“Shy!” reacts Zinen Nillo Kath, at the prospect of seeing herself on camera. Two years ago, when she auditioned along with hundred other Naga children to play the part of Mhonbeni Ezung, the youngest recipient of national bravery award for children in the year 2015, she was just four. And last month, when Kath — who studies in Class I — saw herself on the big screen, she had only one word to describe the sum total of her emotions about the entire process: shy.
The film that six-year-old Kath is starring in is Nani Teri Morni — a film that many are calling the first “mainstream” Nagamese film. Or at least, one which is garnering attention outside Northeast India. Directed by Mumbai-based Akashaditya Lama and aided by Children’s Film Society India, Nani Teri Morni first made news earlier this October. And while, it might not have been for the most pleasant reasons (an initial hiccough between the filmmakers and the state government), the film finally had its world premiere on November 25 at International Film Festival of India in Goa.
With a cast of 15, the premise of this children’s film is based on a true story — in November 2015, eight-year-old Mhonbeni Ezung saved her drowning grandmother from the turbulent river in their village in Wokha district in Nagaland. The little girl ran almost 7km through thick forests to get help — a feat that was recognised by awarding her the National Bravery Award for children in the year 2015. When Lama — who in 2016 moved the Bombay High Court against Ashutosh Gowariker’s Mohenjodaro for “stealing his script” (the case is still pending) — learned about the bravado of Ezung, he was sure he wanted to make a film on her. His only caveat was that he wanted the entire movie to be done in Nagaland, with a Naga caste, and in Nagamese.
“However, despite my forefathers hailing from the region, I had no connection with it. That is when I got in touch with with Rebecca Changkija Naga,” says Lama. Changkija, a native of Nagaland, has been a film producer in Mumbai for almost a decade now — arguably the first and only Bollywood film producer from Nagaland. “I said yes immediately because this was a huge deal for my state. While there are Nagamese movies, they cater only to a local audience — on DVDs and maybe Youtube. This was the first time someone from Bollywood was showing interest back home,” says Changkija, who worked as the line-producer for the film. Earlier this year, a short film on the subject of clean elections called Nana — A Tale of Us directed by Tiakumzuk of the popular Youtube channel Dreamz Unlimited got widespread attention and went on to be screened at the Edinburgh Festival of Indian Films & Documentaries (EFIFD). “This was the first time a Nagamese film travelled outside Nagaland but then again, it was not really a feature film,” says Changkija.
Nani Teri Morni isn’t a full-length feature film either but a ‘featurette’, which is basically a cross between a short film and a feature. For the filmmaker, while the premise of the movie was ready, the story still took time to crystallise. “It was a biopic but unlike biopics on famous people who have lots to tell about their journey — this was based on one incident in the life of a small child. And she was really shy!” says Lama.
Over gradual conversations with Ezung and her grandmother, Lama found that the one thing the duo shared was a love for fairytales. “In fact, just the night before Ezung had saved her grandma, the latter had narrated a Lotha folktale to her — where the character saved an entire village from a man-eating tiger,” says Lama, “I soon realised the importance of folktales in Naga culture — and that is one of the chief takeaways from my film: how these stories have moral lessons for kids,” he says.
In 2016, Changkija and Lama held auditions in Nagaland and about a hundred kids showed up. Among them was four-year-old Kath, who went on to play Ezung’s part. “It was the first time she was in front of the camera but she somehow managed to pull it off,” says her mother, Povi Tovi, 41, a businesswoman based in Dimapur. Watipongla Kichu, a ten-year-old who was the protagonist in the Dreamz Unlimited’s Nana, played the role of Ezung’s cousin. “I think the scenery was the best part of the film,” says Kichu, who studies in Class IV, and dreams of becoming Alia Bhatt someday.
The film, which is primarily in Nagamese, with two characters speaking in Hindi, was shot in and around Kohima. While it is pegged around one incident, Nani Teri Morni, also touches upon the history of Naga tribe, draws generously from its folklore, is filled with metaphors and — “since it’s a children’s film, has a sprinkle of magic too,” says Lama.