Samrat Choudhury talks to Nicholas Kharkongor, director of the acclaimed film MANTRA
A strange reticence has long shrouded the artistic imagination in India. Given their life-changing scale, there is remarkably little literature and cinema that references the World Wars, in which lakhs of Indian soldiers fought, the Partition of India – especially in Bengal and Assam – which affected millions, or even less traumatic and more recent events, such as the country’s turn towards economic liberalisation following the worldwide collapse of communism in 1989-90, which affected the entire population.
It is in this context that a new feature film by a first-time director comes as an intimation of change. Mantra, starring Rajat Kapoor and Kalki Koechlin, is set a dozen years after 1991 when old Indian companies were in the thick of their battle against new competition from global giants. It is the story of one business family caught up in the events of those times.
The film is refreshingly unusual in several ways. In addition to tackling an important subject, it is a film made in a mix of English and Hindi, with mainstream Bollywood actors, by Nicholas Kharkongor, a half-Khasi half-Naga director from Shillong who raised part of the money for his debut venture by crowdsourcing it on Wishberry.
I spoke to Nicholas on a weekend afternoon in the apartment in Versova in Mumbai where he stays. The sea is close by, but barely visible. A smell of drying fish wafts in through the windows with the breeze every now and then, an indicator of a fishing village nearby. [perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Nicholas spent the first 14 years of his life in Mokokchung in Nagaland. After clearing his Class 10 board exams, he moved to the relatively big city of Shillong.[/perfectpullquote] Nicholas perched himself next to the window, and set about explaining how he came to the topic for his film.
“When we landed up in Delhi in the 90s, so much was changing”, he said. The “we” he was referring to was a whole bunch of youngsters from Shillong, many of whom knew one another as friends or classmates, who moved to Delhi at that time.
Trying to understand that changing India, he remembers reading books by Gurcharan Das and Shashi Tharoor. He also often read the business pages of newspapers. It was an interest that had remained with him even after he dropped out from the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata.
Nicholas spent the first 14 years of his life in Mokokchung in Nagaland. It was, he says, a small little town, and he went to a small little school there. After clearing his Class 10 board exams, he moved to the relatively big city of Shillong for his junior college studies, and then his bachelor’s degree in arts, at the St Edmunds’ College.
Even Shillong at that time in the early 1990s was quite isolated from the rest of the world. “There was a bamboo curtain then,” he says. “There was no Internet or mobile phone. TV was Doordarshan. Papers, even from Calcutta, came a day late.”[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]He went to Delhi and started doing theatre. To make ends meet, he read the English news on All India Radio.[/perfectpullquote]
Information about the world outside was not easy to come by.
“This was when I got into IIM, not knowing the difference between finance and marketing”, says Nicholas.
Once there, in the Indian Institute of Management, he realized he didn’t like it.
“There were all these super bright people from the IITs…and I was doing terribly,” he says. “I realised this was not what I wanted to do, and left”.
He went to Delhi and started doing theatre. To make ends meet, he read the English news on All India Radio.
“I realised that I knew nothing at all”, he says. “In a sense, my education began then.”
Over the next few years, he found his voice as a writer and director in Delhi theatre. At the time, “I didn’t know if I was going to get into film…film was a distant dream,” he says.
Sometime in 2004, with the India Shining campaign kicking off, he began to think about giving film a serious shot. The next year, he began to write a screenplay – he had not done a screenplay before.
There were many films coming out that had vignettes of the changing India, says Nicholas. “This was more direct…I wanted to do something coming out of 1991.”
It was another three years before the writing got done. In 2007, he went to Shillong, sat in a house in Jaiaw, and finished the screenplay in two weeks. Then he set it aside and went back to Delhi. It took him another seven years to finish a draft he was finally happy with. The really hard part began then, says Nicholas. He started to look for funding to make the film.
“It’s harrowing”, he says of the experience.
He quickly realised there was no point going about it the usual way. Luckily for him, his attempt at reaching out to actors was successful. Rajat Kapoor and Kalki Koechlin came on board. The project began to look viable.
“The whole process took one year,” says Nicholas. “And I wasn’t doing anything else.”
At the end of the year, though, he had a cast of fine actors, including Danish Hussain, Lushin Dubey, Adil Hussain and Shiv Pandit, among others. And he had enough money to start filming.
“It was very little money, but we decided to start shooting. We had the dates from Kalki and Rajat,” he says. The actors had decided to do the film for free. “There’s not a single paisa that changed hands,” says Nicholas.
A film crew is at least 60 to 100 people, he adds. It needs locations and sets, and those also cost money. Nicholas and the Mantra team scrounged to save on those.
“We were shooting in people’s homes. People contributed in many ways. I’ve exhausted my friends list completely! They gave homes, cars, TVs for the sets…but this is how independent films are made.”
Four days before the shooting was to commence, the stress got to him. “I had a panic attack,” says Nicholas. He went to see a doctor. “The doctor gave me some pills, and then I was laughing, laughing…people said, dude, this is not working.”
He chucked his happy-making pills away and got back to shooting with the remnants of his panic. Despite doing a pared down version of the script, the money ran out by the time the shoot was finished. “We didn’t have money for post-production. So we went to Wishberry and started raising funds.”
The idea seemed to catch on with enough people. “We got a lot of money from strangers, apart from friends,” he says. “Everyone seemed excited about a film that would talk about globalisation in India head-on.”
The film finally got completed earlier this year.
I ended up watching its premiere in Mumbai, sitting in a front row seat next to Lushin Dubey who, like me, had reached slightly late for the screening. Seats are usually not assigned for special screenings, and the hall was full.
Lushin plays Rajat’s wife in the film. Kalki is in the role of their daughter. Shiv Pandit and Rohan Joshi play her two brothers. [perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I like long static shots where things play out in a very natural way. There are many disadvantages to it, but you take your chances.[/perfectpullquote]
The film itself is the story of this oddly familiar and yet strangely dysfunctional family at a time when old relationships and ways of doing things are dissolving. Rajat Kapoor plays the pivotal role of the businessman whose potato chips business comes under attack from a multinational.
The story seemed to echo real life, in the form of Indian chip and cola companies that had faced such competition in the years following liberalisation.
After the film, as the director and cast lined up to take their bows and answer questions, I asked Nicholas if the film had been inspired by the real life events surrounding Thums Up. He declined to answer then, citing legal advice to refrain from naming names, but later mentioned that similar things had happened to Uncle Chipps and Thums Up, among others.
He was more forthcoming with answers on other aspects of the film and its making.
Someone in that audience full of film people had asked Nicholas about the camera style, which had many long, straight static shots. I asked Nicholas about this during the interview.
“It’s my style”, he says. “And also arthouse. I like long static shots where things play out in a very natural way. There are many disadvantages to it, but you take your chances.”
He considers this approach restrained, with the camera held back. As a person with a long background in theatre, any sort of excess worries him, he says.
His film is also very restrained in its comment on liberalisation and globalisation. I ask him what he feels about these.
“It’s a fait accompli”, he says. “There’s no point saying what-if. It’s here…We have to deal with it.”
He hopes that the various facets of it come through, even if only in passing, in scenes of a character from Jharkhand, played in the film by Adil, and an attack by a Right-wing political outfit on a fancy restaurant and bar.[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Everyone who writes short stories is not going to become Anton Chekhov, says Nicholas.[/perfectpullquote]
Going forward, he wants to make films in and about Northeast India and its people. “There are so many stories in the Northeast!” he says.
Commercial success is not foremost on his mind.
“There has always been, with me, a desire to create high art”, he says. “Things have always been bad in the beginning, but I have worked my way…I’ve worked 10-12 hours a day every day for the last 20 years. I think I’ve made the mistakes I needed to make. Now I am deeply excited about the future. I hope I will make at least one great film.”
This moon-shot at greatness comes at a cost, and Nicholas is acutely aware of it. “I don’t have a house, car, or bank balance,” he says.
He is acutely aware that despite his lifetime of sacrifice and effort, that one great film may still elude him.
Everyone who writes short stories is not going to become Anton Chekhov, says Nicholas. “If you do your work, nonetheless, knowing you may never become Chekhov…I think that is great too.”