Making a dream: The inside story of Arunachal's viral ‘Wancho Warrior'

Rana Pratap Saikia

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Itanagar: Despite the state's breathtaking beauty, films hardly get made in Arunachal Pradesh. Therefore, it came as a surprise when the trailer of an upcoming Arunachali film – ‘Nawmai – The Wancho Warrior’ – started doing the rounds on social media. Comments seemed to suggest that people want to see authentic stories from the Northeast's lands told with the stylistic flair of Hollywood. 

When Business North East reached out to Jovi Wangsa, the man behind the viral clips, we learned that the road was not easy for him.

Despite studying to become a doctor, Wangsa, 40, had always dreamt of making a movie one day, he stated during a freewheeling conversation. As fascinating as Wangsa’s movie and the trailer are, equally intriguing is how it was made over 5 long years amid financial shortages.

Over the last decade, Wangsa had to teach himself the nitty-gritty of filmmaking – writing, direction, colour correction, visual effects - as he never formally studied the subject. He did this primarily by watching videos on YouTube. “I wanted to master the basics as I feel many filmmakers from our region are not technically proficient; I wanted to learn more so that I could properly communicate my vision to my crew.”

After completing his Bachelor’s in Homoeopathic Medicine and Surgery (BHMS) from Delhi University and working for a few years there, Wangsa flew to Dubai to work at a medicine company. In Dubai, Wangsa was able to save a sizable sum of money which instilled in him the belief that he could still make it as a filmmaker.

“When I sent in my resignation, the company wanted me to stay – they were willing to offer a raise. My friends asked me why I wanted to leave the job”, Wangsa shared with BNE. “However, I defended my decision; I told them that filmmaking was all that I had ever wanted to do since I was in the second standard.”

In 2017, Wangsa flew back from Dubai and immediately envisioned ‘Nawmai – The Wancho Warrior’, a story about two warring villages practicing the headhunting ritual that had a dash of romance. The head hunting custom among tribes in the Northeast, primarily in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, has often fascinated archaeologists. Wangsa’s film has already drawn parallels to Mel Gibson’s 2006 action-epic ‘Apocalypto’ known for its depiction of ancient customs in the Mayan empire.

To make the kind of film he wanted, Wangsa knew he needed to raise more money.

“All along, I was very clear in my vision - I wanted to make the film professionally”, he said. “After coming back home, I privately sought money from my friends and acquaintances. I knocked on doors of the state government and several departments to no avail; I was told that Arunachal Pradesh does not have a film industry and separate funds are not allocated for that.”

Wangsa is largely correct. However, the frontier state did witness significant strides in cinema last year. The Galo feature film ‘The Redemption’ directed by Hali Welly clinched 12 awards in the international and national film circuits. Millo Sunka became the first Arunachalee actor to win an international best actress award when she won at the Prisma Rome International Film Awards in Italy last March. A year earlier, Arunachal actor Paalin Kabak's performance was seen as one of the bright spots in the Bollywood werewolf drama 'Bhediya', largely shot in the state.

Eventually, Wangsa was able to secure around Rs 50 lakh, mostly from his savings and through loans from well-wishers. To shoot the film, he chose the locales of Longding district bordering Assam - a place as beautiful as any to be found in the world.

For his crew, Wangsa chose wedding photographers and videographers from Charaideo district in Assam across the inter-state border. The neighbouring state's lavish weddings are characterized by elaborate cinematic videos and there is a thriving industry for this. For actors, Wangsa chose men and women from villages who were "just excited to be part of a film project", he told us.

“My actors come from all walks of life – some are farmers, some are businessmen”, revealed Wangsa. “They boosted my morale throughout the project through their enthusiasm.” However, shooting got delayed at times because the actors were not professionals and had personal business to attend to. “There were times when they would tell me they were heading to Dibrugarh for work when I called them for shoots”, Wangsa laughed. Dibrugarh, across the border, is seen a major commercial hub by residents of both Assam and Arunachal.

In addition to the financial issues, Wangsa also had to deal with logistical issues and harsh climatic conditions of the region which often delayed shoots. The Covid-19 pandemic during 2020-21 and state elections did not help much either.

 “We were able to shoot only during winters as most of our scenes were to be shot outdoors”, Wangsa said. “Had we shot during summers, we would have had to deal with slippery land, incessant rainfall, and the elaborate tribal tattoos on the actors’ bodies getting washed away."

Ever since production began, utmost care went into crafting detailed sequences and realistic action scenes that would form the backbone of Wangsa's film. The men behind the cameras, plucked from the wedding photography scene, became experts in their own right as shooting dragged on, asserts Wangsa.

The first teaser for the project released in December 2018 received wild applause. The response to the second trailer, released after 5 long years, was even more enthusiastic. Across social platforms, the clip has been viewed millions of times, reveals Wangsa, who has been keenly keeping tabs.

“At long last, we have entered post-production", Wangsa said. "Due to the viral success of our teasers, expectations have soared high and we want to ensure that we can deliver a product that lives up to people's expectations."

In the Northeast, Wangsa has set a tentative release date in April and believes he could book showings in metros if the response is good. "Not just Arunachal - we are hoping for good receipts and big word-of-mouth from the other states, especially Assam which has the highest number of screens."

Will Wangsa's big gamble pay off? The future will tell us.

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Rana Pratap Saikia