It was in 1992 when Nilanjan Datta first saw his father’s friend Subhasis Chaudhri shooting a film in Assam. This inspired Datta to pursue a career in filmmaking and apply to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). At 42, he is an associate professor of film editing at the institute. In 2009, his film Bhanga Ghara won the National Award for the Best Film on Environment. This year, the Mumbai-based director has won the National Award (Best Film in Wancho language) for The Headhunter, his first feature film that deals with the impact of deforestation on the Wancho culture. Here, Datta discusses why it took so long to make his first feature film, and the issues it raises.
Why did it take so long for you to make The Headhunter after you won a National Award for your documentary Bhanga Gara in 2009?
This is my first feature film. To raise finance in Mumbai for a story from the Northeast is not easy, as people don’t consider it mainstream. I studied in Arunachal Pradesh, and had seen members of the Wancho tribe coming to the market. Originally, the film was supposed to come out in 2007, but it took eight years to make as a Mumbai-based producer backed out from the project at the last moment.
Are the lead actors (Noksha Sahaam and Mrigendra Konwar) members of the Wancho tribe?
Noksha Sahaam (who plays the role of an old man from the Wancho tribe), is from the Wancho tribe and I selected him during the auditions that took place in the villages. Mrigendra Konwar (who plays the role of a young man) is a graduate from the National School of Drama. I chose an actor and a non actor for these roles because it was easier to bring the theme of conflict between the new order and the old order in this way. I Whatsapped Sahaam for five days and told him that for this role he had to be himself. He understood what I was trying to convey and he was ready for the role. Konwar learnt the basic nuances of the Wancho language in about a month.
How did you conceptualise the character of the old man from the Wancho tribe?
I kept in touch with my tribal friends and researched a lot on the Wancho tribe. I had a fictional idea and with the help of my friends I was able to further develop the character. After the script was finished, I sent it to the Wancho cultural society. They found it to be okay as it was not an ethnographic film and what was being depicted was accurate.
What issues have you tackled in the movie?
The first is of course the degradation of the environment and the conflict between the outsiders and the insiders. The tribals have a symbiotic relationship with the environment. When I was making the film, it did not occur to me that there is a highway made in Andaman and Nicobar because of which the Jarawa tribes there have almost vanished. The road was not there when I had written the script in 2007. So I realised that sometimes to introduce a new culture, you tend to wipe out the old. The other is more metaphorical. All the elders of the Wancho tribe were introduced to opium by the Britishers and are now addicted to it. The old man being addicted to tobacco by the young man was a metaphorical take on it.
Any interesting incident that you remember from the time when you were shooting the film?
In Arunachal Pradesh, we were sometimes shooting at minus degree Celsius. Noksha Sahaam was wearing very few clothes throughout the shooting, as he was in the traditional Wancho attire. So all the crew members decided to give him company and we removed our warm clothes. You can say that Sahaam got some inspiration from us during the shooting.
Can you tell us something about your next project?
My next film is The Winter’s Tale. It is set in 1983 and is about the Assam agitation. I will also talk about the Nellie massacre.
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