When actress and writer Paakhi A Tyrewala decided to make her feature filmmaking debut with the Sikkimese movie Pahuna: The Little Visitors in a language with which she wasn’t familiar, she knew she was in for an uphill climb. “Sometimes if you are telling somebody’s story, it should be in their words,” Tyrewala told Scroll.in. “I knew it was going to make my life difficult as I did not know the language at all. But I wanted it to have honesty.”

Produced by Priyanka Chopra’s Purple Pebble Pictures, the film narrates the story of two siblings (Ishika Gurung and Anmol Limboo) who get separated from their parents while fleeing to Sikkim to escape the Maoist insurgency in Nepal.

After a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017 and an award-winning outing at the SCHLINGEL International Children’s Film Festival this year, Pahuna will be released in theatres on December 7. The film’s cast also includes Manju KC, Saran Rai, Binod Pradhan, Uttam Pradhan, DK Lepcha, Rupa Tamang, Mahendra Chettri and Banita Lagun.

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Pahuna: The Little Visitors (2018).

Pahuna had been on the anvil for more than 15 years, ever since Tyrewala visited Sikkim for an Art of Living course. She observed that Sikkimese people, who, along with much of the North East, are largely neglected by mainstream media, were raising their voice for acceptance.

“I was really young at that time when I had gone for a course in Art of Living to Sikkim and Nepal in 2001,” Tyrewala said. “When I went there I realised that they were very alienated. The air tickets cost Rs 10,000 then and it costs the same now. And at times it was almost like people would greet them like they were from a different country. I had promised myself that if I ever make a film, this would be my first film.”

The film is, above all, about displacement, she said. “The only thing I could do to mainstream that area is through a film,” Tyrewala explained. “The film talks about adult actions having impact on children. As adults, we lie to them. [It talks about] How our anger and conflicts impact them.”

Finding a producer to back the film was challenging, Tyrewala recalled. “I was rejected by lots of them for various reasons,” she said. “And finally somebody told me that Priyanka was producing regional films and I approached her by 2016 December and she said yes. We started shooting and by 2017 TIFF, we had already released.”

Pahuna. Courtesy Purple Pebble Pictures.
Pahuna. Courtesy Purple Pebble Pictures.

Choosing the right cast was crucial, she said. “We started auditioning a lot of children from schools,” Tyrewala said. “I had a very clear image in my mind as to how the boy and girl would look. They [the actors cast as siblings] are not even from the same community, but they look so much like each other.”

The language, though a challenge, was never a deterrent. “I was pretty adamant that I wanted to make it in Sikkimese,” the filmmaker said. “Once I started writing the film, it started sounding unreal in Hindi. I did not want the dialogue to be given completely to translation. So I spent a lot of time with a script writer to get the dialogue sounding right and real.” The film’s dialogue is credited to Biswas Timshina.

Pahuna’s warm reception at film festivals was because of its ability to speak without words, Tyrewala said. “Language was the least difficult part in terms of communication,” she said. “And a lot of people have reacted saying they did not need subtitles to understand it. The way I have made it is also screenplay heavy and not dialogue heavy.”

For Tyrewala, who has acted in films including Jhootha Hi Sahi (2010) and Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai? (2002), Pahuna began as a writing assignment from her filmmaker husband Abbas Tyrewala (Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Jhootha Hi Sahi). “Abbas gave it to me as an assignment. I wrote it as a story and then moved on to focus on other projects.”

These included the short film Kajal, about a young woman and her abusive husband.

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Jhootha Hi Sahi (2010).

Her first stint behind the camera was directing the song Tu Bole from Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2007), which follows the lead pair (played by Genelia Deshmukh and Imran Khan) through a video camera over the course of one day.

“They suddenly felt that they needed a song in a particular place to tell the story a little better,” she recalled. “But they had run out of budget totally. Aditi’s character in the film always had a video camera in her hand. Abbas wanted me to capture their friendship with something that does not cost them anything. So I racked my brain and came up with the idea to make a song on camera.”

Tyrewala’s upcoming projects include a web series set in a school and a political thriller. Is acting still in the cards for the new filmmaker? “Where is the time to remain in A-grade shape and not eat carbs,” Tyrewala joked.

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Tu Bole from Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2007).