Until recently, Mapuia Chawngthu was just a wedding photographer of repute in the small town of Lunglei, Mizoram, where he lives. He had made two short films, in 2003 and 2010, but the town knew his church nuptial compositions better. Now, with his third film, Khawnglung Run—the biggest Mizo film ever made, with a budget of Rs.11 lakh—attracting audiences all over the state, he is a celebrity.
People curiously spot his lead actor, 24-year-old Alex Lalchhuankima, on the streets of the state capital Aizawl. “It has just gone beyond expectations!” the 38-year-old film-maker almost exclaims on the phone, before cautiously concealing his excitement. Our connection is interrupted frequently. It could be the heavily misty night there, he tells me in Hindi. Mizoram is a dominantly Catholic, English-speaking state. Chawngthu is among few who prefer Hindi over English if you’re not conversant with Duhlian, the local dialect.
Lunglei, which means “bridge of rock”, is 120km south of Aizawl. The bridge is an actual formation over a tributary of Tlwang, the river that flows through Mizoram.
Khawnglung Run is shot by the Tlwang, a river known to be ferocious downstream.
Chawngthu recreates the invasion of Khawnglung, once a prosperous village, in Lusei by the Pawi clan from a neighbouring village in the 1800s. Khawnglung was surrounded by treacherous hills, with only one narrow way to enter it from outside. Every night, seven men guarded this entrance. Once, during the annual Chancharkut festival, when men and women were lost in feasting and drinking, a large group of men from the Pawi clan entered the village and kidnapped its residents, among them a young woman named Thangi (played by Zoremsangi Hnamte). Thangi was an upper-caste woman, being wooed by a young man from the labour class named Chala (Lalchhuankima). Khawnglung Run is about Chala’s battle to rescue his love, which ends in a catastrophic chase on the Tlwang.
The film is shot on the Canon EOS 5D, a versatile camera used for films. Chawngthu has co-written, directed and shot it, with a crew of around 20. He edits at home, where he lives with his 61-year-old mother, on a Mac FCP post-production set-up.
Like all promotional trailers, the film’s first YouTube spot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9K8J9CcpBrQ) with English subtitles, is a hurried glimpse of Chawngthu’s romantic gaze on his lustrous land. His storytelling is linear and simple, hitting shrill, melodramatic chords in some sequences. The performances show off amateur tricks. But as a film, the visual scheme of Khawnglung Run is much better realized than what Rs.11 lakh would allow in a conventional, multi-hierarchical set-up.
There are some wide, sweeping, poetic shots. The violence is visualized through age-old gimmicks, like red splurting on the camera lens, but the story’s bad-against-good canvas, on which the tragedy is based, is unmitigated. Its breathless pace and rhythm, and a haunting score by C. Lalruatkima, the lead singer of Mizoram’s Battle Cry Band, match its visual beauty—the camera doing wonders with the lilting backdrop of streaming water, slopes and bushes. Chawngthu’s language is pure and lyrical.
Khawnglung Run has been selected by the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata, for screening there as an example of self-sufficient film-making. “I don’t see it releasing in a mainstream theatre anywhere, but I am sending it to a host of film festivals all over the world,” Chawngthu says.
“I have heard this story many times. It is supposed to have happened right around here. So I thought, since I have the real location, the same river, the same mountains, why not visualize it my way?” He says not much has changed in the topography of Khawnglung. “Back then we used to pray to the river and the hills. We didn’t have to go to church every day.” Mizoram’s Christian establishment is rigid. “Non-Christian ideas won’t go down very well,” Chawngthu says.
Ironically, the state does not have movie theatres. The few which came up after independence have been unused for almost two decades. So Khawnglung Run is being screened with projection facilities at auditorias across the state, with ticket prices varying from Rs.30 in a village to Rs.200 at, say, a swank hall in Aizawl. “There is no film-making culture here, no industry. So the government does not think it’s necessary to revive the theatres. Bollywood also is not very big,” Chawngthu says. He says he has few idols from the world of movies other than some popular Hollywood films he watched while in college in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh.
Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC correspondent and former editor of the Seven Sisters Post, who has written on Mizoram, says: “The movie-viewing culture in Mizoram is family-centric. People like to watch from home. And now there is a DVD explosion that makes it possible. Korean and Thai films are particularly popular even though there is a language problem.” Mizos are known for their penchant for music—many Mizo bands perform outside their state and the region—and like some other states from the North-East, its musicians are schooled in Western genres. Singers Judith Lalremruati, Lalthuthaa, the Mizo Idol of 2011, Valentina Gangte, and writer Lalnunsanga are some of the state’s artistic icons. “Frankly, compared to the success of Mizo boys and girls in national competitive exams like civil services, the state does not have many public intellectuals or creative figures,” Bhaumik says. Incidentally, in the 2011 census, Mizoram’s literacy rate was 91.58%—it is India’s second most literate state after Kerala.
Lalchhuankima, the leading man of Khawnglung Run, has the screen presence of a teen hero, somehow charmingly at odds with his character’s theatrical intensity. He works with Bajaj Allianz in Aizawl; acting is a hobby. In 2010, a National School of Drama (NSD) workshop in Aizawl selected him for the lead role of a Mizo/Duhlian adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, which he later performed in Delhi at the NSD’s theatre festival. This is his first major film, he says in a phone interview, “After Khawnglung Run, which taught me a lot about my own culture and about film-making, I want to work in more films.” He is not yet comfortable with his new-found fame in Aizawl.
Lalchhuankima has grown up on local music bands, American pop and hip hop, and is a singer who was among the top 10 of Mizo Idol 2007. “I am very much into Western music. But my favourite actor is Shah Rukh Khan. I want to be an actor like him,” he says.
Chawngthu’s circumstances were dramatically different from Lalchhuankima’s—and it’s not just because of the 14-year age difference between the two men. Chawngthu is a man of the soil who had left for bigger, better opportunities, but who returned to Lunglei and decided to realize his dream there. His father, Jay Prakash Tyagi, an Indian Army jawan—“a subedar major”—was transferred to an army cantonment at Lunglei in “the late 1960s”. Jay Prakash, the young man from Hapur, Uttar Pradesh, fell in love with Baiktluangi, a local girl. They got married and lived in Lunglei for many years before moving back to Hapur in the 1980s.
Chawngthu went to college for about two years in Hapur and returned to Lunglei in 1994 when his father died. “Hindi is like my second language. My UP family is very close to me, so my film may as well have been in Hindi,” Chawngthu says.
He believes the mountains have at least two more stories for him. “After all, who gets to shoot in the location in which stories actually happened?”