“Life is more complex and powerful than it appears on the outside,” a female voice notes in the opening scenes of Iewduh. Pradip Kurbah’s film is about making the journey from the margins of human experience to the core where lie strength and hope. Iewduh is set in Shillong, and takes its title from the large market in Meghalaya’s capital. The movie is set entirely within the winding alleyways of Iewduh, also known as Bara Bazar, and explores life’s big and small truths through a handful of working-class characters.

These include a former addict, an elderly man in the throes of early dementia and a battered wife. The thread that connects them is held by Mike, who never lets his day job of managing the local public toilet get him down. Mike (Albert Mawrie) shares his hovel with Hep (Denver Pariat), who is trying to stay clean after having kicked a drug habit. Mike has a soft spot for the forgetful and abandoned Lamare (Richard Kharpuri), and is also around to console Priya (Baia Marbaniang), whose alcoholic husband leaves bruises on her face and soul. Mike, meanwhile, dreams of a woman named Corrina. He also blushes in the presence of the attractive tea seller Edwina (Lapynhun Sun), but he isn’t the only one.

The main strand in the sharply observed screenplay, by Kurbah, Paulami Duttagupta and Lionel Fernandes, is the tense relationship between Mike and Hep, which is filled with love as well as mistrust. The collective journey of the characters, who spiritedly dodge curveballs and find strength in community, is also a journey into the heart of the market itself, which emerges as a character in its own right.

Iewduh is in Khasi, Hindi, Jaintia and Garo. The Shankar Lall Goenka production was premiered a few days ago at the Busan International Film Festival, where it shared the Kim Ji-Seok Award. Iewduh will be screened next at the Mumbai, Goa and Kerala festivals before targeting a theatrical release in November.

Pradip Kurbah is 42 and a self-taught filmmaker. He grew up in Shillong and moved away in his teens to work in the Hindi and Telugu film industries. He eventually returned to Shillong to tell stories rooted in his own soil. His debut RI – Homeland (2013), had terrorism for a backdrop. In Onataah: Of the Earth (2016), a gang-rape victim moves to her uncle’s village to heal herself. The Marathi remake of Onataah, titled Man Udhaan Vara, was released on October 11.

In an interview, Kurbah reveals the motivation behind creating a film around a market and finding his narrative rhythm among Iewduh’s winding streets and colourful characters.

How did Iewduh take shape?
When I was working on my film Onataah, I happened to visit the Iewduh market. More than the market itself, the people and their stories fascinated me. They are not heroes in the typical sense, but they are heroes nevertheless. Mike takes care of the public toilet, and he does this job for other people. When he is dreaming, he is somebody too.

I started observing the people in their market. I found a different kind of family where people co-exist for each other. I started speaking to the people and hearing their stories.

Baia Marbaniang in Iewduh (2019). Courtesy Shiven Arts.

How closely are the characters in the film based on real-life people?
Mike is a composite of many people, and is not based on any one character.

The musician who forms a link between various scenes is based on a blind singer whom I met. And stories circulate about a woman named Corrina who was there in the market in the mid-1980s, and gave birth to a son and a daughter. I wanted to bring her into the film, but since I wanted the script to be in the present, I brought her into Mike’s dreams. Could Corrina be Mike’s mother, perhaps?

The film has the realism and observational style of a documentary. How challenging was it to create the screenplay?
While we never thought of making a documentary, we always wanted to give the feeling of a documentary.

The script was a big challenge, since the film is as much about the market as it is about the people. At one point, I thought of scrapping the project, since I had no idea where we were headed. We were confused, and even after one-and-a-half years of writing, we hadn’t reached any point. I thought we would start shooting and see what could be done. So we went ahead, and filmed many scenes that were not in the script. Some of the scenes did go according to the script, and other moments were created on the editing table.

How did the shopkeepers react to the shoot? They barely seem to notice the camera.
The market people were excited. Most of them thought I was making a documentary, and they are yet to see the film. Some of them asked me why I wasn’t shooting any songs.

We shot for only 21 days, since we didn’t have a huge budget, but we rehearsed beforehand with the characters for two months. The idea was to get the people in the market used to the presence of a film crew. We requested the people to not look into the camera.

The whole market got involved in the shoot. The shopkeepers would even tell their customers to not look in our direction.

Iewduh (2019).

The film is set entirely in the market’s narrow lanes – it must have been difficult for cinematographer Pradip Daimary.
We decided to have handheld shots only when we were following the characters. This was a risk to take, but we had a reason to avoid handheld shots. The story is coming from the perspective of the market. The whole idea is that the characters are being observed from a distance, and the camera stands in for the market. We enter the market in the beginning of the film, and the camera moves out only in the end.

It was very difficult for us to do our homework and go in to shoot. If I looked at a wide angle shot, I would not get it, because everything was crowded and everything looked like a close-up. It was next to impossible to get everything in one go. Every 10 minutes, the whole market would change. It would be crowded one minute and empty the next minute.

I thought we would shoot whatever we could get, like a documentary. We also made the film with sync sound, which was possible only because I had the sound designer Amrit Pritam.

Tell us about casting Albert Mawrie as Mike – he carries the film on his shoulders.
I wanted to cast Albert even while the script was being written. He was in my debut film RI, which won a national award. He also assisted me on Onataah.

He made a major transition for Iewduh. He is 34 years old, but he played a character older than his age. He put on weight and he grew out his beard.

Albert Mawrie in Iewduh (2019. Courtesy Shiven Arts.

How would you describe the relationship between Mike and Hep?
Mike and Hep are friends, but they are also more than that. There is an actual person in the market, he must be in his mid-fifties. He is always collecting the boys in the market, most of whom are addicts, and trying to change them. Sometimes, he acts like a father, sometimes like a friend, and sometimes, he behaves in a younger way. I got some inspiration for Mike from this man. I told Albert to follow this man and look at his mannerisms.

How do you compare Iewduh to your previous films?
You have to challenge yourself with every film. As a filmmaker, it is very important to keep growing. I want to surprise my audiences. I don’t want to be stagnant or be typecast.

Looking back on Iewduh, I would say that it is different from what I have done. It has been a big challenge, but also a nice experience altogether. Things will be more difficult now for us in terms of what we want to do next.

Onataah (2016).

Filmmakers from the North East are often lumped together even though they are making films on different subjects and in different styles. How do you react to this labelling?
This labelling happens only in India. When we travel outside, our films become Indian films.

I don’t understand why this happens. Whether it is from the North East or anywhere else, the story and content are what matter. The screenings at Busan were very touching. I realised that the emotions are the same everywhere.

I cannot generalise – after all, I was a part of Bollywood too. I worked with Ajay Devgn Films on the film Raju Chacha, and I was also a part of the Telugu film industry. But that doesn’t mean I have to make the same kinds of films. Every filmmaker has his own way of telling stories. You may learn the techniques, but at the end of the day, it’s all about your own approach and your style of telling stories.

How will Iewduh be distributed?
Funding remains a challenge, but somehow, I have always been lucky in this regard.

These days, it has become very easy to make a film, but the problem is with the release. Both of my previous films were released in Shillong, which has three movie theatres.

It’s not about theatrical distribution for me. It is more important that I travel with my films. I go from village to village to screen my films. The person who is putting his money into my production must get it back.

We are planning to release Iewduh on November 15. I am very lucky to have a producer who is also a distributor, and he is planning a pan-Indian release. After Christmas, I will be travelling with the film.

Pradip Kurbah.