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IFFI 2016: We made the film by begging, borrowing: Nicholas Kharkongor on Mantra

Speaking to the media at IFFI 2016, the debutant director of Mantra spoke up about the difficulties facing an independent filmmaker in India. 

Director Kharkongor with Rajat Kapoor and Kalki Koechline (Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

Shriram Iyengar

With a cast of Rajat Kapoor, Kalki Koechlin, Adil Hussain, and Lucien Dubey, calling Mantra an underdog film seems a misjudgment. The crowdfunding enterprise is Nicholas Kharkongor's debut film at the 47th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) this year. Speaking to the media, the director elucidated on the difficult challenges he faced while making the film. 

A theatre veteran of over 20 years, Kharkongor emphasised that the lack of 'commercial viability' of the film was a major drawback. He said, "It was very difficult to raise the money, as you are well aware of how difficult it is for independent filmmaking. We shot in for a short period of 23 days in January. Then we went into a crowdfunding campaign for post production." 

Based on the opening of the Indian economy and the big boom in the early 2000s, Mantra has Rajat Kapoor playing a small businessmen who finds his business under threat by the rise of foreign brands in the 'India Shining' market. Kharkongor said, "I was actually trying to tell the story of the new India. I think it was 1947 that was the big moment in our history. After that, the other big moment I can think of is 1991. Living as we were in a mixed economy, Nehruvian state for a long time, and then finally opening up the economy. Boom! Everything changed. It was fairly simple to think of that idea because it was playing out everywhere." 

He emphasised that the story is a piece of fiction, but is set against the larger backdrop of a changing India. Speaking of the cast, the director added,"[Mantra] was mostly done for free. The actors, all of them who have not been paid a single penny. Rajat Kapoor, Kalki, Adil Hussain, they came on board for free. A lot of the crew also came on board for free. That's how we managed to get some money, because they were on board." He also added how the crew had to borrow, beg props from people's houses to maintain continuity in the film. He said, "Then, of course, we were shooting in people's houses all the time. We were borrowing TV sets, paintings, and stuff. Some people gave us cars, and food for free. That's pretty much how we made the film - Begging, borrowing, I'd rather not talk about the stealing." 

Rohan Joshi, who plays Rajat Kapoor's son in the film, had an interesting anecdote to add. Joshi had apparently applied for the post of assistant director in the film. But the crew considered him too young, and decided to cast him as the teenage son of Kapoor in the film. Joshi said, "I could relate to my character so well since Veer is one of those teenagers in the late 1990s, when the internet era began. How people interacted with each other changed greatly. As a 16-year-old guy, that was very interesting for me. It was a very enriching experience for me." 

Despite having made his debut with a cast of mainly Hindi actors, Kharkongor expressed a desire to go back and make films on the North East. He said, "There is the Assamese film industry, which is quite established. Manipur has a traditional theatre and drama establishment. But apart from these two states, the other states like Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal don't have much of a film set up. However, things are beginning to change slowly. From what I've been told the sensibility is also kind of stronger there. They are all trying to tell real stories. It is not driven by commerce." 

Mantra had premiered at the 18th Mumbai Film Festival earlier this year. Having made its mark at IFFI 2016, it is set to tour New York before being released theatrically in India.