The director’s cut of the film Lorni: The Flaneur, directed by Wanphrang Diengdoh, was screened on 20 May at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, as a part of the 14th edition of the Habitat Film Festival, which concluded on 26 May.
The film features a self-styled detective, Shem, whose role is portrayed by Adil Husain. As Shem investigates the disappearance of objects of great cultural value, viewers come face to face with the everyday realities of Shillong, which is also Diengdoh’s home. He spoke to Guardian 20 about the film and the Khasi New Wave movement it is a part of.
Q. How did you come up with the title of the film, Lorni: The Flaneur?
A. Lorni in Khasi means someone who is nosey and inquisitive. A flaneur of course is someone who wanders the streets aimlessly. In small town Shillong, there are a lot of people who actually do live this life and I think it was a fun idea for me to explore, considering that most of my films, as well as my music and art are informed by the everyday realities of Shillong.
The credits mention that you and the writer Janice Pariat together worked on a graphic novel idea from which this film was derived. Did the novel come to serve as a storyboard? And eventually, what was it that led you from the graphic novel to the film?
A. I had just finished my master’s from Jamia in 2009 and I wanted to work on a surreal noir set in Shillong. Janice and I conceived the idea and I started making the storyboards for the film, but as we are all aware, the funding of a film is tricky. So I shelved the film idea and further developed the storyboards which were now shaping themselves more towards a graphic-novel format. But I realised very early that film was my calling and as luck had it, I had a producer who wanted to see my first fiction film script,19/87,on screen. 19/87 was shot and completed and after that, I was commissioned for my documentary film proposals primarily on the urbanity and the identity transitions of the Khasi people. So after a decade of doing music films and documentaries, I told myself I want to revisit the fiction form. Of course, by now Shillong and its urban landscape had also changed and the graphic novel idea had to be reconceptualised so that it was more contemporary. I understand that film is cathartic and it was also because of the recent events in my personal life that somewhat spurred me to see those images on paper translated on the screen.
Q. In the film, you use lost heirlooms and other objects as a metaphor for Shillong’s vanishing heritage. Could you talk to us about the current situation there and how it affects the locals?
A. I don’t think it is just a metaphor for the vanishing heritage of the land, but also a metaphor for any kind of loss that one goes through, be it the individual or society. Also, every society is dynamic, one cannot stop the changes…
Indigenous societies all over the world are going through great transitions and this transition is not just an imposed transition, but also a personal aspiration to be like everyone else around. There is no morally right or wrong position there. But apart from actually belonging to an indigenous community, I am also extremely interested in documenting and intervening in this transition. Within every society, there are also gatekeepers who inform public opinion of what culture is supposed to be.
In Lorni, I was keen to explore who really has ownership of culture and how that is being stored and passed down from generation to generation. Hence there are a lot of “objects” in the film that serve as repositories of this ancient knowledge system. For example, I grew up with my grandmother who was a fantastic storyteller and I vividly remember sitting around the hearth listening to legends and folktales but then shortly after, economic liberalisation arrived and then cable TV. Suddenly, Rupert Murdoch replaced the hearth with the television set. So yes, I am extremely grateful that I am in a position to chronicle all these exciting things that are happening to me and my people.
Q. Was there any particular moment in time or any incident that impelled you to make this movie?
A. I think it was Werner Herzog who said that ideas are like these robbers who enter your house at night and it is up to you whom you decide to take on first. In other words, what has to be addressed is also a direct consequence of a survival act. I believe that my creativity is a survival act and this is also something that I can relate to when I think of the first person who invented the wheel. It was an act of necessity… There have been a few traumatic incidents in my life and I think that these dark places can also be the same gardens from where beautiful things can finally grow.
Q. The characters in the film constantly deal with identity issues and communal tensions among the tribes. How do youngsters, who have moved out and only occasionally visit Shillong deal with such issues? What is your perspective on this as you, too, have lived in Delhi for a while?
A. I think most people who have been out of Shillong and have come back are more liberal in their outlook, but I think it is also imperative to assert one’s identity especially in this homogenised world that we are slowly being forced to be a part of. And yes, being liberal is also very dangerous. It acknowledges this homogeneity even more without realising that it is muddling things up for a lot of smaller communities who perhaps are culturally very different from everyone else around them. But then again, identity and race are complex ideas and I am fortunate that I have been able to discuss these issues in my previous documentaries in great detail.
Q. Your 2011 Khasi language film 19/87 was celebrated as “the birth of Khasi New Wave” by many critics. In relation to the previous films made in the region, could you talk to us about how 19/87 marked a shift?
A. Well firstly, 19/87 involved non-actors, a guerrilla-style camera, a non-existent budget, a three person crew. We had complete faith in the ideology of what we were trying to do as compared to making the script the fulcrum of the film. It was also the first film from the region that further complicates the insider-outsider relation and addressed these nuances on screen.
Q. What are the aspects of Shillong that are dear to you?
A. Shillong is the best town ever. I am biased of course because I am from there but it is also amazing because of its historical significance during the British era, its Christian history, the resurgence of Khasi indigenous religious identity, its significance during both the World Wars, its musical aspirations and failures, its fashion sense, its constant transition to eventually be a city, the racial undercurrent and political incorrectness that exists and… Honestly, I can go on but can you imagine all of this happening in such a small space?
Q. Shillong is also considered to be a place full of folklore and myths? Could you tell us how the lives of people there are intertwined with these myths?
A. I am not a fan of the exotic but I think the film [Lorni] beautifully explores this co-existence of folklores and myths together with the everyday realities of the place. The Khasi language only had a written form when the missionaries arrived but prior to that, it was stories, legends and folktales, and, of course, music. These have been handed down from generation to generation and are still evident in how people perceive the world and themselves.
Q. You are a musician too. Could you introduce us to your band’s ideology? And being a musician first, what drew you towards filmmaking? Did music help you as a filmmaker in any way?
A. My foray into the arts started with music. Every film for me is like a musical piece and every song I write is like a film. With regards to ideology, they all stem from the Khasi New Wave philosophy that is deeply rooted in the Khasi ethos and the everyday realities that we encounter. I think that is what makes it even more special for me, that it is not merely a musical derivate but something that is firmly rooted in the place it comes from.
Q. What are you working on next?
A. I want to see where Lorni can take me. I don’t plan things way ahead, but I am keen on doing a period piece set in the late 1800s in Cherrapunjee. Fingers crossed.