If you treat filmmaking as a career, you’re destined to be doomed
Born in a remote village of Gujarat, internationally acclaimed filmmaker Pan Nalin helped his father sell tea on a railway platform until the age of 12. He saw his first movie at the age of eight and grew up with a dream of making movies. The tremendous passion of this self-taught filmmaker resulted in his debut feature Samsara, a massive commercial and critical success worldwide, followed by the romantic film Valley of Flowers that was pre-sold to nearly 35 countries and considered a major underground hit. As his upcoming film Angry Indian Goddesses is all set to hit theatres on December 4 2015, Pan talks about his journey so far.
You have grown up on a diet of films. What kind of films intrigued you about the nuances of filmmaking?
I will need several weeks to answer this! My intrigue keeps changing with time and the life I live. You have to know that I am a man of extremes; people fail to understand me when I end up praising Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and Barjatya’s Hum Aapke Hai Kaun in the same breath!
It’s just a little over a century since cinema was invented but in that little time we have managed to produce so many amazing movies. So I’m equally intrigued by the cinema of Maya Deren, Chris Marker, Antonioni or Sergio Leone. But then suddenly I will go underground and watch Kenneth Anger. There are days I am dedicated to watching just the opening titles designed by Saul Bass! Melies, Chaplin, Keaton, Tati and Dreyer, which intrigue me since no filmmaker has been able to reach the cinematic heights they did. I am enthralled that filmmakers like Kubrick ‘destroyed’ auteur cinema and reinvented cinema of his own. Italian neo-realism, French New Wave, German expressionism, and Hollywood’s Movie Brat generation have all intrigued and inspired me. But then I also get a kick out of Amar Akbar Anthony and try to penetrate the many minds of Manmohan Desai! I don’t know what kind of a filmmaker I am, but I do know that I am the best moviegoer on the planet!
As a teenager, you ran a film club in India and had the biggest collection of world cinema. In present times, which cinema do you follow the most?
I am a huge cinephile; I have watched all kinds of films and continue to do so. In the present time, I have been very curious about what is going on in Africa. There have been some amazing breakthroughs with the Nigerian rom-com 30 Days in Atlanta or the masterly crafted Timbuktu from Mali. When I travel to a foreign country, I prefer to watch movies from that country alone. But then I also get nostalgic and start watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes! for the 100th time.
After attending college, making four animations and twenty short silent films, you concluded that the best film school is life itself. Could you briefly describe the biggest lessons that helped you in your filmmaking journey?
All our lives are filled with lessons, but every day we make a choice not to learn or unlearn anything from it. As a kid I knew I wanted to be in movies, but I did not have the privilege to do so. I did not know English at all till I was about 16-17 years old. So doors to any kind of education in filmmaking were shut. When you come from where I came, you dedicate the first 25-30 years of your life just to survive. My focus was on basic needs for myself and for my family; my passion for cinema took a back seat. The struggle to survive shapes us as human beings, and I often used that as fuel to fire up my creativity.
From a very young age I realized that I have to be perceptive and open to knowledge and experiences of all kinds. If I want to make movies I can never ever say this or that does not interest me. Thus traveling around India became a passion, which was followed up by discovering foreign lands. I had opened up my heart and ears to listen to all kinds of people from all walks of life. It took me a long time to embrace the reality of everyday life. Realities were often so harsh that I frequently took refuge in writing fantasy fables where I would end up creating my own world. In the process, I became a self-taught filmmaker.
I also had this phobia; I refused to assist any film director because I used to believe that they would corrupt my vision of filmmaking. So I rather be a production-runner and do logistic work then be in a creative team under a film director. So you end up living a life, which is constantly in war with your choices while the destiny has some other plans. That keeps surprising me. So when I make movies I am often chasing those surprises. Great films are often series of surprises threaded into a story.
To give you an example of a life lesson, nowadays I am in the process of teaching the biggest lesson to myself. In the 21st century we tend to over-write screenplays; if that was not enough, we have scripts workshops, script mentors, script doctors, script editors… and that is a disaster in making for telling a great story. I’m an organic storyteller. Thus I need organic elements such as human beings, plants, trees, food, water, air, animal, light, darkness to influence my vision.
You once said that if cinema is a manifestation of our life so we should keep dialogues to a minimum or avoid the over-use. From Samara to Valley of Flowers, one sees silence playing an important role in your films. Will that be missing in your next film Angry Indian Goddesses?
When most filmmakers or writers write screenplays they write dialogues; I always start with silences and images. Silence is a direct imitation of everyday life – more so than the spoken words. Writing dialogues is easy but writing silences in a screenplay is extremely difficult. Every 24 hours, we human beings, on an average spend about 18 hours without talking. So we do live more in silence than vocal communication. If cinema is an imitation of that life then why is a two-hour long movie loaded with dialogues from start to end? So silence is my quest. I was successful in weaving that in both Samsara and Valley of Flowers. But it is a tough challenge when it comes to seven women! So I have struggled with those silences in AIG! But it is not missing; it has found its place in the movie. In fact, one of my most favorite scenes in AIG is totally free of dialogues.
On your blog, you say that, “I love stories. To tell or listen. Besides all that, I say movies make me. But others say, I make movies.” What is cinema for you?
Cinema is celebration of life – many manifestations of human minds. Cinema is that slice of dream you create and share. We all have only one life but cinema has power to let you live multiple lives in multiple roles in shorts span of time; when those light dim, you plunge into darkness, silver screen glitters… you surrender your life to a filmmaker and he or she makes you live someone else’s life. So when those lights come on, you walk out of the hall, and if you find very hard to regain your life, or struggle to collect yourself – then you’ve just watched one of the greatest magic of cinemas.
Are there any contemporary Indian filmmakers whose work you really look forward to?
I mostly look forward to films rather than filmmakers. Most of the contemporary Indian filmmakers are very unpredictable or inconsistent in what they do, so honestly speaking it’s hard to say whose work I ‘really look forward to’. However, I do look forward to Rajkumar Hirani for great humor, Sanjay Leela Bhansali for flamboyance, Vishal Bhardwaj for drama and I do remain curious about new films from S. Shankar. And after Chauthi Koot I am eager to see the next movie from Gurvinder Singh. If not I am sincerely hoping that a next great Indian film would come from the North-East, I smell the smoke there, means there is a fire!
Your passion for cinema and films has brought you so far. Do you have any message or suggestion for upcoming filmmakers who are passionate about joining the industry?
Do not choose filmmaking as a career. If you treat it is a ‘career’ you’re destined to be doomed. So first learn to keep your self-intact, your vision undiluted (Yes. You must have a vision!) Be aware. Be awake. And above all be honest. Be ready to treat filmmaking as your breath; if it leaves, you are dead. The more you inhale, bigger the urge to exhale. It must pass through your stomach, filter through your heart, and then only it reaches the brain. Filmmaking is hard work, a road riddled with obstacles and negative energies, a pure business disguised as art, or sometimes pure art that fails to make business. It’s a battle you will never win, so be content when you reach the battleground and enjoy because as far as you’re standing tall and fighting that’s how far you will ever get.
What are the other subjects that you want to explore in your future projects?
I am very keen on romantic comedies action, super-natural thrillers and Westerns but made in the East, so let’s call it “Easterns.” Thus, I keep exploring subjects in that direction. But I do remain open to all kind of stories without much thinking about what subjects or genre they belong to.
What are your further upcoming projects?
A first India-New Zealand co-production titled Beyond the Known World, which is a Spiritual Thriller set in Manali, Parvati Valley, Lahaul and Spiti. The shooting is over and I’m currently in post-production in New Zealand. After that I have dozens of screenplays and treatments ready, whatever gets financed will follow and I will flow with that.