Before the screening of his Nagamese-Hindi film Nani Teri Morni at the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival in Guwahati on Thursday, director Akashaditya Lama took to the stage to warn his audience that the film was produced by the Children’s Film Society of India, and was intended for a target audience of children between the ages of 5 and 10. The disclaimer, however, turned out to be gratifyingly unnecessary. It was a film compelling and entertaining enough that no matter who it was intended for, there was really nothing to stop an adult from enjoying it, although some elements were clearly added to appeal to the children.
The film is based on the real-life story of the youngest recipient of the National Bravery Award in 2015, eight-year-old Mhonbeni Ezung from Nagaland. Mhonbeni, played in this movie by the delightful Zinen Nilo Kant, was fishing with her grandmother at a river in Chudi village in Wokha when her grandmother suffered sudden cramps, then a stroke, and fell unconscious in the river. Mhonbeni dragged her grandmother out of the river, then ran 7 kilometres through a dense jungle to get help and save her.
Nani Teri Morni is narrated by Mhonbeni’s grandmother, and begins by talking about how young Mhonbeni loved hearing stories, often the same story again and again. One of her favourites was the story of Ranchan, a brave tribal leader who single-handedly fought off a man-eating tiger to save his tribe, which had given up on him, and moved to another village.
The device of the story-telling grandmother allows the film to segue neatly from Mhonbeni’s life into depicting these mythological and historical stories, which speak of Naga traditions and bravery, the kind that inspired young Mhonbeni in her times of trouble.
At BVFF, director Akashaditya Lama said that much of the movie’s 10 lakh budget was spent on travelling to remote, jungled locations, and also on the VFX that helped ease the film’s transitions between Mhonbeni’s life, the recounting of old Naga legends and the dark magic unleashed by the witch, Miss Dar-Ku-La.
Miss Dar-Ku-La (“Bring Me Fear”) is one of the most intriguing additions to the story of Mhonbeni, but her hook-nosed perfection is unfortunately tarnished slightly by her dwarfed assistant, Chhota Paapi. Miss Dar-Ku-La is rumoured to live in the jungle that Mhonbeni runs through to save her grandmother, and rumour has it that she fills her belly with the fear (and flesh) of young children. Instead of her grandmother suffering a cramp, as in Mhonbeni’s true story, Miss Dar-Ku-La turns up at the river and casts a spell, causing a stone to trap the grandmother’s feet.
Dar-Ku-La encounters Mhonbeni running through the forest, and they get into a creepy altercation. While Dar-Ku-La splits into three eery musical-instrument-playing apparitions, Mhonbeni channels the power of her favourite legendary character, the brave Ranchan, who gives her the courage to fight off Dar Ku La’s magic.
But of course, we are all tired of seeing dwarves like Dar Ku La’s assistant Chota Paapi continuing to be cast in movies in 2018 as demonic henchmen or the butt of jokes that didn’t need to be made, especially in this film, the substance and plot of which could have done without the tired stereotype. But given the fact that Miss Dar-Ku-La and her evil sidekick are the only characters in this Nagamese movie that speak Hindi, the pair still feel gleeful and satisfying, like a subtle but pointed political comment on Naga identity, and the positioning of mainland Hindi and India in relation to it.
This children's film could have also easily done without a tiny scene where Mhonbeni and her cousin complain to their grandmother about their cousin Gomgom troubling and scaring them. Her grandmother’s response is the rehashing of that dangerous and troubling stereotype that “boys will be boys”, and “anyway, boys only tease and hurt girls they secretly like”. She tells the children how a boy used to follow her around and trouble her too, and when they ask her what she did to him, she responds that she ended up marrying him.
But you see, the belief that boys bully the young girls they “like” isn’t a cute or amusing stereotype, but one that fits too neatly into the fact that boys can hurt the girls they’re romantically involved with, and the rest of us should just let it happen as the natural and private course of lovers. Considering that it's these ideas that eventually make us accept domestic violence and intimate partner violence as normal, there's no reason not to call out such an instance in an otherwise enjoyable and beautifully made children's film.
Aside from these two quibbles though, Nani Teri Morni is endlessly enjoyable, and an exciting addition to the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival’s rare, intriguing and eclectic lineup focusing on films and directors from the North East. You can see that Nani Teri Morni has given particular weight to beauty and meaningful shots, like the scene where Mhonbeni’s grandmother fries a freshly caught fish on a quickly made fire by the icy coursing river, or the cleverly taken shot of a tribe dancing around a fire in unison.
Nani Teri Morni will hold particular appeal for you if you’re from Nagaland, but it also does if you aren’t: the stories and traditions are conveyed in an intriguing way that only makes you want to immediately go home and fall into an Internet click hole about Naga tribes, history, culture and traditions.
And if all of this still isn’t enough to satisfy you, any movie watcher will find respite in the diminutive, adorable and shockingly talented child actor, five-year-old Zinen Nilo Kant. When you’re dealing with an actor this young, you know that their onscreen presence can only be the result of pure, unbridled and natural talent, and her mature performance would probably put many adult Bollywood actors to shame.
If nothing else, Nani Teri Morni is worth the 45 minutes that it lasts for Zinen’s truly remarkable artistic restraint and grace.
As a children’s movie, 4.5 stars. For adults, maybe 4, because perhaps tiny biases appear clearer to adults than to children.