Wanphrang K Diengdoh’s debut indie feature Lorni: The Flaneur subverts the noir genre

Meghalaya filmmaker Wanphrang K Diengdoh explains how his documentary filmmaking experience, a great team and 'sheer madness' helped him shoot his first feature on a micro-budget inside 24 days.

Sahil Bhalla

Without a thriving film industry in Meghalaya, it is hard for a director to find artistes to play the various parts. Director Wanphrang K Diengdoh, 34, knows that better than most. Diengdoh had already seen the faces of the characters for his debut feature Lorni: The Flaneur in his head, but finding the artistes who matched those images was the difficult part. So much so that he couldn’t find a face for the lead role.

It was a meeting in Delhi with actor Adil Hussain after the auditions that changed things for Diengdoh. The filmmaker wanted Hussain to conduct an acting workshop. After giving him the script, Diengdoh did not hear from him for almost 10 days.

“Eventually, the phone rang and the first thing he said was, 'Wan, I want to play the lead.' The rest, of course, is history,” Diengdoh says with a smile.

Adil Hussain plays Shem, the protagonist. Shem is an out-of-work detective sent on a mission to track down ‘stolen objects’ of great cultural significance.

Lorni is based on a graphic novel. Diengdoh says he will publish it if he gets the right people who are “keen to see it become a reality”.

Diengdoh is the founder of Reddur Productions. “Apart from film, I am a full-time musician and play for Tarik and Ñion. I also do sound and video installations and now live in Shillong, having spent a considerable amount of time elsewhere,” the director told Cinestaan in an interview on the sidelines of the 14th Habitat Film Festival in New Delhi's India Habitat Centre.

Lorni: The Flaneur is an indie noir film that subverts the genre by throwing in elements of folktales, legends and dreams. It is set in the sleepy little town of Shillong. “Shillong, Shillong, more of Shillong, outskirts of Shillong, Shillong.” Diengdoh insists the film is not an out-and-out Khasi film but one that “is representative of the linguistic diversity of Shillong.” The film's language is a blend of Khasi, Hindi and English.

In the interview, Diengdoh shed light on working on a ‘micro-budget’, the meaning of Lorni, the Khasi film industry, and more. Excerpts:

Wanphrang K Diengdoh

You have done some documentaries and short films before working on Lorni: The Flaneur. Can you briefly talk about those?

I had done one fiction piece called 19/87 back in 2010. The film dealt with an unusual friendship between a Muslim tailor and a Khasi youth in Shillong during the troubled days of 1987.

After that, I was just completely immersed in the non-fiction form. I must have done about five documentaries, the most recent being Because We Did Not Choose, a film on indigenous labour during the First World War.

That was a challenging film and took four years to complete simply on account of the research involved. I had a great time working on it and filmed all over India, France, England and Wales. It was only after Because We Did Not Choose that I told myself, all right, let’s do a fiction film now.

Lorni: The Flaneur was shot on a 'micro-budget' over just 24 days. How did you accomplish this?

Umm, sheer madness, love for film and a great team, I think, were the key ingredients that saw its completion. I already saw in my head what the film would look like, so that made it easier. I also advocate guerrilla filmmaking and think it is very important to understand your terrain and the location before you decide to hit the record button.

With the advent of video, most of us have taken locations and planning for granted because you can always press delete should you not like how things look. In most documentary situations, you have to get it right there and then the first time. Truth is not going to walk past you again and say, 'Okay, I am ready to be filmed.' So yes, that is good training ground.

For Lorni, I decided I would mentor an entire team from Shillong for the shoot. Their average age was about 25. I knew they had it in them to see the completion of this film. They had not worked on a film set before, but I knew they would put their lives on the line for their art. I don’t really care about film schools and degrees much. It is the passion and that lust for life that counts the most.

Working on a micro-budget ensures that you need to be creative with the production and your planning has to be so on point it’s not funny. You are aware you do not have the financial resources to execute the film, so you have to totally count on countless hours of planning and your creativity to see its completion.

Can you elaborate on the title and its meaning?

Lorni in the Khasi language means to be nosey, inquisitive, to almost poke yourself in affairs that do not concern you. I don’t think there is an English equivalent for it, but then again I also like the idea of the streets and the shady alleys in Shillong that inform all my films and music and I think it is this deep understanding and respect that I have for Shillong that enables me to tell these stories.

Also, Shillong still functions like a small town. Rumours and gossip run rife, but at the same time those are key ingredients for stories and for a filmmaker, that’s your fix there. One needs to really understand the heartbeat of a city to make a film on it.

Lorni has been described by some as a noir film. What are your views of noir cinema and does Lorni fit into that?

I mean of course there are elements in Lorni that are reflective of the classic noir — the essential femme fatale, the lonely man and the city, the investigation of something missing, etc — but I think Lorni further subverts that traditional noir by throwing in other elements — folktales, legends, dreams, music video formats.

I think that’s what genres also do, they allow you to subvert them and create a new one altogether. So in this case #khasinewwave, which is an art movement in Shillong that is deeply rooted in the ethos of Khasi philosophy and the everyday realities of our times.

It is also interesting because a lot of my work examines the clash between the old and the new and how they play out in the present context. For an indigenous society like the Khasis, this is the transition I have been trying to chronicle continuously through my art without slipping into the terrain of 'exoticizing' or 'museumifying' my people.

What were the delays in the lead-up to the release of this film? As far as I know, it was supposed to be released at the end of 2018.

Nothing was delayed. The film, like a foetus, takes time to be born. One has to be patient and acknowledge the situations around it to see its birth.

What do you have to say about the small Khasi film industry?

I think it is going to see new horizons, to be honest. The government is keen to listen to the issues that filmmakers in the region are going through and I think that is a positive sign for all of us.

Is Lorni an out-and-out Khasi film or a film that represents more than just the Khasi language?

I think it is a film that is representative of the linguistic diversity of Shillong. One hears all the languages one can hear in town. For me, personally, I think in Khasi and I love how the Khasi language is flooded with phrases and idioms. But at the same time, I enjoy the street lingo that I encounter every day. I think anywhere in the world, language is a huge indicator of the reality of the times people live in.

Since you are part of the three-membered Tarik, how much of a role does music play in Lorni?

More than Tarik, my most recent music project Ñion with Hammarsing Kharhmar and Da Thymmei performing arts has been more instrumental in shaping the musical landscape of the film. It was a cosmic coincidence that Hammarsing was in town while I was editing the film and when I showed him the rough cut, he immediately understood what I was trying to do. He then went about writing these amazing pieces that just made Lorni a more nuanced film both visually and aurally.

With the rise of over-the-top platforms like Netflix and Amazon, do Khasi films have any space in cinema halls?

Most cinema halls in Shillong cater to a certain kind of audience. Some of the films are perhaps not what Netflix or the online domain look for, but I like that, because it is almost a resistance to the mainstream demand and in that sense still caters to a section of society that is not privileged to have access to films in these online domains.

Lorni: The Flaneur was screened at the 14th Habitat Film Festival at New Delhi's India Habitat Centre on Monday 20 May 2019.

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Habitat Film Festival