The Wancho people or head hunters as they are popularly known, belong to the Longding district in Arunachal Pradesh. They are the tribal men and women who followed the tradition of human hunting. A curiosity to know more about these head hunters led filmmaker Nilanjan Datta to make the first ever Wancho language film. Called The Head Hunter, the film recently won the National award for the Best Wancho film. In an exclusive chat with Pandolin, Nilanjan talks about his passion towards stories from the North East that motivated him to make this film.

Director Nilanjan Datta

Director Nilanjan Datta

What is the premise of your film The Head Hunter?

The premise is the effect of our choice on somebody else’s world. It’s talking about the use of development with destruction at the core of it.

What motivated you to make this film?

I am from Assam and grew up in Arunachal Pradesh. Growing up, I used to see old tribal men who used to come to the cities and be looked down upon. From there on I developed a curiosity and started researching them. The perceptions we have of them are all mixed and very few are true, that’s what led me to start writing this script. I wrote this script eight years back and it has taken me a long time to work out the finances for it.


How much of primary research – with regards to meeting concerned people and secondary research – in terms of books and internet did you delve into?

It is essentially about experiential truth. When I was in Arunachal, I had a lot of tribal friends and would go to their villages and observe their lives, learn about their culture and their way of living. But this research was not for the film, it was just to get to know them. Later, when I joined FTII, those elements helped me create a fictional story, the way it is right now. Finally it is an entirely fictional story but the background is derived from my growing up years in Arunachal Pradesh along with my tribal friends.

As for secondary research, there are hardly any books written about the tribal community. My research was mainly conversations with the old men in the village who told me more about their lives.

Was there a preparation method that you followed for the cast or did you let the actors be natural?

My main actor, who plays the lead is a Wancho, a non-actor. He has never seen a film before. When I cast him, I only had to make sure that he understood the process of filmmaking. For that, I conducted a workshop with him and a person from NSD (National School of Drama) helped me with it.  The purpose of the workshop was to make him understand what lensing and focus is, what number of takes mean and what ‘coming to mark’ stands for. We didn’t talk about acting at all, because I didn’t want him to act, I wanted him to be just the way he is in his village. He just had to portray that and that’s what he did. In the case of the young man, he is an Assamese who has graduated from NSD. He is not a Wancho and had to learn the language. He learned the language and complete dialogues in Mumbai. We also found two Wancho girls in Mumbai who helped him learn. He had to deliver the language as we were shooting in sync sound.


Noksha Saham as the old man

Noksha Saham as the old man

How was the experience of directing the the old Wancho man who is a non-actor?

It was a splendid experience. He was very cooperative and was of the opinion that Wancho gods have sent me to make the film. He was helping me with a lot of detailing of cultural aspects that I have in the film. I had to only explain the kind of emotions that I was looking for, once he got that everything else came from him.

Do you personally know the Wancho language?

I don’t know the language and cannot follow it. But I had a young Wancho boy from Longding who ensured that the language was correct. He was the language instructor on shoot.


How did you then develop a script in this language?

I wrote the story that was then developed into a screenplay, which was done by Rupak Das, a batchmate of mine from FTII. This was then re-written by Navneeta (Sen Datta) and me. There were three scriptwriters. We wrote the script in English, then got it translated into Wancho. There was a lot of cooperation from the people of Arunachal, specially the Wancho people.

What were the hurdles faced while making the film?

We had a producer from Mumbai and this film was supposed to be made in 2007. But post the recce, he backed out because of financial problems. From then on the main hurdle was to raise finance.

I never wanted to raise finance from the North East; I wanted the mainstream industry to finance it so that the film gets better visibility. It took a lot of time, almost seven years, to convince people to back a film in Arunachal. I finally started shooting in 2014. My first producer is an engineer and is not from the industry. This is his first film as a producer. Then I got two more producers, a Mumbai based company – Accord Equips and a Delhi based businessman who owns an event management company.

Shooting was also difficult because it is a very difficult terrain. For my main location I needed a very dense rainforest and so I chose the Nameri National Tiger Reserve Forest. The tiger reserve is under the Assam government. When the forest department read the script, they  realised that I am also talking about the environment through the old man, so they agreed to let me shoot in the core area of the forest.

This tiger reserve can only be reached after crossing a river. So every morning we had to cross the river using the official boat, then walk for around three kilometers and reach the main area. And we would have to pack up before sunset.


A still from The Head Hunter

A still from The Head Hunter

Have you thought of a theatrical release or release through any particular medium?

We now have an agent from Hollywood called Adler and Associates Entertainment Inc. They will be circulating the film all over the world except India. As for India, I am trying to get funding from the Arunachal Pradesh government in order to independently release the film. Doordarshan also has a rule that they showcase all films that have won the National award.

Lastly I am going to take the film to Arunachal. There are no film theatres there so I will be using a mobile theatre, taking a projector and showing it from city to city. I am trying to raise some funds from the government for that as well.

As for the international release, they will be trying for a DVD and VOD (Video on Demand) release of the film and making it available on various satellite channels across the world. That’s how they will be marketing it.


How do you think will the National award give a boost to the film and the entire Wancho community?

This award is enabling the film to get noticed by people who matter, especially in the government. When I now go to meet someone in the government, they acknowledge the quality that has gone into making this film and take me seriously.

It will also ensure that even if nothing else happens, people will get to watch this film. As for the Wancho language, it is big news as this is the first film ever made in Wancho, and the country will learn about Wancho people. They are only known as head hunters and the knowledge about them is very haphazard and this film is trying to break all that. We are trying to show the human side of them, and show their symbiotic relationship with nature as they come from a huge forest area.

If you had to summarize the entire journey of making this film, what would you say?

The shoot was on a difficult terrain and there were budget constraints which made me a task master. I couldn’t extend my shoot days and had to ensure that I have an imperfect complete film, rather than a perfect incomplete film. There were a lot of compromises that I had to make with regards to shots. One thing that I learnt is that the next time that I make a film, I will have a few more shoot days and be a little more prepared especially with regards to natural obstacles like cloud covers and lighting issues.

Different story tellers love different mediums, what makes you choose film as the medium to tell your stories?

That choice was made when I was in my 11th or 12th grade. I had decided that I want to make films and tell stories of the North East, because I believed that this was the medium which people would see and relate to and understand closely. Hence I decided to do my graduation from Pune, because I wanted to come out of that region and get exposed to world cinema. I graduated from Wadia college and became a member of the National Film Archive and from then on I started watching world cinema and prepared to get in to FTII. I finally got through FTII in 2000. That helped shape my ideas of storytelling.