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‘Last Film Show’ Review: India’s Oscar Submission Is a Vibrant Ode to Cinema

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Samay, the 9-year-old spitfire at the center of Last Film Show, is a pintsize wheeler-dealer, a wily old soul and a bit of a mechanical genius. As in another recently arrived film, The Fabelmans, this young protagonist’s obsession with the big screen begins with a family trip to the local theater (Spielberg’s name is one of many in the pantheon that writer-director Pan Nalin invokes at the beginning and end of his feature). But for rural kid Samay, owning his very own camera is not an option as it is for suburbanite Sammy Fabelman. With impressive ingenuity, he finds another way to make movies.

Set in 2010, as the art of 35mm projection is about to be made obsolete by the advent of digital, India’s official submission to the Academy Awards is a kid’s-eye-view story that never condescends. Alive with movie love, Last Film Show is a dynamic comic drama, energized by superb casting — beginning with the terrific Bhavin Rabari as Samay — and a vivid sense of place.

Last Film Show

The Bottom Line

Bursting with life.

Cast: Bhavin Rabari, Bhavesh Shrimali, Richa Meena, Dipen Raval, Paresh Mehta
Director-screenwriter: Pan Nalin

1 hour 52 minutes

Drawing upon his own childhood, Nalin (Angry Indian Goddesses) sets the film, his first in the regional Gujarati language, in India’s remote Saurashtra peninsula. There Samay and his loyal quintet of friends (Vikas Bata, Rahul Koli, Shoban Makwa, Kishan Parmar, Vijay Mer — like Rabari, all local kids) explore the idyllic countryside on foot or bicycle, and might in the course of their wandering observe a pride of lions. Samay spends a good deal of time at the Chalala train station, where he hawks the tea that his father (Dipen Raval) brews in his vendor’s stall. When not in school or working for his unsmiling dad, the sharp-eyed boy wanders the train tracks, collecting flotsam and jetsam, like the nails he turns into arrowheads after they’re flattened by a passing train.

Holding tight to tradition, Samay’s father believes that “cinema is not appropriate for us” — meaning members of the Brahmin caste. But he makes an exception for the religion-themed movie showing at the Galaxy Cinema. During the rare family outing, Samay is as enraptured by the stream of light from the projection booth as he is by the images on the screen. The trash he salvages starts taking on a new purpose: shards of colored glass to filter the view, illustration-adorned matchboxes that he shapes into a story for his pals, of whom he’s the clear leader.

Soon Samay is skipping school to return to the Galaxy Cinema, taking in historical extravaganzas, action adventures and assorted musicals. When he can’t swipe cash from his father’s till, he sneaks into the theater’s balcony, provoking the ire of the manager (Paresh Mehta) and deepening a primal conflict with his father, who beats him with a stick for delving into the “filthy ” world of film and endlessly chides him about his long hair and general deportment.

From his teacher (Alpesh Tank), who notices the bruises, Samay receives crucial advice. In his mother (Richa Meena) he has a watchful, if mostly silent, advocate; wanting to keep the peace, she usually refrains from openly challenging her husband. But she sets an example with her steadiness, and with her joy as she lovingly prepares vegetarian delicacies in her open-air kitchen. With its jars of spices and baskets of chilies, it’s as earthy-dazzling as the textured layers of peeling color on the walls of the Galaxy and other buildings. (Nalin, who also serves as production designer, infuses the film with a lambent palette.)

Samay’s mother approaches cooking with the care and sense of purpose of an artist, as cinematographer Swapnil S. Sonawane’s overhead shots of her preparations attest. Those meals she packs daily into a lunchbox for Samay prove crucial to his movie education, sealing a deal with Fazal, the Galaxy’s projectionist (Bhavesh Shrimali, a soulful and exuberant match for the young leading man): In return for the culinary delights, he invites Samay into the inner sanctum of the projection booth, where the boy has the chance not only to watch movies but also to acquaint himself with the wonders of the film stock itself and the machinery that splices it and transmits its sound and imagery into the theater. below.

Determined to create a movie theater, he presents a challenge to his buddies: how to catch light in order to project it. Mirrors prove crucial. Resourceful scavengers, they set up a studio of sorts in a nearby “ghost village” of abandoned structures, building a projector and eventually stealing entire reels of movies that are on their way to larger cities via train.

Progress, in the form of digital projection, upends things for everyone. Tracing the fate of cast-off celluloid and equipment, Samay enters a surreal zone of industrial demolition and transmutation — a striking wordless sequence that, like the film as a whole, conveys disappointment and struggle with a deft touch. Redemption arrives through self-reflection — Samay’s as well as his father’s — and is all the more affecting for not being overplayed. A man battered by bad luck and a child who refuses to submit to convention each learn a certain selflessness.

Whatever lessons it may contain, though — from Samay’s glimpses of grown-up despair to Fazal’s observation that “politicians tell stories to win voters, shopkeepers tell stories to sell their stuff and the rich tell stories to hide their wealth” — Last Film Show embraces something far messier and more vital than teachable moments. It’s a love song to movies, yes, but it’s brimming with life.



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