In Last Film Show, nine-year-old Samay (guileless newcomer Bhavin Rabari) stares wide-eyed at the screen in his dingy local theater, a whirlwind of magnificent images and Bollywood stars flashing before his eyes — Hrithik Roshan rides in on a horse, his clothes billowing behind him; Shah Rukh Khan stares down a gang of miscreants; Deepika Padukone kneels over an ornamental dish. It’s as if a light turns on inside his head as Samay stares at the screen, and he raises his hand as if to catch the light emitting from the projector. But then the illusion ends; two pairs of grubby hands grab him and throw him out of the theater for trying to catch a free show.
Gently directed by Pan Nalin (Samsara), Last Film Show is a sweet little ode to the magic of movies, which plays out through the eyes of Samay, the son of a tea shop owner by a railroad station. Every day, Samay’s mother makes him his lunch — a veritable feast of stir-fried vegetables and curries — and he catches a train to the local town, where he and the other boys bike to their small school, taught by a single teacher. But as soon as Samay sits at his desk, his thoughts turn immediately to movies, the images playing and replaying in his head as he makes his next plan to sneak into the local Galaxy Theater. But after he’s kicked out yet again, he runs into long-time Galaxy projectionist Fazal (a warmly cynical Bhavesh Shrimali), who agrees to a deal: Samay can watch movies from the projection booth, if he gives Fazal his mother’s delicious lunch meals.
It would be easy to write this off as a cute take on Cinema Paradiso, but this semi-autobiographical film set in the Indian state of Gujarat where Nalin was raised, comes off as more of a pastoral fable. From the bucolic home where Samay and his family live, surrounded by nothing but tall grass and fields, to the film’s hazy focus on Samay’s home life and mischievous antics with his friends, Last Film Show feels as much an ode to cinema as it is to the bygone era in which Nalin came to fall in love with the art. It’s not just the movies that Nalin’s camera lavishes attention on, but every aspect of Samay’s life in this specific place in time (though namely, the vibrant, luscious food that Samay’s mother makes gets a lot of that attention).
But there’s also a playful energy to Last Film Show that gives a little kick to the slow-moving coming-of-age fable. Samay is inspired by cinema, but knows very little of what it takes to make a film — the images seem to appear as if by magic to him. “I want to become movies,” Samay declares as Fazal only offers bits of technical know-how amid his grumpy rants against how movies were invented to con people. “People are watching darkness for an hour — it’s all lies,” Fazal says, but it doesn’t faze Samay, who knows that there’s something good within the light of the projector that Fazal controls.
And so, Samay sets out to make his own film projector, enlisting his friends to help him collect bits of mirrors and scraps of broken bicycles to build this makeshift machine. Samay surreptitiously snips out pieces of film reel — later becoming so bold as to steal entire reels as they’re preparing to ship out of the train station — to project on the walls of a nearby abandoned village where the boys have set up their little cinema. The Galaxy theater wouldn’t welcome him, so Samay and his friends create their own little Galaxy, creating far-flung stories out of the silent images they project onto the half-standing wall.
Last Film Show walks a tricky tightrope between sentimental and meditative, though in the end it feels mostly slight — there’s a subplot with the train station closing down that doesn’t have much bearing on anything, while Samay’s biggest obstacle is his overbearing father Bapuji (Dipen Raval, not given much to do beyond alternating between surly and sad), who believes filmmaking to be a dirty, low profession. However, Nalin manages to deftly impart a sense of bittersweet finality to this precious moment and place — with the inevitable passage of time coming to wipe out Samay’s way of life, whether through the introduction of a spanking new modern projector that puts Fazal out of a job, or the transient joy of cinema itself. “Samay” means “time,” as our protagonist blithely points out, explaining that his parents had him because they were poor in wealth but abundant in time. “All my time was frozen,” Fazal wryly jokes back. Time, Last Film Show suggests, will run out eventually, but at least it was good while it lasted.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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