Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show is set in 2010 in a town in Gujarat and located somewhere between the aching nostalgia of Cinema Paradiso and the DIY spirit of Supermen of Malegaon. The Gujarati production, which has been released with subtitles, is India’s official Oscar entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Last Film Show (the Gujarati title is Chhello Show) seeks to remind the digital age of the celluloid era, when films were shot on 35mm stock, stored in cans and dispatched to single-screen theatres to be fitted into whirring projectors. That this analogue world is going to disappear is evident from the very name of the wide-eyed, long-haired and stick-legged hero.

Samay (Bhavin Rabari) has a hilarious story behind his name, which means “time”. But how were Samay’s parents (Dipen Raval and Richa Meena) to know that he would become a cinephile capable of quoting Manmohan Desai and Maya Deren in the same breath? Catalysed by a mythological movie showing at Galaxy, the only cinema hall in his town, the nine-year-old boy falls captive to the magic of light and shadows.

A friendship with Galaxy’s projectionist Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali) helps Samay enter the hallowed box from where rays of light strike the screen. A simple trade helps the mercantile-minded Samay gain Fazal’s trust: he swaps his mother’s delicious food for access to the cinema’s daily shows.

Samay’s passion even drives him towards amateur filmmaking.

Nalin’s screenplay proceeds as a series of episodes that are held together by Samay’s irresistible combination of passion and canniness. Shot in warm and inviting tones by Swapnil Sonawane, the film effortlessly sucks us into Samay’s hardscrabble world, which is divided between the railway station where he helps his tea-seller father, his modest home where his mother conjures up culinary wonders, and the Galaxy cinema where Samay gets his first filmmaking lessons.

Sonawane deliberately makes a few scenes look blurred around the edges, as if to mirror the poorly projected films that mesmerise Samay. Some of these moments are as forced as Samay’s rudimentary experiments with lighting techniques.

Bhavesh Shrimali and Bhavin Rabari in Last Film Show. Courtesy Roy Kapur Films/Monsoon Films/Jugaad Motion Pictures/Chhello Show LLP/Marc Duale.

The most powerful scenes flow from Pan Nalin’s immersion in the idea that cinema is like a welcome fever of which the patient never want to be cured. Samay, who is marvellously portrayed by an utterly unselfconscious and fearless Bhavin Rabari, is so persuasive that even his nuttiest schemes find takers.

Fazal, who is deftly played by Bhavesh Shrimali, completes the secular idyll that exists in this corner of Gujarat. Moved by the spiritual song Khwaja Mere Khwaja from Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar, Fazal too twirls in the projection room like the movie’s emperor, lost in the interplay of sound and image.

Nalin’s misty-eyed ode to cinema clears in the moment when reality strikes Galaxy, and Samay. Even here, Nalin finds an inventive way to connect the slow death of single-screen theatres with the world that has irrevocably opened up for Samay.

While Last Film Show is a bit sketchy on where it stands in the analogue-versus digital debate, there’s no doubt about what it achieves. Through Samay’s unending wonderment, the movie reminds of us of cinema’s ability to both enchant and inspire.

Last Film Show (2021).