Rashaana Shah has known Pan Nalin[Above photo] since his first film Samsara, which ranked seventh in Powerhouse Cooper’s list of ten most successful Indian movies worldwide in 2006. During an interview with indica’s writer, Shah spoke with Nalin at length in an attempt to understand the man behind the camera. His latest feature Last Film Show, is a strong contender for Oscar this year.
You come from a small village, Adtala in Gujarat? Your exposure as a child was limited to commercial mainstream Bollywood. How did you get exposed to filmmakers like Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Kubrick? Where did you even hear about world movies?
You said rightly, where I grew up it was only mainstream Bollywood, popular Indian cinema. Nothing else. Occasionally some Gujarati films and Sunday mornings at 10:00 am they would play some strange soft-porn titillating movie, a big favorite of the labor class. I didn’t know Hollywood existed, forget Tarkovsky. At 14, I left my village for Baroda. First, I had to learn English to get admission in MS University, Painting faculty. I was very shy compared to my classmates, who were rich city boys. They introduced me to ‘English movies’, which were also limited to popular Hollywood cinema. Coincidentally, the same theatre would feature European movies on Sundays 8:00 am, for a club of cinephiles.
All your films have a ‘Pan Nalin’ stamp. How did you discover the language and narrative of the visual medium and one that is unique to you?
Before becoming a filmmaker, I was a cinephile. I did have a great urge to make movies but a 3-minute spool and its processing would cost me one month’s earnings. Anyhow I saved up to buy a 16 mm camera and often tried to shoot scenes that inspired me. Like there was an incredible shot in Maya Deren’s Meshes of Afternoon, a very surreal film made by a woman a hundred years ago. There was this beautiful scene, of a woman in sunflower fields. When I got the camera, that’s the first thing I shot. I took a bus to the outskirts of Ahmedabad, I requested one of my classmates, a young beautiful girl from Kolkata, to run in the fields. That’s how I discovered ‘Auteur cinema’. But at a very young age I decided I will do everything in Cinema but never assist another director. I had read somewhere in some book that this director wished he hadn’t assisted his master, because all his films looked like his master’s.
Samsara, your first film, was a very difficult film. A subject people shy away from talking about, let alone make a movie. But it was a huge theatrical success across the world. What gave birth to it?
I got rejection letters from every Indian producer, NFDC, production companies. I started spending a lot of time in Ladakh, Bhutan, Sikkim making documentaries. I was going through a process of unlearning, when by chance one of the films I had co-produced Born Criminal was selected for the Cannes festival. The Director of Cinematheque loved my work and selected my short Sacred Courtesan Devadasi for screening at Cinematheque. He introduced me to Karl Baumgartner. I had four screenplays. Karl asked me which one is your favorite. So, I told him I have written this love story from my heart and my soul and it’s set at 15,000 feet altitude and I had a detailed 50-page look book of every shot. And that’s how Samsara and I found a producer. The only other challenge was to convince Karl that the film could be shot for one million euros.
Your next film Valley of Flowers was a massive production, seven million dollars back in 2005. As much as the budget of a Shahrukh Khan’s Devdas and Rajinikanth’s Sivaji. What were the pressures of making one of the most expensive Indian productions with no stars?
Of course, there was huge pressure. Big producers from many countries were involved. Like Toho from Japan and Tiafoe International, the biggest broadcast group in Europe. Another commitment was, though the original version on paper was 155 minutes, but for TV I had to submit a two-hour version, you know for Satellite sale. The budget was also stretched because of a month-long shoot in Japan. Plus, we had a lot of period costumes, horses etc. Secondly, we had to account for limitations of shooting in Ladakh, where the oxygen level is so low that you can shoot only for 4-5 hours a day. Another huge challenge, because of the way funding came together from Europe, Japan and India, lead cast had to be European. Finding the girl was easy but for the lead actor, we went on a hunt for an Indian actor with a British or French passport. Our original choice was Irrfan Khan. But when I shared Milind Soman’s audition (born in England and had a British passport) with my co producers who were all Italian, French and Japanese dynamic young women, they went nuts over Milind. Absolutely crazy. They all said ‘We want him’. The film went on to be a bigger hit than Samsara, especially in Europe, Japan, Turkey and Ukraine. In Russia they made a 70mm print and the film ran for nine weeks. The film is also included in the curriculum in Bangkok Film University for PhD students under ‘Buddhism and Idea of Desire’.
You have made some of the best movies on subjects deeply rooted in Indian phenomena: Enlightenment, Ayurveda, Buddhism, Indian goddesses, tribes of Nagaland, Khajuraho, Kumbh Mela… but most appreciated outside of India, in France, Germany, UK, Canada. Do Indians not want to confront their own culture and Indic philosophy or do they not enjoy the catharsis you force on their psyche?
The problem is not with the people. Indians, when they watch my movies, love it. The problem is with the theatrical distribution system and very high marketing costs required to release the film in India. Another problem is with the distributors. In India, the movie business is run like a shop. Distributors only believe in banking on ‘star movies,’ but I take pleasure and pride in knowing stories like Deepika Padukone’s father told her, ‘If you want to learn Cinema, watch Samsara’. Sushmita Sen is a huge fan. She supported the release of my DVDs, which was a priceless gesture. Salman Rushdie in one of his interviews was asked to name the ten best movies of all time and he named Samsara.
Let’s talk a bit about Angry Indian Goddesses, a film that brought you maximum recognition in your home country.
Do you think exploring ‘feminism’ is impossible without being angry?
The film was made in a certain context and it was made out of anger. Not out of love, not because of any political agenda. When I came up with the concept, I pitched the story to women filmmakers and my female assistants to make this movie. As a man I didn’t think I could understand the gravitas. Three Idiots, Zindagi Na Milegi Doobara, Dil Chahta Hai, Rang De Basanti…a lot of films were being made about men and their bonding. My assistant Subhadra and my casting director, we pitched the film to all possible investors in India. But we were told to our faces, ‘Women cannot open box office in India.’ Investors said ‘Dirty Picture‘ is an exception, it cannot be repeated. It has the word ‘dirty’ in the title. Every Indian is horny, the title titillated the masses to flood the theatres. None of the big actresses agreed to work with me, although I had made six movies that had won awards at every festival in the world. Managers would ask me, ‘How many close ups do you promise for my big star?’ We did have interest from two superstars but they were threatened by each other. So, my anger was growing. But when we started auditioning actresses, I was able to channel my anger positively for the film. It was a script-less movie. We improvised with the female actors. What the film became is the thoughts and ideas of the women in the film. They wanted to talk about ‘urban women of India’ and identified themselves as ‘Goddess Kaali.’
Your newest film, Last Film Show, is about your childhood. Is it true you sold your house in Bombay to produce the movie?
I took Last Film Show to all my usual supporters. Some thought it was a copy of Cinema Paradiso set in India. Others didn’t think the film was bankable. After 18 years of filmmaking, I had won awards from Sundance to Toronto, had distributed my films from Mexico to Japan, I had understood that no one would put in money because it’s not commercially viable. I had to put in first-in equity myself. And a young boy, an ardent fan of mine, Dheer Momaya matched the equity with me. The balance we raised together from distributors from Germany, Spain, Korea, Japan, Switzerland, France who had distributed my previous movies. The recoverable budget of the film on paper was a million dollars. So, we decided whatever happens we can’t go beyond a million dollars. But we didn’t plan the pandemic in our budget and did end up spending a little more than a million.
Pan, you top the list for maximum award nominees and wins from India, how have you not been corrupted in spite of your fame and success?
I have paid a price for not getting corrupted. Instead of doling 7 to 8 features and documentaries in eighteen years, I would have done 40. I think I was lucky, whatever films I made none of my producers lost money. Some made more profits than the others. As long as I had a reasonable project, they would back me. I earned their respect and faith in my cinema. So, they realized, maybe he is right, there is no need to corrupt him. But the sad fact is, we have worldwide distribution for Last Film Show (“Chhello Show”), we have a distribution deal even in Japan, a territory not known for Indian movies but we still do not have distribution in India.
I find a common intent in all your films, an untiring effort to understand enlightenment, to grasp its meaning. What are you in search of and is your cinema a means to that end?
I want to make movies that I want to watch. I have thrown away many scripts half way. I am my own biggest critic. Second, I want to enjoy the process of making movies. I don’t want to be stressed and fighting with negative elements. From driver to production designer to cinematographers—they all have had a very satisfying experience working with me. My ultimate aim is to entertain, but entertainment that will inspire and maybe enlighten my audience a little bit.
[Rashaana Shah is a Producer. She heads Mulberry films, specializing in books-to-films adaptations. She has produced several feature films and music videos in Hollywood.]