'We have to do everything in our power to get as many Academy members to watch the film as possible.'
'After that, I am confident, my film will speak for itself.'
Even as Pan Nalin gets ready for the Oscar journey of his new film Chello Show, he goes back in time to his seven-year struggle to live out his Samsara dream.
"I had written many scripts and went shopping for producers. I even reached out to NFDC. But I was turned away because I had not trained at a film institute and was a self-taught film-maker," Pan Nalin tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya.
You went through 170 rejections before your first film, Samsara, was greenlit. What was that struggle like?
I had come to Mumbai with the dream of making movies.
I was pretty successful with my commercials, corporate films and documentaries.
They gave my family and me financial security, but my dream of making a film remained unfulfilled.
I had written many scripts and went shopping for producers.
I even reached out to NFDC (the government-owned National Film Development Corporation) which financed different kinds of film.
But I was turned away because I had not trained at a film institute and was a self-taught film-maker.
So, then, you went looking for takers abroad?
Well, my short films and documentaries were already being screened abroad and my company was line-producing films.
One of them, a French film, Born Criminal, was selected for Cannes and the producer invited me there.
I had no idea what Cannes was about, but once there, I managed to get addresses of several film companies in India, US and UK.
I would write to them and pitch a brief of Samsara.
Simultaneously, I was finding locations, preparing story boards, working on the budget in the hope that if one day my dream became a reality, I would be totally prepared.
(Sighs) It was a long journey of seven years...
How did Karl Baumgartner come on board?
My documentaries and short films would be screened at the Cinematheque Francaise, a movie theatre in Paris.
The German producer was in the auditorium during one screening.
I was introduced to him and gave him the screenplay of Samsara.
Karl fell in love with it, but was doubtful if the film could be made in 1 billion euro.
Also, I had planned to shoot in Ladakh, at 15,000 feet altitude, soon after the Kargil War.
He wasn't sure if I could. How will you carry equipment and crew there when there are hardly any flights or hotels?
He laid down a simple condition: His line producer would go with me to all the places I had finalised.
If she was convinced that we could shoot there with such little money, he would back the film.
Luckily, my prep was rock solid.
I had shot documentaries in Ladakh and walked her scene by scene, location by location.
Was she convinced?
Yes, after returning, she made her calculations and told him it was possible.
Within a year, Samsara went on the floors, produced by Karl's Pandora Films.
A German-Indian-French co-production, it had its world premiere at the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals.
The day it premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival, Harvey Weinstein acquired it for Miramax.
To date, Samsara remains the highest-grossing independent Indian film.
Your 2006 film, Valley of Flowers, another German-Indian-French co-production, was way ahead of its time in its concept of time travel. If you made it today, would you have made it any differently?
Not really, it was a Romeo-Juliet, Laila Majnu love story where love goes astray because of supernatural powers.
One lover dies while the other becomes immortal.
That's part of our Himalayan heritage, of Tibetian and Buddhist culture.
It was a cinematic challenge for me because it's in Hindi and Japanese, with a 40-minute climax shot in Japan.
Today, Valley of Flowers is a cult film in Ukraine, Japan and Korea.
When I landed at a remote airport in Korea, I found some people had been waiting for me for hours.
When I laughed and told them I was not Tom Cruise, they shared that they had a Valley of Flowers WhatsApp group and wanted to ask me several questions about the film.
Any plans of re-releasing it?
Had it not been for the pandemic, we would have re-released Valley of Flowers.
Many distributors in Japan and Russia who were keen to revive it.
It was shot in cinemascope, with 70 mm prints, made for a theatrical experience.
In fact, there are also plans to digitally restore Samsara and my documentary Ayurveda: Art of Being.
Will Angry Indian Goddesses lend itself to a sequel, Angry Gods?
(Laughs) No, the power of krodh (anger) lies only with women. Men don't have that kind of guts.
Will there be a Part 2 of Chhello Show which starts in Baroda and ends with you becoming an internationally acclaimed film-maker?
(Laughs) I would have to make five-six films to trace that journey.
So, what's next?
I started a few things, in India and abroad, but now I don't have the time or the head space for anything but Chhello Show till the Oscar storm passes.
We have to do everything in our power to get as many Academy members to watch the film as possible.
After that, I am confident, my film will speak for itself.
How would you rate your chances of bringing home an Oscar on a scale of 1-10?
That is a difficult question.
There are some great films in contention made by directors whose work I love.
The Academy is American and a lot will depend on their mood.
Our distributor told us that no one had expected the film from Bhutan, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, to get shortlisted for the Oscar last year.
It had not fared well in the countries where it was released.
But every American today is obsessed with their children's education which has become frightfully expensive and has left almost every family with huge debts.
So, this simple story, of a teacher who goes to a remote village in Bhutan and builds a beautiful school there, spoke to every American.
We just need to show our film to more and more people.
The power is with the voting members of the Academy.
Chhello Show not only gives us food for thought, it also turns food into works of art. One wanted to actually taste the meals your mother makes in the film.
That's because Baa is inspired by my own mother who loved cooking and feeding people.
She didn't speak much, but was the pillar holding the family together.
Even in the film, she knows her son inside out and yet supports his passion for films.
She knows Samay has stolen her white sari and turned it into a screen, but she still asks him if he has seen it.
(Laughs) When he lies, she smiles, 'Khota.'
Food plays a vital role in the film, interlinking the characters.
Samay's friendship with the projectionist Fazal is routed through it, dil ka rasta pet se jaata hai (The way to the heart is through the stomach).
Did she prepare the meals for the camera too?
Unfortunately, my mother passed away a few years ago.
But I got my brother, Pankaj Pandya, to come on the set and cook authentic meals in real time.
We would shoot one dish over a day, even two.
Pankaj would cut and prepare meals like Baa, even using some of the utensils she had passed on to him.
(Laughs) In Hindi cinema, popular films are referred to as 'masala movies', so there was that association too.
Has your father seen Chhello Show?
He did see an unmixed cut before he passed away last year at the age of 97.
He was on the set every day during the shoot.
He is even there in the film, as the guy who orders tea at the station and sips it sitting on the bench.
I had taken my mother to Ladakh to give the clap for my first film, Samsara.
My father gave the mahurat clap for Chhello Show.