When Hansel and Gretel Live in a Bus: Paakhi A. Tyrewala’s ‘Pahuna: The Little Visitors’

There is something heartening about adults sitting in a theater on a cold Sunday afternoon, waiting to watch a “children’s” film. We start off by telling ourselves that we are in it for the “feel good,” and before we know it, we are laughing and crying with the little protagonists, merrily on the bus back to childhood.

Paakhi A. Tyrewala’s Pahuna: The Little Visitors is a fairytale-like story of seven and eight-year-old siblings, Amrita and Pranay, and their infant brother Bishal. It charts their journey of having to run away from Nepal, then living by themselves in an abandoned bus in Pelling, located in India’s north-eastern state of Sikkim, ’till they make it to their own little happy ending. In their journey away and back home, Amrita and Pranay are almost like Hansel and Gretel, who have left home but now don’t see a way back.

Pahuna is a Sikkimese film, which is a first of sorts. Sikkim existed as an independent Buddhist kingdom until 1975, when the Indian Army deposed the monarchy and the kingdom became an Indian state. A contested land, eyed by India and China, Sikkim lies nestled in the Eastern Himalayas — abundant in flora and fauna, diverse in its small population and boasting of an 82% literacy rate, a number big enough to put India’s bigger and more “powerful” states to shame. In a country whose cinema is often just classified under the homogenous canopy of “Bollywood,” a film in Sikkimese is not only a welcome change but also a political reversal of existing canons. It is a small but eventful beginning, a small step towards a more inclusive “Indian” cinema.

Sikkim is the best setting for a fairy tale — every frame in the film is pretty much straight out of a postcard. It’s beautiful the way the camera works itself through the light mist and winds around the hair-pin bends of mountain roads. The prayer flags move slowly in the wind as sunlight seeps through the gaps between leaves. The monastery looms over the sleepy town where goats scuttle along the roadside. It is within this paradise that Amrita and Pranay build their own little world inside a broken bus, protecting it from the “child-eating” priest and avoiding the sight of the church where it is rumoured that they feed children until they get fat, before eating them up.

At one level, Pahuna is the stuff all our childhood dreams were made of — dreams of leaving this world of adults and living somewhere far away in a world where problems have a way of solving themselves. There is always enough food, and when there isn’t, we can always help graze goats, help a nice neighbourhood lady pass her idle time and get paid in bottles of milk and packets of noodles. Then we cook them in a makeshift stove, wash our dishes by a waterfall and then sleep by the light of tinkling fairy lights. Pahuna is the dream we have all dreamt when we were kids, a dream that runs smoothly through rainbows and sunshine ’till one day the adults discover us and decide to intervene, only to turn everything upside-down. Amrita, Pranay and Bishal live our dreams until an adult comes out of nowhere and drives away the derelict bus we have built our little world in.

At a deeper level, for us adults, Pahuna is a reality check, a question we are uncomfortable answering. It asks us and our governments about the world we are leaving behind for the future generations. It questions the future of a world torn apart by insurgency. It forces us into a inner dialogue wherein we question our actions and hold ourselves responsible for militarising so many childhoods, for being unable to find solutions to problems we have created. Nepal fought an armed civil war for a whole decade between 1996 and 2006, wherein the government was at war with Maoist-Communist rebels. A war that has killed more than 19,000 people still continues to be a threat to the lives of people living in the country, especially in the jungles and the countryside. This has forced families to disband and flee to India, specifically into the adjoining Indian state of Sikkim. Through the utopia of the siblings, Pahuna attempts to form questions and ask us on what grounds we can go on robbing children like Amrita, Pranay and Bishal of their childhoods. It asks for an introspection on the future we are creating — a world where children are brought into equations of commerce and money too soon, a world that forcefully pulls children out of their childhoods and makes them premature adults.

The nightmare of gunshots the film begins with compounds itself with stories of the yeti and of priests who eat children, before settling into the idyllic calm of the Pelling landscape. Then it appears again — and through the terror of estrangement and fear of being eaten up, Amrita and Pranay finally find their happy ending. They find it only by being courageous, hopeful and ever so brave in the face of fear. Pahuna ends on a note of hope, on a note of a “happily ever after…” But this time around, there is no fairy godmother. There are just adults, like us, who have the responsibility to nurture the innocence that makes our world a better place, to clean up and make this world a more welcome place for these little visitors. And they have the grave duty of keeping hope and happy endings alive.

This article is the second in a series about films from the India north-east being shown at the Museum of the Moving Image’s India Kaleidoscope Film Festival in New York City.

Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.