After watching his first film at the age of eight or nine, Pan Nalin told his father that he had decided to become a filmmaker. His father had no idea what his son was talking about. “But he was not the only one. I had no idea what I was talking about either!” says the filmmaker who is today a sought after name globally, and is counting days to the release of what he calls his debut Hindi film — Angry Indian Goddesses. The film is being touted as India’s first girl-buddy film and has been garnering good responses at international film festivals in Toronto, Zurich and Rome.
Growing up, Pan couldn’t have been farther removed from films. In his own words, his family background itself is “material for 50 odd movies.” He comes from a tiny village called Khijadia near the border of the Sasan Gir forest in Gujarat. “A few dozen families, including mine, who lived there and survived while working for the Western Railways, became jobless when its junction station was shut down. I spent the first 13-14 years of my life there.”
His father had a tea stall on the platform of Khijadia Junction and Pan and his siblings often helped with selling tea and farsan. “We all studied in the Western Railway School illegally as ours was the only family in the village that did not officially work for the Railways. All the other kids used to wear uniforms except me. Those were great days because there was absolutely nothing in that village. Only endless fields, open skies and the occasional visits by lions,” he recalls.
The filmmaker’s boyhood was dotted with instances of bartering his lunchbox to watch movies from within the projection booth. “The projector operator loved my mother’s delicious food. That’s where I used to consume my doses of melodrama, songs, dance, action, angry Indian men and wet sari-clad women. Life was magical. I grew up watching mainstream Bollywood, and it’s in my DNA!” he exclaims.
If this is how he watched movies, his English-learning was even more fascinating. An English teacher, a certain Father Rosario, allowed him to attend his classes for free in exchange for Pan accompanying him in a green Matador to remote villages, to help lure Bhil tribals to convert to Christianity. “I was damn good at it,” Pan says. Learning English was important to him as he was told that he needed it in order to be a graduate and go to a film school. “Eventually, the good karma I had collected while spreading the New Testament helped me get admission to NID, Ahmedabad,” he says.
When he finally made his way to Mumbai, it was not to make films, but to make a basic living. He worked as a production-runner at an ad film company and lived in a chawl with his family. “When you come from where I came from, you take the first 25 years or so of life just to get a life — basic roti, kapda and makaan.”
Through his struggle, he never stopped writing or shooting rolls of films. After making a bunch of ad films and corporate films, his first real break came when producer Karl Baumgartner watched his short film, Khajuraho.
“He asked me if I had any plans for feature films. I told him about wanting to make Samsara. I had been trying to raise funds for seven years. He took the bound script with him and I was so happy. He called me after a few days and said that his company would produce Samsara.” The film was a massive success in France and led to Pan’s new life, shuttling between the two cities.
Global success, however, didn’t make Bollywood an easy road for the filmmaker, who struggled to find distributors and financiers for AIG. “It’s my debut Hindi film but I have made it on my own terms. What Bollywood needs the most is to stop being Bollywood. And it starts with losing the name, ‘Bollywood’. With all the creative people working in this industry, this is the name we came up with?! Indian cinema is so rich and diverse. Why do we need to rhyme our hundred-year-old heritage with Hollywood?”
Amitabh Bachchan tops his Bollywood wish list that also includes Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Ranveer Singh and Ranbir Kapoor. He also wants to turn Hrithik Roshan into a global star. “But it all keeps changing with time,” he says....