EXCLUSIVE: Producers weren’t keen at all to make a film about northeast Indians, says ‘Chilli Chicken’ director Prateek Prajosh

South First caught up with Prateek Prajosh, ahead of this unconventional ‘pan-India’ film's theatrical release on 21 June, for a chat.

BySwaroop Kodur

Published Jun 21, 2024 | 9:55 AM Updated Jun 21, 2024 | 2:41 PM

Prateek Prajosh has previously made documentaries, short films and even worked as a creative producer for a major Bollywood studio. (Supplied)

It takes a village, they say, to raise and care for a dream, and in Prateek Prajosh’s case—that dream traverses many villages to be finally realised. The debut filmmaker, with experience in documentaries, short films, and as a creative producer for a prominent Bollywood studio, makes a notable entry, with the intriguing feature, Chilli Chicken, scheduled for theatrical release on Friday, 21 June.

Chilli Chicken, a name that refers to a popular non-vegetarian delicacy and is also a racial slur used against people of northeast India, is a film set in a Bengaluru Indo-Chinese eatery and attempts to trace the many dimensions—the good, the bad, and the ugly— of migrant life in a big, bustling city.

While it is a Kannada film at first glance, its ethos includes cultures, languages, and perceptions from all over the country. Prateek Prajosh says that he was inspired by a real-life incident that took place in 2014 in Bengaluru to weave a film out of it.

His empathy and curiosity towards the treatment of migrants in major Indian cities (especially of those from northeast India)—alongside his deep affection for his childhood summer home, Bengaluru—are at the heart of Chilli Chicken. The film strives to both educate and captivate its audience through engaging and entertaining storytelling.

Here are the excerpts from an interview:

Q: How did Chilli Chicken materialise?

A: My previous attempts to make a Telugu feature and then one in Tamil hadn’t panned out well. The Telugu film, which I had directed from start to finish, remains unreleased to date, whereas the producers of the Tamil feature, because of increasing budgets, chose to go with a different filmmaker at the last minute. So, since I had gotten rejected by multiple industries, I figured why not try my luck in Kannada cinema as well. (laughs)

I was given the idea of Chilli Chicken by my music composer Siddharth Sundar in 2015 and it has stayed with me since then. My co-writer KAS (who is the main writer of the film, in fact) and I decided to develop it full-fledged during the pandemic and we have been trying since 2021 to get it off the ground.

A still from 'Chilli Chicken'. (Supplied)

A still from ‘Chilli Chicken’. (Supplied)

Q: Which aspect of that incident inspired you to make a film?

A: Around 2014-15, there was a noticeable underlying attitude from city dwellers towards northeast India, though it wasn’t openly expressed. However, we didn’t consider turning it into a film until the pandemic hit and discrimination against northeast people escalated dramatically. They were unfairly blamed for the virus and faced increased bullying.

That’s when I felt that we must tell this story because the treatment towards them was grossly unfair. KAS then gave the idea a solid structure and together, we were able to form a script out of it.

We researched extensively, of course, to arrive at the story. Together, we spoke to several people and that too from all strata of society—from waiters, watchmen, artists, and people who ran NGOs, and welfare organisations to those who worked in the corporate sector—to understand their experiences. Those real-life events helped us with the script but it was mainly born out of empathy and curiosity.

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Shrunga BV (extreme left) with Jimpa Sangpo Bhutia and other cast members. (Supplied)

Shrunga BV (extreme left) with Jimpa Sangpo Bhutia and other cast members. (Supplied)

Q: We assume it was still quite tough to put it together? Given the pan-India crew, the slew of actors from Manipur, Assam, and other regions, and the general independent ethos of the film.

A: Quite true. Nobody wanted to take a chance on it because of the faces in the film. Initially, I remember someone saying to me that I was making a Shaolin Soccer (2001) kind of movie. Producers weren’t keen at all to make a film about northeast Indians and their conundrums but interestingly, our film tries to address just that.

And when you approach a bigger or more popular actor, their reaction would be that this story is a bit too off-beat, artsy, niche, and whatnot. A lot of producers and actors—regardless of the industry—who have been in the business for a while feel that they know cinema in and out, and sometimes they don’t spot the conviction in you, the filmmaker, to tell this unconventional story.

So, producing partner Deep Bhimajiyani and I eventually decided to set up a production house in Bengaluru, and managed to raise funds (a small amount, mind you) through people who had nothing to do with producing films. The money was given to me with a lot of trust and that’s how we executed the film. The positive of all this is that I had complete creative control.

Q: Would you have preferred a more ‘popular’ actor to lead this film?

A: No, because the way I look at it is that, if you cast a well-known face for a story such as this, they will tend to change the script to make them look like the hero in the end. I wanted to avoid falling into that White Saviour Complex trap that we see so often in Hollywood films. We are trying to tell a very human story here and that’s why I avoided going to the stars.

Bijou Thaangjam in 'Chilli Chicken'. (Supplied)

Bijou Thaangjam in ‘Chilli Chicken’. (Supplied)

Q: Can you take me through how the casting process happened?

A: Manso Re’s 19.20.21 (2023) had just been released when I was on the lookout for the lead of my film. Simultaneously, Aachar & Co (2023) director Sindhu Sreenivasa Murthy, a close friend of mine, urged me to watch Manso Re’s film because she had read the script and felt that Shrunga BV would fit the part.

Even though I hadn’t watched the film during the casting process, the trailer alone grabbed my attention almost immediately. And it all fell in place in one sitting.

As far as the Manipuri, Assamese, and other actors are concerned, we didn’t have the luxury of a casting director, so, our process mostly included a lot of stalking on social media. That’s how I found Bijou Thaangjam, who has been part of many Hindi shows and films including Aspirants (2021), Rocketry: The Nambi Effect (2022), and others.

Luckily for us, Bijou is a former Master Chef India contestant and since he was to play the head chef in the film, it was a total jackpot for us. And then he would go on to recommend a few actors and he was even incredibly kind to hold auditions in Manipur for us.

Q: It was smooth sailing after that?

A: Oh, certainly not. There were many, many logistical challenges that we encountered. First, Manipur was riddled with problems at the time. It was a near state of emergency there with riots, power outages, lockdowns and so much more. But somehow, the actors snuck out and reached the sets just when we were growing apprehensive about delaying the shoot.

Once they reached, there were other types of problems in that we needed the actors to learn Kannada for the film. We had an amazing dialect coach and along with my associate director, they hammered down the lines.

The dubbing was such a tricky process because Manipuri and Kannada dialects are vastly different—the actors did struggle a lot and things did get a little sense, but we somehow pulled through. These are some of the many other hurdles we faced.

Q: It is pretty clear from everything you say that nothing about this film—the casting, the production, and the story itself—is conventional. How does one go about making a film outside the framework of a major industry? What does it take for a debut filmmaker to realise their story?

A: Beyond anything else, it’s stubbornness. You are essentially operating along the boundaries of the film industry, largely at an independent level. So, you have to pull favours to get the best for your film (at a nominal fee) but everyone came on board, in the case of Chilli Chicken, because they found conviction in the story.

And technicians, too, are equally starved or hungry to work on a film that’s different so, as an independent filmmaker, your biggest support is the script that you carry; everyone, sort of, takes a chance on you.

Also, you will have to be borderline delusional to some extent to set out on this path. Passion and other emotions tend to fizzle out because the challenge of making a film is so enormous that you have to be stubborn to see it through. Every day you face a defeat but you come back to it because you are not done yet.

(Edited by S Subhakeerthana)

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