A documentary made by a French filmmaker looks at life in Majuli river island in Assam, finds Utpal Borpujari
With most of it under the waters thanks to the mighty Brahmaputra’s annual flood fury, the Majuli island does not have much to rejoice about right now.
One of the world’s largest riverine islands, Majuli has, in fact, been in news in recent years for all the wrong reasons. The Government of India has been repeatedly unsuccessful in getting it the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag. It has been the site of ULFA’s killing of social activist Sanjoy Ghose over a decade ago. And its very survival has become a big question mark with the Brahmaputra steadily eroding it away to reduce it to about 875 sq km from over 1,100 square km in the early 19th century.
But this seat of Assam’s Vaishnavaite culture has also been attracting the world’s positive attention because of its Satras, as the numerous Vaishnavaite monastries in Assam are called, its rich ethnography, culture and biodiversity. And it is this aspect that forms the core of Dans Les Brumes de Majuli (In the Mist of Majuli), a vibrant, 52-minute documentary by French filmmaker Emmanuelle Petit.
Interwoven with the story of writer Nadine Delpech, who spent around seven years in the river island soaking up its cultural richness, the film, in fact, germinated from her book L’île aux moines danseurs on the “Sattriya” or monastic traditions of the “Sattras” (monastries) that grew out of the teachings of 15th century saint-social reformer-poet-playwright Srimanta Sankardeva.
Made for French TV channel French 5 and screened at the Etonnants Travellers Festival at Saint-Malo, the documentary has acted as an eye-opener about the island and its heritage to the French, says its producer Jean-Pierre Devorsine of Via Decouvertes Production. “In fact, I am told that even in India, not many know about Majuli’s rich culture,” says Devorsine, who himself was fascinated to learn about the boy monks at the Sattras who practice the Sattriya form of dance and religious dance dramas known as Bhaona.
“Delpech was mesmerised by the life in Majuli, whether it was of these monks or of the peasants who survive fighting nature’s annual fury in the form of floods. She approached me with the proposal to get the film made because she had seen an earlier film made by us on Tibetan monks,” says Devorsine.
The film talks about the lifestyle of the monks that is “reminiscent of the Middle Ages”. It describes them as “astonishingly beautiful” artists and “magnificent” dancers who create enchanting performances. It depicts how the monks have created their own social structure of a family under which an adult monk adopts a child of around six years of age, whom he cares for and raises, at the same time looking after the elderly “father” who raised him. This unique “family” is completely devoted to practising the Sattriya culture and tradition.
Written by Delpech and Petit, the film recreates to some extent Delpech’s visit to Majuli and explores the island its people through her eyes. “I am sure this film will find wide appreciation across the world and also in India, whenever it is shown,” says Devorsine. “Of course, it is an outsider’s point of view, so we are presenting it as a film seen through a traveller’s eyes, touching upon the cultural and ethnographic aspects as also the devastation caused by the Brahmaptura there,” he says.
Petit and her French crew had to overcome quite a few obstacles too, while making the film, most of it arising out of the communication gap – they spoke French and the locals spoke only Assamese. “We would be at a total loss if the interpreter was not present during the shoot for even a moment,” she shares. Incidentally, the film’s 1,50,000-Euro budget was raised from France 5, the regional government, an author-producer association called Procirep and the National Centre for Cinematography (CNC) of Paris.
Its makers, after the successful screenings in France, are hoping that they would be soon able to screen it also in India, and particularly in Majuli.
(An abridged version of this was carried in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com, 12-09-2008)