The issues that Mantra picks up continue to be relevant even today
Mantra is a film that brings out the changes India witnesses in 1991 through the story of a family. The director, Nicholas Kharkongor, spent a lifetime writing this film as it sheds light on a phenomenon that was staring right in our faces yet only a few people saw it. Nicholas Kharkongor has taken up an issue that no one has ever touched and even though it may seem way back in history it has changed India forever. It is a much deeper change than it seems and the transition wasn’t an easy one. The story has managed to touch the cast of the film so much so that they agreed to do it for no or very little money.
We spoke to Nicholas and here is what he had to say.
When did you begin your research for this film?
The research for this movie began in an unorganized way in the early 2000s. So much was changing in the country. I pretty much read everything I could lay my hands on, including a bunch of books about the New India, a ton of magazines and journals; I also met journalists, businessmen, corporate managers, columnists, sociologists, etc. I wrote the first draft of Mantra in 2007.
Even though it is set in the 90s, why do you think it is a subject relevant even today?
The movie is actually set in 2004, which was when the then government had launched the India Shining campaign to celebrate the country’s high-growth story. I thought it formed a nice backdrop.
The subject is still very relevant because as a country, we are still changing, and the wheels of globalization continue to turn. I remember the first KFC in Delhi came up in the late 90s. In Shillong, where I come from, the first KFC opened a year or two ago. And there was the usual euphoria and this long serpentine queue outside the outlet.
The issues that Mantra picks up, whether it is lop-sided development, women’s safety, the battle between the local and the foreign, the vast generational gap (the widest ever, I think) between the old generation of the License Permit Raj India and the new generation that has never seen that India – these are issues that continue to be relevant today.
Do you think that the kind of change that globalization brought to India was for the better?
The point is not so much whether it’s better or not; the point is that it is inevitable. So yes, there are many problems with globalization, but you have to deal with them. Because it is the Present Paradigm. There’s no point thinking, oh, in the Nehruvian era with its public sector focus (‘the commanding heights of the economy’), the farmers didn’t have to deal with land-grabbing as much as they have to now when the private sector and the government are hand in glove.
How much of the story is absolutely picked up from reality?
The backdrop is real, the issues are very real and pertinent, but the story is a pure work of fiction.
From the trailer, it appears that the characters in this film are layered and dark. Were these characters inspired from real people?
If by dark, you mean complex, yes. I don’t know how to write ‘good people’. Everyone is good and bad, depending on whom they are with, what the situation is. Everyone is a complex mix of contradictions. I can be kind and I can be cruel, and so can you. All I know about people comes from my apprenticeship under a psychoanalyst. The characters are not direct ‘lifts’ of real people; they’re built from scratch, on paper. But yes, hopefully, you’ll recognize real people who are like them.
How did you manage to get such a powerful cast together? And how did you prepare them for their parts?
I reached out to a few actors and was lucky that they loved the script and wanted to come on board.
As a director, I guess you allow each actor to approach the character the way he’s most comfortable; rather than imposing on them your modus operandi. Rajat has a unique way of getting into character – by choosing the right clothes. So I was more of a stylist with him!
Why did you choose to go the crowdfunding way? Did you try approaching producers/studios for the film?
I finished the final draft of the script in January 2014; a few months later, I had my main cast; a few more months later – the little money that we needed for the shoot came through; pre-production was in full swing by the end of the year; and exactly a year later, in January 2015, we were shooting. If I (who had no film credentials at all) had gone with a scandalously uncommercial project like this to a production house, I would, right now, still be outside their building, sipping chai and smoking a bidi, waiting for that call that is never to come. I have heard of films of talented writers and directors that have gotten shelved time and again because they chose to stray from the beaten path.
Crowdfunding for this film made sense also because I thought that people would connect with this theme. And virtually everyone who has funded this project has had the same thing to say: that they connected with the idea of a story about the New India.
What were the challenges you faced during the making of this film?
I really don’t know how to answer this. Not because I have no answer, but because the answer would be the length of a Dickensian novel. We had challenges in all shapes and sizes, at every stage, from all directions.
What was the objective with which you set out to make Mantra?
The objective was simple: to tell the story of the New India that we are all a part of. But somewhere at the back of my mind, I also wanted to tell a story that would have an international appeal without exoticizing India. A film that has no snake charmers, no mysticism, no poverty, no caste. A film that is unapologetically New India. So deal with it.
How did your tryst with filmmaking happen?
I worked full-time in the theatre for a very long time. I always wanted to do films, too, but didn’t think it was possible, for the kind of stories that I wanted to tell. But people like Rajat Kapoor – who is a mentor to me – have stood tall and unwavering; and that has been an inspiration. At 41, I’ve stepped in rather late; but, better that than never.
Are there any other projects you are working on?
Well, there’s one that is set in the Northeast, which is where I come from. And I firmly believe in what Mira Nair says: If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will. But it’s too early to talk about details.
Mantra is currently crowdfunding. To contribute and for other details visit: https://www.