Mapuia Chawngthu talks about meeting his dream of making the first Mizo feature film
What takes to make a first film in any language? In the contemporary times, Mapuia Chawngthu is certainly a name better suited than many Indian filmmakers to answer that question.
In 2013, Mapuia made Khwanglung Run (The Raid on Khawnglung), the first film in Mizo language. Certainly a history of sorts in that north-eastern State which had no filmmaking past till then. It held particular importance in a place where no cinema hall existed, where the usual means of cinematic entertainment sprung from watching crash Hollywood flicks on television sets and DVDs.
But these aspects were just an ounce of the sea of challenges that Mapuia would face for being the first to give his fellow Mizos a taste of their own language on the silver screen. Zooming back on the times, this unassuming man in this 30s -- stocky yet placid, shy yet affable, pins down three factors that helped him achieve what he did.
“Firstly, I have always been very observant. Whatever I observed since childhood went into my artwork. Secondly, seeing this childhood aptitude in me, my aunt enrolled me in a very good art school in Noida (in Delhi NCR) since at that point of time we were based there. So, while composing frames for my shots for the film and looking at the aesthetic part of a shot, the knowledge I gathered there came in handy.”
Yet another clinching factor was watching meaningful cinema since the ’80s, beginning with Mahesh Bhatt’s jewel Arth.
“After watching Arth, I developed a penchant for meaningful cinema. Such films changed my outlook towards life and art, and I began to nurture a dream to make a film one day portraying a story of my own tribe, the Luseis,” he says. Since Khawnglung Run is a famous legend of the Mizos centered on a historic feud between two clans and is interspersed with a story of love and sacrifice, he picked it as his maiden subject.
The story belonged to the period between 1856 and 1859, when the bloodiest massacre in Mizo history took place in Khawnglung, otherwise a quiet village atop a hill. The village developed a feud on a petty issue with the neighbouring Khuanghlum village inhabited by the Pawih clan, a sub clan of the Lusei. The head of the Pawih clan decided to wage a war against the Luseis of Khawnglung to avenge a humiliation.
It was then the hero of the story entered the scene. Chala or Chalthanga was a man with many rivals but none to match his valour and fighting skills. The Pawihs take away his beloved, Thangi, as one of the hostages after plundering Khawnglung. Chala was away then. On return, he went to the rival village to win back Thangi, did it, but on the way back home, an enemy bullet claimed her life. The taste of victory lasted for a short time for Chala..
The story of blood and gore ended with the awakening of better sense in the Pawih youth. One such young man prevented another from killing Chala, saying “Enough is enough.”
While writing the film’s script, Mapuia decided to stick to the original story. Investing a sum of Rs. 30,000, he created his film’s sets, a row of old houses atop Darkhuang, the hill where Khawnglung was said to have existed. He completed the film spending Rs. eleven lakhs out of which six lakhs was his own hard-earned money while for another five lakhs he had to secure a loan from a Bank.
With the film sets in place, his next need was yet another challenge – gathering actors. Mapuia picked villagers mostly from his native Lunglei village besides zeroing in on nine actors who attended a workshop conducted sometime back in Aizawl by Delhi’s National School of Drama. However, like the villagers, this lot had never faced a camera or seen a film shoot. Mapuia recalls it took them some time to respond to his basic commands like ‘action’ and ‘cut’.
“But Mizo people in general are very intelligent; so they learned their bits quickly,” he says.
For sixty days, the film’s crew worked in tandem to realise Mapuia's dream, shooting in one of the roughest of locations. “Sometimes, we had to scale and cross hill after hill and navigate through deep forests for three-four days to reach a location. We had to carry our generators, crane and its balancing weights besides the cameras, food items and utensils, etc. But everyone one lent a hand and things turned easy for us.”-he states.
The film was shot with two SLR cameras – a Canon 5D Mark 2 and a Sony EX1, both owned by Mapuia. He used ordinary sun gun instead of professional light equipment, a small crane instead of a trolley. Saving the music and subtitling work, Mapuia did everything --from the choosing the story and locations to script writing, from editing to colour correction, sound recording to re-recording Including the actors’ make-up.
A self-taught filmmaker, he relates, “For the camera and editing work, my only recourse was the operating manuals and the help menus. However, since I realised that the lighting part is an important aspect of the filmmaking process and found it to be quite intriguing, I studied lighting works of many great cinematographers by downloading them from the internet.”
How to insert music into the film posed another problem. “With the help of a friend, we finally did it by using the software Pro Scores. I did the colour correction of the film in Magic Bullet Mojo, which usually comes with Final Cut Pro software,” adds Mapuia.
The story unfolds on the screen with a long sequence shot, which places the hilltop village Khawnglung at a far end before introducing the character of Chalthanga, seen hunting. The next 100 minutes of the film is rich in splendid camera work, which carries forth the story with ease and rhythm. It also unfolds the beautiful landscape of Lusei Hills, its flora and faunas, the streams and the falls, the interplay of light and shade in its many hues. An array of characters -- good and ugly -- emerge to take forward the story of grudge, revenge, love, compassion and forgiveness.
Mapuia narrates the story mostly with an array of moving shots -- each endowed with its own dynamics. Many of them are sequence shots, which he seems to have learnt from his keen observation of films by the legendary Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopaulous – a master of that technique.
Among a clasp of impressive shots Mapuia accomplishes in the film, the one that stands out is when the villagers of Khawnglung leave behind the charred remains of a bonfire and an empty earthen jar in a place they celebrate the Chapchar Kut festival with great merriment before being butchered by the Pawih attackers.
He also weaves into it almost all customs of Mizo society –right from the game children play at their front yard to the victorious rejoicing of people at the village entrance; the authority a village head yields to the festivities of harvesting festival Chapchar Kut; the traditional wrestling game (Inbuan);ing the youth play to the ritual of dance (Chailam) and music during Chapchar Kut; the traditional way of collecting stream water in bamboo containers (Tuithol) for domestic use, and also the way the Mizos drink the traditional rice beer Zu in pots(Seki) made of buffalo horns. These details certainly contribute to the authentic Mizo flavour of the film. Mapuia’s directorial deftness however saves it from becoming yet another ethnographical treatise.
Finally, about two years ago, when the film got completed, it not only gave the Mizos their first feature film but also their first home-grown filmmaker, who has recently completed his yet to be released second film Lungdut.
(Bitopan Borborah is a senior journalist, eminent Assamese short -story writer and an internationally acclaimed film critic. He served as FIPRESCI jury member in many international film festivals including recently concluded Cannes film festival. He received Munin Borkataki award for literature in the year 1999)