The policy changes that swept through the Indian economy in the early 1990s had far-reaching consequences not only for the way people lived, but also for what they ate. Suddenly, Indians could consume the fast food they had previously only read about or purchased during foreign vacations. But some local manufacturers were squeezed out by more powerful competitors. Nicholas Kharkongor’s debut Mantra is the fictional story of one such snack food brand.
The 42-year-old director, who grew up in Shillong, follows Kapil Kapoor (Rajat Kapoor) whose battle to stave off competition causes tremors in his family. The cast includes Kalki Koechlin, Lushin Dubey, Shiv Pandit and Adil Hussain in key roles. The crowd-funded independent English film is being released on March 17. In an interview with Scroll.in, Kharkongor spoke about his own struggle in trying to make Mantra and compared his efforts to the travails of Don Quixote, the fictional character of Miguel de Cervantes’s imagination.
How did the story of ‘Mantra’ take shape?
After the economy opened up in 1991, there was great change that was brewing in the country. By the late ’90s, a lot had happened when multinationals infiltrated the Indian market. I remember before that if someone went abroad, we’d ask them to bring back a Coke can. Cable television opened up, magazines were sprouting, everyone was writing about the new change where the Licence Raj was no longer relevant and what was then mocked as the Hindu rate of growth had shot up.
We saw all these changes, and as a storyteller, I wanted to document this change. I knew my story had to be about the New India. I wanted to focus on an Indian company fighting a multinational that was taking over the market. The challenge was to tell the story through a brand that everyone could identify with, like a snack brand, as opposed to say, a cement brand.
Is the plot based on a true story?
Mantra is the story of Kapil Kapoor, who is losing company profits to a multinational that has come in and taken over the market. A lot of Indian brands such as Thums Up, Goldspot and Uncle Chips were bought out by multinationals. Our film tells a fictional story that is based on the story of a real snack brand that was bought out.
The foreground is fiction. We have taken inspiration for the background, where we have looked at the lives of people who were the owners of Indian companies that were taken over by multinational brands.
The word mantra is used in English and Hindi, but the film appears to be in English.
This film is about an upper-class family in Delhi, so in all likelihood they would be speaking in English, and that’s how the language of the film emerged. It does have a smattering of Hindi.
Was it easy assembling the actors for your independent feature?
I happened to choose the right people. It was very easy to get the actors. Rajat Kapoor is a mentor and a friend, so that was a no-brainer to get him on board. I met Kalki Koechlin and she agreed to be a part of it. I had worked with Adil Hussain in theatre, and so it was easy to persuade him.
What about finding producers for your debut?
It was a two-pronged strategy. I pursued both the actors and the producers actively. The actors fell in place first, which made the job of funding a little easier. Since Mantra is a crowd-funded production, there is a bunch of producers from across the globe. Luckily, NRIs related to the film’s theme of a New India and they supported the film a lot more.
It’s different from having a single producer who can have his way. Having more producers sort of makes the process democratic. I didn’t have interference.
How did you get into films?
I have a background in theatre, directing plays. Films were a new medium. I worked on two films as an assistant director, Saeed Mirza’s Ek Tho Chance (2009) and Rajat Kapoor’s Fatso (2012). This helped me to understand the technicalities of making a feature film.
It is harrowing to make a film, but it’s a familiar story of everyone who is an outsider. It is a long battle you have to fight on your own. I am not an intelligent, organised and smart filmmaker. I go in with my blinders on and fence it out.