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‘Someone’s Normal, Everyday Diet Has Become Someone Else’s Political Statement’

Director Wanphrang Diengdoh talks about his film Lorni, playing on Sony Liv, and the importance of setting the story in Shillong
‘Someone’s Normal, Everyday Diet Has Become Someone Else’s Political Statement’
  • Tatsam Mukherjee

  • Film Companion

Last Updated: 08.36 AM, Sep 03, 2022

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Hill station noir has become a legitimate subgenre on Indian streaming platforms, with mystery thrillers like Aranyak (2021), The Last Hour (2021) and this week’s streaming film Cuttputli. In Lorni – The Flaneur, which premiered at the Tallinn Black Night Film Festival in 2019 and has now found a platform in Sony Liv, director Wanphrang Diengdoh does something a little different. Ostensibly, the film is about a detective (played by Adil Hussain) investigating a set of robberies, but woven into this story are Khasi folklore and the ambience of Shillong with its neighbourhoods and its local characters. 

A middle-aged, out-of-work detective Shem (Hussain) is hired to find out who has stolen a necklace that is a family heirloom. His investigation has him floating around Shillong and through Shem’s decidedly mundane (yet poetic) existence, we see different aspects of the city — from chatty journalists who ramble about local folklore to long-time residents who disapprove of outsiders coming in and ruining the local culture. There’s a sense that Shem is escaping the horrors of his own past and Hussain’s performance is richly persuasive. While Diengdoh’s film is a genre film, it’s not the whodunit that makes it compelling as much as the wheredunit. The everyday life of the city and the way people grapple with deep-rooted trauma is central to Diengdoh’s film. Shillong is as integral to Lorni as Hussain’s Shem.   

Diengdoh has long had an eye for the cinematic in everyday life — somewhat literally. Years ago, when he was being wheeled in for an eye surgery, he requested that the surgery be filmed. It took his doctor by surprise, but the permission was given. At the end of the surgery, Diengdoh lost his left eye and when he was home after being discharged, he tried to watch the footage. “Within two seconds of trying to watch it, I threw up! But now, I can watch all of it,” said Diengdoh. “It has so much to do with how our brain processes trauma.” 

Here are edited excerpts from our chat with Diengdoh, who spoke about the fortitude he’s had to show during this four-year journey with Lorni:

What’s your first memory of cinema?

This will obviously go back to the VHS days. This was around the time when Shillong was seeing a fair bit of racial conflict, so we would spend most of our days inside the house glued to VHS cassettes. Most of the stuff was Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, but then I also had this grandfather, who used to work at a grocery store nearby, and he was a massive war buff. So, the kind of movies he’s shown us – they were really bloody and gory war films. It was almost like the tribal ritual of grandparents telling stories had somehow evolved, with him showing us these movies. Spaghetti Westerns were a big hit, I remember watching The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966) and war films like Rambo (1982) – most of these were American war films right in the aftermath of the Gulf war. They all left a big impression on us. I think something similar is happening in India with respect to war films. 

Were you a fan of detective comics, films, novels? What were you reading/watching in your foundational years?

I studied these [detective films] in film school. But I think I found the French new wave to be communicating really complex ideas, while working on very oppressive budgets. Like when I feel low even now, I go back to something like Le Samourai (1967). The French new wave detective films were very intriguing for me, I think they were in a way a reaction to the gangster films that were being made during the 20s and 30s.

When were you in Jamia Millia Islamia University? Did those years shape you as a storyteller?

I was in Jamia from 2007-2009. It was an interesting phase in my life where I had grown up in a place where I was not the minority group (being a Khasi) – and I was living in a primarily Muslim neighbourhood. So, suddenly I was living as a minority within a minority. I think those two years really informed my understanding about how this country works. And at the same time, to meet students from all over the country, all kinds of social strata, it was an enriching experience. I remember watching a lot of documentaries during those two years. Even when I would go back home then, I would watch a lot of films. Even for two years after I graduated, that’s all I did – watch films. Not merely for consumption, but also learning when they came out, what era they were reflecting, and also positioning myself in those circumstances. Whatever little filmmaking I’ve done, I think it’s firmly rooted in a context. Also, we had really established faculty members. 

Looking back, one of the films I resonated with the most was Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) because I lost my left eye around this time. If you remember in the film, a man is trying to pull a ship across a mountain, even though the odds are dead against him. I felt I was in similar circumstances after the surgery. Had I not persevered, in the words of Herzog, I would be a man without dreams. I didn’t want to live like that.

I read somewhere that Lorni was earlier supposed to be a graphic novel. At what point did it become a film?

The film started off as a graphic novel once I graduated from Jamia in 2009-10. This was the point in time when Delhi was really churning out a lot of graphic novels. Also, if you remember correctly, this was right in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, so the batch of Jamia students who would usually get placed in NDTV, had nowhere to go. I think it was a blessing in disguise, because that’s why I worked on the graphic novel. After a while, I put it on hold and moved back to Shillong to make a short film called 19/87, a historical fiction. After that, I got this grant from a foundation, following which I began applying to all these documentary projects. I got a fellowship from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) for a documentary called Because We Did Not Choose (2017). I really enjoyed the nonfiction space, learning about the efforts of indigenous labour during World War I, and we’d spent more than four years shooting and editing it. After that, I was looking for a break from nonfiction, and I found this graphic novel lying on my shelf screaming “ME! ME!”

How did someone like Adil Hussain enter the mix? Did you know him from before?

We held (acting) workshops in Shillong, and I was looking for someone who might be able to do justice to the part of Shem, the protagonist. A friend of mine suggested I reach out to Adil Hussain to see if he would be interested in conducting an acting workshop for us – because I wanted a particular kind of acting in the film. He asked me if I had a screenplay, so that he could prepare exercises for actors beforehand. He asked me if I had my cast in place, to which I said that except the protagonist and the lead actress, everyone else was pretty much on. I sent him the screenplay and I didn’t hear from him for a long time. Then one afternoon, I saw Adil’s name flashing on my phone and I feared the worst. He asked me how many days I was planning to shoot the film for. I said not more than 30 days, because we were on a tiny budget. He said he would like to be the lead in the film, and my immediate response was, “I can’t afford you.” He said he really wants to play the lead, but he can’t spare more than 15 days on the film. I said I still won’t be able to afford you, to which he said something along the lines of “Have faith in the universe, it will all work out.” Shortly after, he came down to Shillong and conducted an acting workshop for the rest of the cast, which was excellent. 

Meanwhile, we still didn’t have a leading actress. We barely have an industry of sorts, so I was mostly skimming through Facebook profiles and sending messages. This cousin reached out, and said she would be interested in playing the part of Esther. The day she walked in for the acting workshop, I remember Adil and I looked at each other and thinking “She’s the one!” I think she knew something about the liberation that comes with moving away from one’s hometown, and how it also becomes stifling once you’re back. 

I thought Dawiat Syiem was such an interesting choice for the part of Esther – especially how she embodies the part of the mysterious femme-fatale —

I don’t think you can say femme fatale these days, can you? She was absolutely spot on, I thought. I was very mindful that Esther’s character had to have a screen presence that matched Adil Hussain’s. There shouldn’t be an imbalance. Those intimate scenes were challenging to shoot – who would want to direct intimate scenes of their own sister? There’s always this voice at the back of one’s head where you’re being ostracised by your extended family. But also being mindful about not objectifying the woman – I was very conscious during those scenes. You see Shem’s character is clearly traumatised by his past, even during the act.

I think in these kind of psychological films, there’s a clear distinction between femme fatales and the testosterone-driven characters – one of the finest examples being Chinatown (1974). I think we were ever so slightly trying to subvert the genre tropes in our film. After all, Shem is not a great detective to begin with. He sits in a tiny, ramshackle office, where he pretends to be busy all day, when he doesn’t really have much going on. This is in direct contradiction to the masculine Humphrey Bogart characters or the Alain Delon school of parts, where a character is pulling out a cigarette. I was aware of these tropes in my head, and I was trying to fuse these international references with indigenous folklore. The intent was to make a film that even someone with no interest in film history could watch, and have a laugh. 

I liked how you humanise the locals of Shillong by touching upon their discriminatory nature.

To paraphrase something one of the film’s characters says: Once upon a time, the tribe used to be pristine. It’s evident everywhere, right? In Delhi, the grand opinion might be that the Muslims are taking away our women. Within the Hindu community, Mr Sharma is cooking something that probably smells terrible, but it’s important to be mindful about what caste Mr Sharma belongs to. So, it’s the same in the North East too. It’s all the more fascinating because the mainland often looks at the North East as one homogenised identity, when in fact it really is not. Each and every tribe and community, they have their secessionist movements, even their own militia in most cases.

A scene features beef momos – which I saw as a political statement given the current state of the country. Am I reading too much?

(laughs) How do I even answer this? I mean, we do eat beef momos in Shillong. This is the time and space we’re living in where someone’s normal, everyday diet has become someone else’s political statement. I didn’t think about it at all at the time of shooting. I remember when I was sending the film for certification, it was when I thought about it for the first time. But then soon, I was also thinking how ridiculous it was that I had to worry about such things! Many beautiful relationships have begun with a plate of beef momos.

You said somewhere that making Lorni was almost cathartic after a long, arduous production of a documentary. What do you enjoy and detest about both the forms of nonfiction and fiction?

I think Khasis come from a very strong storytelling culture and a lot of it was completely oral. The written word came in as recently as the Forties, when missionaries introduced the Roman script. Our musical forms, poetry, history was through oral storytelling. I think I’m a storyteller by default, and I’m simply using this new technology to further what I’ve known to be a tradition. It’s going great, and I’m hoping to carry on. 

I enjoy practically everything when it comes to the craft of filmmaking. I could be sitting here right now while talking to you, and I could still see it as a story from the outside. I’m surrounded by stories. What do I detest? I think seeking funding, and as much as I think it’s important, I think the process really makes you cut corners, and in many ways neuters your story. It’s understandable that nobody is going to simply give you the money unless they see potential in your subject. So, it’s about this balance between your artistic aspirations and your financial aspirations to accomplish it. It’s something most independent filmmakers have to navigate.

You’re a part of this movement called Khasi new wave as a filmmaker and a musician. What’s your current assessment of the movement?

The whole ‘Khasi new wave’ was an invention on my part when I made my first short film 19/87. I said it very whimsically, but then the local media propped it up and everyone kept asking me about it. There are people in town who are also very antsy about it. I think what I meant when I spoke about it was art that spoke of a reality of a particular time and space. 

There are a lot more young people today who have embarked on the filmmaking journey. You have to understand that the first Khasi film was as recent as 1983 or 1984, so the filmmaking fraternity is relatively young. When I was growing up there weren’t filmmakers to look up to in Meghalaya. It was pretty much trial and error. There has been a fervour of people making interesting films. There’s some interesting theatre happening right now. I’m hoping for the best.

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