Pahuna director Paakhi Tyrewala talks about directing Priyanka Chopra's maiden Sikkimese production

Devansh Sharma

December 07, 2018 16:51:29 IST

Paakhi Tyrewala's first tryst with direction was on her husband Abbas Tyrewala's directorial debut Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. Though she was not married to Abbas then and was only a casting director, she went on to direct the title song sequence.

"I knew I could do it. Then I directed a short film called Kajal to see if I could hold a story. But I must say it felt like a cakewalk when I directed Pahuna," says Paakhi, in an exclusive interview to Firstpost.

A still from Pahuna

A still from Pahuna

Pahuna: The Little Visitors is a critically acclaimed Sikkimese film which has travelled across the world to multiple film festivals. A children's film that stars a Sikkimese boy and girl as the leads, Pahuna found one of its co-producers in Priyanka Chopra, who wants to promote new talent and regional cinema. Paakhi just happened to be the right mix.

"I knew that if I make Avi Vs Avi before Pahuna and it doesn't work, no one will ever give me money for my second film. But if it works, no one will let me make a Pahuna. Pahuna had to be my first film because once you enter that whirlwind of commercial cinema, it's very difficult to come back to such a film," says Paakhi, explaining why the innocence of a first-time filmmaker was imperative for a children's film like Pahuna.

Pahuna is also Paakhi's love letter to Sikkim, where she spent many years of her life as the North Eastern zonal head of Art of Living. "It was my first experience of being away from my home, my mother. But the people in Sikkim were so gracious and lovely that I never felt alienated. Despite the freezing temperatures and difficult terrain, they would always smile at you. It's also such a beautiful state! It's the first organic, plastic-free state. The literacy rate is very high and crime rate negligible. They're all busy making a small heaven for themselves," says Paakhi.

She adds that unlike several other states, the government of Sikkim has no qualms in acknowledging the problems that plague their land. "The chief minister (Pawan Kumar Chamling) is a visionary. He was aware that the state suffers from very high rates of suicide and drugs consumption. He came to me asking if I could help in any way. So this (Pahuna) is my way to give back to Sikkim and is a part of the larger mission to connect Sikkim with the rest of India. We got AR Rahman on board as the brand ambassador of Sikkim tourism. We'll soon have a fundraiser concert there since music is in their blood. Getting Priyanka there was also a way to have all these people who can help the state. They really need us," says Paakhi.

Paakhi had initially approached the Children's Film Society of India (CFSI) to help her finance the film along with the state government. But since it is a government organisation, the development took its own sweet time to take place. In the meantime, she approached Priyanka and Madhu Chopra's Purple Pebble Pictures. "Somebody told me Priyanka doesn't want to invest in Hindi films. She wants to promote regional cinema. I approached Mrs (Madhu) Chopra, who is as much a visionary and really the force behind her daughter. She loved the story and passed it on to Priyanka. Priyanka was fascinated to find that it's the first completely indigenous film. Sikkim has produced films before but they mostly outsourced actors from Nepal. This was the first native Sikkimese film."

A still from Pahuna

A still from Pahuna

Pahuna is slated to release on 7 December, merely days after Priyanka's wedding to Hollywood pop star Nick Jonas. But Paakhi never feared that Priyanka the brand will eclipse Priyanka the producer and take away from eyeballs from her film.

"Pahuna has a destiny of her own. That's why it has travelled so much. All these things (buzz around the wedding) may subside but I'm sure this film will live for a long time," she says, adding that Priyanka left no stone unturned in promoting the film. "In fact, a few days after her wedding, she's going to visit Sikkim for the Indian premiere of Pahuna. That was her idea. She's also the most non-interfering producer. Even when I changed the two children at the last minute because they started looking a bit older, she fully supported me."

Once Priyanka was on board, money ceased to be an issue. Paakhi mentions the language barrier was also easy to tackle. "I had a translator on set, who has also written the Sikkimese dialogues in the film. I just had to convey the tone to the children and they grasped very quickly." The shoot was a task but the spirit of Sikkim allowed them to overcome it. "There was just no food! Because the people of Assam were not equipped to provide us as they hadn't seen a 120-member crew before. By the time the food would reach us, it'd be cold," she says, laughing. But to see the local people smile through the harsh terrain lifted their spirits.

Paakhi recalls the most arduous task was to manage the children. "I had to protect them from exploitation but also had to get them to work. I was committed to finish the film on time but they would get sleepy at night. Since a major chunk of our shoot was at night, I could bribe them with a chocolate. But I chose to stop the shoot instead. I was very conscious that we can't shoot beyond a certain point. Now, doing that would've either made them brats or made them responsible. Thank god it paid off and they became more responsible. There was also a four-month baby that we shot with. He was the most difficult to handle. There'd be times where I'd be tending to him while directing my camera person on the frame. I know how it's to have kids now," says Pakhi, rolling her eyes animatedly.

She confesses that it was equally difficult to make the children cry. "Glycerin wasn't an option as it hurts. I had to get them to an enabling point. So I trained them how to use certain experiences to make crying easier. It was certainly not easy," she says. But she maintains that her intention was always to show how beautiful, good-looking and pure the children of India are, rather than to pander to the West's idea of poverty porn.

"I remember going to a film festival where they said India has made only five great children's films outside the area of poverty porn - Taare Zameen Par, Makdee, Masoom, Mr India and Pahuna. It was heartening because I was very clear that I didn't have to sell my country to them by projecting it according to their perception. Sikkim is as much a reality as the slums of Mumbai. Pahuna is as much a children's film as Salaam Bombay or Slumdog Millionaire," she says, narrating how a passer-by in Canada (where Pahuna was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival) congratulated her for making a film that made him think without making him feel guilty.

While Kajal was a dark film about an exploited wife getting back at her abusive husband, Pahuna deals with the issue of displacement and religious disparity. Though both films are tonally poles apart, they are uplifting in their own right. "I wanted to make Pahuna like a fairy tale. I've been an Art of Living teacher since I was 16 and happiness is all I've known all my life. Also, I didn't want to make people guilty about their actions. I just wanted them to realise what they've been doing to their children and say, 'Okay, let's not do this anymore'. I want to tell the most difficult stories in the simplest of ways," says Paakhi.

All images from YouTube.

Updated Date: Dec 07, 2018 16:51 PM