Pakhi Tyrewala, who began her career as an actress and starred in such films as Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai (2002) and Jhootha Hi Sahi (2010), has now taken to direction. Her debut feature film Pahuna: The Little Visitors entered cinemas today, after doing a round of various film festivals across the globe. Produced by global star Priyanka Chopra under Purple Pebble Pictures, the movie tells a heart-warming tale three kids who get separated from their family while coming from Nepal to Sikkim. Recently, our Mumbai correspondent, Mohnish Singh, caught up with Pakhi at Purple Pebble Pictures’ swanky office for a freewheeling chat. In this interview, the writer-director opens up about what inspired her to make Pahuna, how did she manage to collaborate with Priyanka Chopra and her production house, and how does it feel to receive such overwhelming response at film festivals.

Tell us something about your film Pahuna: The Little Visitors. What is it all about?

Pahuna is a film about three kids who get separated from their family while coming from Nepal to Sikkim. There is certain unrest; we never specify what the unrest is. It could be anything. The movie follows how they survive without their parents.

What inspired you to make this movie?

Actually, real life! If you see, this is happening everywhere. People are getting displaced, may it be India, may it be Syria, may it be Mexico. Everywhere the same thing is happening and kids are the ones who suffer the most. Kids always suffer and the lies that we tell like this person is bad because he belongs to this community or so and so is evil because he believes in another God. What are we doing to our children? And that is the question that Pahuna asks. It’s not a very heavy or preachy film; it’s an entertaining film, but it does leave you thinking a little.

How did the collaboration with Priyanka Chopra’s production house Purple Pebble Pictures happen?

Oh! It was amazing. I had already been rejected by some 9 producers. Sikkim government had already agreed to take care of all the logistics or anything that we would spend in Sikkim, but nobody was ready to put the rest of the money. I didn’t want to make it a regional film; I wanted to make it an international film and everybody rejected me because it was a Sikkimese film, children film, first time director, women director. Then somebody told me about Purple Pebble Pictures that they were pushing regional films. When I reached out to them, they were very receptive to the script. They sent the script to Priyanka Chopra and she saw the vision that I had.

What made you base your film in Sikkim and not anywhere else in India?

For me, making this film was not only about making a film; it’s also about mainstreaming Sikkim to mainline India. If you actually asked, about three years back, about Sikkim to people, they would invariably ask if a passport is needed to go there. We wanted to change that and I can proudly say that Priyanka Chopra has changed that.

People have a certain mindset towards the people of Northeast India. How do you expect to broaden their thinking?

That’s why we made this film. See, they are crazy about Bollywood, they love to be Indians when they come over here and people ask them, ‘Chinese? Korean?’ they feel hurt. So, we are hoping that we can take this film to our children and they know that even if they are Mongolian to look at, they are still Indian and the next generation doesn’t end up calling them derogatory racist slang. We are hoping to change that. They are Indians.

Do you think Northeast India is really marginalised?

Absolutely, how much are they represented in the parliament? Two seats and that’s it. They are not important because of that, but as time is changing, Northeast India is also changing. I will give credit to our Prime Minister Narendra Modi; his biggest attempt is to mainstream Northeast India. He is trying really hard. That is one thing good about it that they are really working towards mainstreaming northeast and that’s why this film has been supported by the central government also.

How did you come to cast such adorable kids in the movie?

These kids are special because they can act so beautifully and they were so professional. They can make any actor look like a child compared to them and I found them by God’s grace. The kids I had initially chosen for the roles grew up in 6 months and these kids were not my first choice because they were so tiny when we first auditioned. By the time I started shooting, they were perfect.

When did you write the film?

I wrote the story 10-12 years back, but the final script I wrote just before 2016.

How are Priyanka Chopra and Dr Madhu Chopra as producers?

They are extremely hands-on producers but not interfering ones. They give solid good advice but always left the last choice to me. Dr Chopra is like a pillar. She has seen me through this whole process; she has taken me internationally to every place and she was by my side, truly holding hands. So, I have a really solid relationship with her.

Why did you choose to make the movie in Nepalese?

It wouldn’t do justice if it was in Hindi. See, as I said I wanted to tell their stories and if I tell their stories not using their language then it’s not their story at all. Though I don’t know Nepali, I made the effort because it is worth it to tell people’s story in their own language.

When did you decide to go behind the camera and helm a film?

I was writing already. I had shifted from acting and wanted to make my film. I was almost going to sign the contract on a romantic-comedy film, but then I remembered my promise to myself that my first film is going to be in Sikkim and I remembered Pahuna. It struck me that if I make this rom-com right now and if it’s a hit everybody is going to expect me to make another hit, every other producer would say that, ‘Why would I produce Pahuna when you have already made a commercial hit.’ Though if I flopped, there is no way anybody is giving me money to make a regional film in Sikkimese after I flopped at making a commercial film. So, I realized I have to put my romantic-comedy on hold. The producers were very upset with me and I started the journey on Pahuna.

Any future projects that you can tell us about?

I have already signed another film; it’s a political thriller. Again, because I think it’s an autobiography of a very strong person and I think her story is needed to be told. So, even though it’s going to be super difficult and scary it still needs to be told. The film would be in the Hindi language.

How did it feel to win so many international awards for your debut film Pahuna?

It was awesome. We had already gone through 3-4 festivals before we went to Germany, in the competitive section. This was the first festival we were competing in and when I got the critics award I was like ok, made sense because I always believed that Pahuna was about children and not for children. So, when I got that award, I understood, it was a film for adult and they get my nuances. I was completely humbled when I got the popular award because the jury was 14 children from 14 different countries and they said it was a unanimous decision. Within that speech, they told me what they loved about the film. It was the equality between two genders they loved, they understood the loss of money, they understood displacement, they understood the pain, they understood the teamwork and I was truly humbled. You think that children won’t be able to understand everything that I can think of but they got it.