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A still from ‘Pahuna: The Little Visitors’. Photo: Courtesy TIFF.

Paakhi, Priyanka and ‘Pahuna’

'Pahuna', produced by Priyanka Chopra, was recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival

For a film about two young children (and a baby) struggling to survive as Nepalese refugees in India, shot in Sikkim with a local cast of unknown actors, written and performed entirely in Nepali, and directed by a first-time filmmaker, the theatre is inordinately full. Five minutes before the film is scheduled to begin, the reason for the heightened interest walks in, outfitted in shocking Schiaparelli pink.

Priyanka Chopra, the producer of the film Pahuna: The Little Visitors, being screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is proof of the mighty role a big name, even one behind the scenes, plays when it comes to the success or failure of a-little-film-that-could.

Chopra’s production house, Purple Pebble Pictures, which she runs with her mother, Dr Madhu Chopra, has taken it upon itself to support regional films in India. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it’s these smaller industries, not mainstream Bollywood films, that need an extra nudge of support, but it does take a confident risk-taker to do something about it. In the two years since its inception, the company has produced films in various dialects and languages—Bhojpuri, Marathi and Punjabi thus far, with Bengali and Konkani features on the way.

The true revelation of Pahuna, a charming film about two plucky kids separated from their parents in the course of fleeing their Maoist-ruled village in Nepal, doesn’t lie in the story itself. It’s a fairly predictable tale, with the kids using ingenuity and courage to survive in the woods until—spoiler—they’re reunited with the parents. No, what makes this film a triumph is its nuts and bolts, the cast of unknowns, the depiction of an underrepresented community and region, the fact that it got made at all.

“When I started looking for producers for this film—I must have gone to nine or 10 producers before I came to Priyanka—they all rejected me," says actor-turned-director Paakhi A. Tyrewala, in conversation with Chopra and TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey after the film. “Four reasons: first, I was a first-time director. Second, I was a woman director. Third, I wanted to make the film in Sikkim… and fourth, it was a children’s film. When I came to Dr Madhu Chopra, I was so tired of being told no. So I told her upfront, I have these four problems. She started laughing, and she said, “For those reasons, I’ll do your film.""

The subject matter of the film, which Tyrewala first wrote 13 years ago and later revisited, resonated instantly with Chopra.

“It’s set in a world where these kids have to run away from Nepal and they’re displaced from where they live," she says. “They have to run as refugees into India. The film talks about issues such as the refugee crisis, the displacement of children when adults make the decisions for them… It’s such a relevant topic."

Devoted to the idea of telling this story of northeast Indians with as much authenticity as possible, the team decided to cast locals in the film, with the dialogue conducted entirely in Nepali. (The verdant, mysterious topography of the northeast is a character in itself, captured deftly by the cinematographer through sweeping shots of misty mountains, grey skies and lush greenery.)

“Sikkim is a very small state in India," Tyrewala explains later to the diverse audience assembled in the theatre. “Even in India, it doesn’t find a voice. So for me it’s such a great honour that its voice will be heard here, on a global stage."

And in her quest to honour its true voice, Tyrewala sought out co-writers to help her rewrite the script in Nepali, a language she isn’t familiar with.

“By the way, she’s written a story in a language she doesn’t know," Chopra quips. “I mean, only a woman—sorry, no offence to all the guys—but only a woman would be crazy enough to say ‘Hey, I don’t know this language, but let me just write a script [in] it.’"

The humanity at the heart of the film strikes a chord with the evening’s viewers, a mix of people of Indian origin and other ethnicities, of millennials and seniors. Gasps, chuckles and empathetic awws permeate the theater from time to time, as the carefree humour and banter of the young protagonists endears them to the audience.

“People from the northeast face an immense amount of racism within India," says Chopra. “They get questions like ‘Oh, are you from Korea? Are you from Vietnam?’ So it’s important to show a film like this to mainstream India, and to the world—to show the beauty of northeast India, and to give acceptance to every human being who belongs to this country."