Pan Nalin (aka Nalin Pandya) is known for making original and deeply moving films that touch audiences around the world. One of India’s first truly international filmmakers, he has had a long and eventful journey from the first time he watched a film in a small town in Gujarat to straddling two worlds and sensibilities. The director, producer and reluctant writer reflects on his filmmaking experiences for POOL.
Success in filmmaking means…
PN: Achieving dreams I have been after. It means joy. It means encouragement. And above all it is the best way to share what you love.
Where was your passion for films born?
PN: I grew up in a tiny village in Saurashtra - actually it was just a railway junction, where many trains crisscrossed, or stopped only to exchange passengers. I spent most of my childhood bunking school. With a gang of kids I often roamed the track, collecting matchboxes and papers. Sometime I helped my father sell tea on the railway platform. Once the train left, I would line up images of matchboxes and try to form a ‘storyboard’ and make up stories. The village kids were the big suckers of my story. Till I was about eight years old I had never been to the cinema or seen any TV; there was no electricity in my village. However nothing stopped us from staging episodes of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Our region was like the American Wild West, filled with stories of outlaws and bounty hunters - the ‘Kathiawari Outlaws’. The most popular literature in Saurashtra and Kutch was about these bandits and their adventures and redemptions. It was a great time, because we kids owned nothing, no toys, no games, no fancy clothes and never a pair of shoes. We ran naked in vast fields under the rain and rainbows, chased peacocks, and watched prides of lions.
Then came a day when my family decided to watch a film in a nearby town. That cinema show changed my life. I was blown away. There and then I told my parents I wanted to be somehow involved in movies…make them, act in them, whatever! I was possessed by cinema after that; I saw cinema in light and shadows, I saw stories on matchboxes and newspapers.
As we had no higher secondary school in our village I had to go to school in that nearby town of Amreli. This is when I started running away from school to watch movies. Often there was no money to buy tickets, and I used to feel happy just looking at the faces of spectators as they poured out of the cinema hall. One day I managed to share my schoollunch with the projector operator, Ali Bhai, and in exchange he let me watch the movie from the projection booth. I was fascinated by the beam of light, lens, projector, reels, splicers and rewinders… and got high on the constant smell of celluloid. This became a routine - I would go hungry to devour a Bollywood flick while Ali Bhai would feast on my mother’s delicious cooking. But soon the Manager caught us and Ali Bhai nearly lost his job. The Manager, who turned out to be a clever guy, offered me the job of catching pigeons in the false ceiling of the cinema hall; in return I could watch movies like Sholay and Mera Gaon Mera Desh. That’s how I consumed my doses of melodrama, songs, dance, action, angry Indian men and wet-sari-clad women! Life was indeed magical. I grew up watching mainstream Bollywood, and it’s in my DNA! Sunday mornings I was even allowed to watch soft-porn films like Havas or Rati Shastra. I organized massive adventures to create my own makeshift projectors; we often stole movie reels from the railway parcel room; even got arrested by the cops.
Till finally, I was given a piece of advice from the Fine Arts teacher at school. He used to love my paintings and drawings and when I told him I wanted to make movies, he said, “First get out of this village; second, learn to read and write English. Without knowledge of English there is almost no career in our country.” That day I knew I had to leave my family and village and jump on to one of those fast-trains!
Where did you go?
PN: I went to the Faculty of Fine Arts at M. S. University in Baroda, where I learnt more about life in the hostels and canteens and on the road than in college.
Every Sunday I would travel with Father Rosario, my English teacher, to the deep interiors of Gujarat where the main mission was to attract Adivasis to Jesus and Christianity. In return Father would let me attend his English classes, which were reserved for the elite of Baroda. After a year, I applied to NID because someone told me about the filmmaking course; like a miracle, I got into NID with the condition that I would master English. However, I discovered there was no filmmaking course, and so while pursuing a Diploma in Visual Communication (Graphic Design), I started becoming a self-made filmmaker. I ran the film club, bought an old 16mm Bolex camera and started filming… which did not go well with most of the faculty members! I had to work twice as hard! After NID I never practiced design, but almost each and everything I learnt at NID, I continue to use almost every day in anything I do. My formal education is not yet over. I’m a lifelong student.
Please give us a glimpse into the filmmaking process.
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