filmmaker who has helmed award-winning movies like 'Samsara', 'Valley of Flowers' and 'Angry Indian Goddesses'.
Hundreds of mechanical projector operators like him went out of job when movies went digital because they lacked knowledge of English and computers, Nalin said.
Mohammad Bhai's story together with his own childhood experience while growing up in villages around Dhari in Amreli district and his obsession with cinema which led him to often skip school to watch films became the main plot of the Oscar-bound film, he said.
Sharing challenges in shooting the film, Nalin recalled how the cast and crew encountered lions and leopards.
"We were shooting in locations in Sasan Gir where lions used to come, and we had many close encounters (with wild animals). There were also leopard attacks in the region. When we were shooting in Samay's house (actor Bhavin Rabari), two people were killed by a big cat. We had to deal with that safety issue as well," he said.
Shooting with children from the rural background posed a challenge of its own, said the film-maker.
A "how not to act" workshop was organised for them, "because we did not want them to learn acting, we wanted them to really build the characters they were playing. That was quite challenging," he recalled.
"In all that, the most challenging thing was to find the lead character, Samay, played by Bhavin Rabari. We went through 3,000 auditions to find Bhavin," Nalin said.
The casting process also posed a challenge as a casting director was beaten up by a mob which thought he was a child lifter, he said.
All the six child actors featuring in 'Chhello Show' hail from underprivileged backgrounds - their fathers work as shoemakers, construction labourers or autorickshaw drivers, he said.
"They all come from underprivileged backgrounds...what struck me was that they were all extremely happy wherever they were. I have never seen such happiness in kids...The natural quality of their body language, sparkle in the eyes...," he said.
"The challenge was how do we now make Bhavin -- the lead child actor -- carry the whole film on his shoulders along with other kids. And that was not easy for the children who had never acted. Our job as a team was to make them comfortable," Nalin said.
One of the child actors, Rahul Koli, died after battling blood cancer just a few days before the release of the movie.
Nalin said he spoke to his father when he was preparing for his son's last rites.
"Since the last three to four days the family had been feeling really good that he has acted in the film. They say their child has become immortal. Manu (Rahul's character) is so good and touching. I am really happy that they see it in a positive way. We are going to go help them all. All the kids have become a family," he said.
The film's shooting was completed just before the coronavirus outbreak, but in 2020 most of the world went into lockdowns, the director said.
"We were not even motivated to continue editing, because we didn't know what the future would look like. No one was excited to finish the film. Six to seven months were a tough time, we did not know what would happen to the film. Cinema houses were closing down (due to lockdowns). Even festivals where we usually go to sell films were going virtual," Nalin said.
Nalin said he decided not to show the film virtually, because "it is a story of a cinema hall in a cinema, a film about films".
The director said when making a movie, he never thinks of Oscars or any other awards or film festivals.
"I always make movies that appeal to people. We always make movies that we hope maximum people will get to see. We hope it ('Chhello Show') has a big release. That was my dream," he said.