Utpal Borpujari

May 27, 2012

The Hills Have Eyes (Outlook Collector’s Edition/100 years of Indian Cinema)

By Utpal Borpujari

Cinema from the Northeast has mostly remained on the margins of Indian cinema, just like this most misunderstood region of India has been in the country’s consciousness. This, despite the fact that it has had a 77-year history of cinema, produced internationally feted filmmakers like Jahnu Barua and Aribam Syam Sharma, and given to the nation’s cinema personalities like Pramathesh Chandra Barua, S.D. Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Bhupen Hazarika, Danny Denzongpa and Seema Biswas.

Home to hundreds of ethnic communities speaking hundreds of dialects, this geographical swathe is like a tower of Babel. However, Assamese and Manipuri filmmakers have dominated the landscape for obvious reasons of having a slightly respectable viewer base. It is also here that cinema has acted as a platform—at least in the last three decades or so—to showcase ethno-cultural aspirations, no matter if such endeavours have been sure-shot recipes for financial disaster. How can one hope to recover the investment, let alone make profits, if a film is made in languages like Kokborok or Monpa, spoken by small tribes who inhabit areas where there are no cinema halls? But despite that, films have been made in these languages (spoken in parts of Tripura and Arunachal) as there has been cinema in languages like Bodo, Karbi, Mishing, Khasi and even Sadri, the lingua franca of the tea garden labourers of Jharkhand origin.

The history of cinema in northeastern India remains an unwritten one outside the region, barring one or two passing reference books on Indian cinema. Beyond film festival regulars, how many have seen films like Barua’s Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai (The Catastrophe), one of the most-travelled Indian films internationally, and a winner of the National award for Best Feature Film? It was made with a paltry budget of Rs 7 lakh but earned over Rs 1 crore in domestic and international sales (you will fall off the chair if you calculate the profits in percentage terms). Or heard about Sharma’s Ishanou, whose actress won a jury’s special mention at the Cannes Film Festival and whose selection to the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section of that festival in 1991 had elicited a headline to this effect in a ‘national’ English daily: ‘No Indian films in Cannes this year, but a Manipuri film makes the cut’!

The roots of cinema in Northeast India were implanted way, way back, on March 10, 1935. On that date the first Assamese film, indeed the first film from Northeast India, was released in the Raunaq cinema hall in Calcutta. The film was Joymoti, made by Assam’s freedom fighter-poet-playwright-lyricist-litterateur-and-composer Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, who learnt the basics of filmmaking in Berlin’s UFA Studios under Franz Ozten and Himanshu Rai. From a family that had its roots in faraway Rajasthan but had adapted the Assamese culture several generations before him, Jyotiprasad chose the nationalistic tale of Joymoti, a 16th century princess of Assam’s Ahom dynasty who was tortured to death for not revealing the whereabouts of her husband Gadapani, the rightful heir to the throne. It was probably India’s first go at realistic filmmaking, and thanks mainly to lack of venues to screen his film in Assam, the film was an unmitigated financial disaster. Jyotiprasad, in the absence of local talent, had hired Lahore’s Bhopal Chandra Mehta as his cinematographer, and had to carry the responsibilities of being the scriptwriter, producer, director, choreographer, editor, set designer, lyricist and music director of Joymoti.

Jyotiprasad’s film was based on the play Joymoti Kunwari by Sahityarathi Lakshminath Bezbaruah, one of Assam’s all-time literary giants, thereby starting a tradition of close links between cinema and literature, something that continues till date. Joymoti was also the maker’s tribute to Gandhiji’s passive resistance movement—a freedom fighter, he was an ardent follower of the Father of the nation. It also had a strong feminist viewpoint, unlike the male-dominated films being made in other parts of the country at that time.

Another Assamese who shone around the same time was Pramathesh Barua, the scion of the royal family of Gauripur, a quaint little town in Dhubri district of lower Assam. His exploits in the Indian cinema world are too well-known to be recounted here, but unfortunately, he never made a film in Assamese. The mid-1950s saw the emergence of composer-singer Bhupen Hazarika as a filmmaker too, with his directorial debut Era Bator Sur (Tunes from the Deserted Path) showcasing the musical genius in him. He went on to make films like Pratidhwani, Lotighoti and Chikmik Bijuli, each different in genre and thus reflecting Hazarika’s versatility.

It was in 1976 that the Northeast got its first film since Joymoti that followed a realistic style of storytelling. The film was Ganga Chilanir Pakhi, directed by Padum Barua. Based on a novel by Lakshmi Nandan Bora, the film showcased Barua’s remarkable grasp of the medium, presenting a realistic picture of rural Assam. Unfortunately, it failed at the box office. In 1977, Assamese cinema really caught the attention of the outside world through Sandhyarag of Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia, a physics professor, novelist and playwright who went on to make seven more films, including Agnisnaan, a powerful women’s rights story fixed in a feudal setting. But it was Jahnu Barua, who debuted in 1982 with the gentle love story Aparupa, starring Suhasini Mulay, who took Assamese cinema to great heights through Halodhiya… and Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (It’s a Long Way to the Sea).

Meanwhile, tiny Manipur, known more for its sports-crazy people, theatre legend Ratan Thiyam and, unfortunately, its innumerable insurgent groups was also making a mark in the reel world. The state saw its first film, Matamgee Manipur, in 1972 but carved its name on the world cinema map with A.S. Sharma’s Imagi Ningthem and Ishanou, both universal tales in ethnic settings. A state brimming with young cinematic talent, it is, however, yet to produce another filmmaker of the calibre of Sharma. But the young brigade has done the unthinkable by converting their film industry completely into a digital one to meet the challenge of closure of cinema halls. This followed a ban in the mid-1990s on Hindi films by an insurgent group, making celluloid filmmaking unviable. The state now produces around 60-70 digital feature films every year, all extremely low budget of course. And it is this bunch that, through a petition in the Gauhati High Court, got the I&B ministry to change the rules to make digital films eligible for the national film awards and Indian Panorama, opening the doors for low-budget films made in unheard-of languages to compete with others.

Unfortunately, despite filmmakers like Gautam Bora (who made the first Karbi-language film Wosobipo), Manju Borah, Bidyut Chakraborty, Sanjeev Hazarika, Jwngdao Bodosa (who has made several acclaimed Bodo films), Sanjib Sabhapandit and Joseph Pulinthanath (a Malayali settled in Tripura who has made two feature films in Kokborok) continuing to make realistic cinema, the Northeast is yet to have its ‘This is it’ moment, its own path-breaking Pather Panchali that will be counted among the world’s classics. But there’s hope, and despite the heavy odds it’s what the region’s filmmakers thrive on.

Cut 2 Cut

Top picks from the Northeast:

Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai (Assamese; Dir: Jahnu Barua): A tale of a small-time farmer’s fight to get his property and rights back with great performances. Indra Bania got the Best Actor award at the Locarno Film Festival.

Imagi Ningthem (Manipuri; Dir: Aribam Syam Sharma): A moving tale of a grandfather’s relationship with his grandson put Manipuri cinema on the world map.

Sandhyarag (Assamese; Dir: Dr B.N. Saikia): A young girl struggles with her aspirations in the backdrop of a rural-urban divide.

Agnisnaan (Assamese; Dir: Dr B.N. Saikia): Strong dialogues, superb characterisation. Still great viewing even 27 years after its making.

Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (Assamese; Dir: Barua): A debate on development couched in a grandpa-grandson story set in rural Assam.

Ishanou (Manipuri; Dir: Sharma): Uses the backdrop of folk traditions and a mother-son story to question how religion intrudes in one’s life.

Wosobipo (Karbi; Dir: Gautam Bora): His only feature film till date, it’s rich in visual details.

Adajya (Assamese; Dir: Santwana Bardoloi): Based on an Indira Goswami novel, a powerful portrayal of a woman who rebels against patriarchal societal norms.

(Published in Outlook Collector’s Edition on 100 Years of India Cinema, http://www.outlookindia.com, 04-06-2012)


May 18, 2012

NEthing, NEwhere: To be a Northeasterner (Part II)

By Utpal Borpujari


Recently, there was a three-day festival, the Northeast Junction, organised by web portal assamtimes.org at the capital’s Dilli Haat. Sometime back, the newly-formed Northeast cell of Hindu College had organised a Northeast cultural and food festival to encouraging response. A couple of years ago, the capital’s people got a sampling of Assam’s famed Bhramyoman theatres in the form of three nights of performance by Kohinoor Theatre, with many non-Assamese theatre enthusiasts in attendance. Screenings of films from the region attract a sizeable non-Northeastern crowd if the event is publicised well, as we had seen when the Assam Film (Finance & Development) Corporation had organised a festival of award-winning films from Assam a couple of years ago at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium. Jakoi in Assam Bhawan is one of the most written-about ethnic food restaurants in the capital, and others like Delicacy at Assam House, Nagaland’s Kitchen at Green Park Market, Bahi at Gurgaon, Kaziranga (for Assamese cuisine) and Bamboo Hut (Naga cuisine) in the Delhi University area in north Delhi are some of the outlets where people of Delhi are getting introduced to culinary delights from the Northeast, slowly but surely. This is apart from the state food stalls at Dilli Haat, which also offer reasonably good cuisine.
The point I am trying to make is that the best way to introduce a culture to another community is through its performing arts and food. Communities from the Northeast, and ministries like Doner and home should use their funds earmarked for such purposes in organising more and more events related to the Northeast in various parts of the country. This is an age where if anything is marketed well, it sells. So why not package the Northeast — as a geographic entity as well as individual states — in various formats and promote it aggressively in various parts of the country, not just in metros and big cities, but also in smaller towns? I am sure everyone will agree that this will help in integrating the Northeast with the rest of the country, more so when there is so much misconception about the region outside it.

Failure of politicians

More than blaming Delhi, as is the tendency amongst the media and various organisations in the Northeast, the major share of the blame for the region still being so unknown has to lie with our own political leaders over the years. If we know so much about a Kerala or a Rajasthan, it is because the political class, despite their usual politicking, has had the vision to develop policy that has made these states so visible internationally in various spheres. But when it comes to the Northeast, no one outside knows our history, culture, literary traditions, culinary delights…the list can go on and on. If our politicians had the foresight to do a little bit for the region, the Northeast surely would not have been the blind spot for others as it is now. Our politicians barely see the larger picture in this context, and are content with raising the pitch only when there are incidents like the recent ones.

Educational tours

This is one aspect that can supplement ideas explored in the education and advocacy heads mentioned before. Schools, colleges and universities across India can be encouraged, with the Central government coordinating on this with various states, to have educational tours to the region’s states on a regular basis. Village and home stays, meetings with our region’s writers, performing artistes, tours to places of historical and cultural interest, interactions with peer groups in local educational institutions can be part of this. Living with people and sharing one another’s experiences are the best process to develop understanding, and such an initiative can work wonders in the long run.


Before one thinks of trying to sensitise the common people about the Northeast, the focus should be on sensitising those in various government departments, particularly police personnel. We all know how during the recent BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) summit in Delhi, while in their effort to curtail protests by Tibetans against the Chinese President, Delhi Police had harassed a whole lot of Northeasterners just because of the way they look. Earlier, in 2007, Delhi Police had brought out an obnoxious advisory for Northeastern students, advising them not to eat ‘smelly’ food and avoid dressing in certain ways. I won’t doubt the positive intention of whoever had formulated that advisory, but the fact is that the way the whole thing was written was condescending towards the food and sartorial habits of peoples from the region. Certain food items — especially those fermented — do smell, but if one can have no problem with a smelly European cheese, then what’s the problem with Nagaland’s akhuni (fermented beans) or Manipur’s dry fish? India is a nation of a thousand cultures, and just because one section does not eat something or finds someone’s food smelly, it can never be a point of objection for the former if we really call ourselves a land of diversity. If one stops being oneself just to ‘fit into’ a milieu, as a bright, young politician from Assam had virtually suggested in a Facebook exchange of opinions with me following the NEIim survey, only the majoritarian views would persist and opinions and lifestyles of smaller communities would no longer matter. Bureaucrats and policemen, especially in metropolitan cities having sizeable Northeastern population, and armymen sent on postings to the Northeast must be given basic courses about the diversity and complexities of the region so that they have some understanding about why the people from the region feel alienated from the rest of the country. I am sure this will lead to much better handling of many situations.

These are but a few ideas that could work towards removing some of the misconceptions about the Northeast and its peoples in the rest of India. There could be many more if there is a serious brainstorming about long-term solutions to the issue. But while doing that, we the people of Northeast also have to look within. How much do we know about ourselves even after 65 years of independence? Does an Assamese know Manipur’s history or vice versa? Does the average Assamese, traditionally, not have a massive superiority complex over a Naga or an Arunachali? Do the media of our region not take a strong jingoistic stance when it comes to reporting inter-state border disputes? Aggressive and even provocative headlines are a common practice by the Assamese media following any development regarding disputed areas along the state’s borders with Nagaland or Arunachal Pradesh. How many of us visit one another’s states as tourists? Questions like these are uncomfortable, but important.

The NEIim study found that among the respondents, 87% working professionals cannot name all the states of the Northeast, but the fact is that most of them would not also be able to name all the states of India. Of those surveyed, 91% have no knowledge about the Northeast Industrial Policy, but I can bet they would be equally in the dark about industrial policies in most of the other states. So these, according to me, are not really important findings, and were only expected. What is more important is that 52% of the respondents have a negative perception about the region. Frankly speaking, if the figure had gone up as high as 90%, I would not have been surprised. But the fact that 48% of the respondents do not have a negative perception is really interesting, given the information gap relating to the region. It is important that we build upon this and change the image of the Northeast. For this, the governments of the region and the Centre, social organisations, community organisations both within and outside the region, and common people would have to work together, both at institutional and individual levels. Let’s do it. When boys and girls from the region are shining in the service, media and entertainment industries, apart from sports, let’s adopt an aggressive but positive strategy to tell the world that we look different, dress different and eat different, but we are no less Indian than anyone else. If we succeed in doing that, we won’t have Mizoram chief minister Lalthanhawla being asked to show his passport in a Mumbai hotel, or sometimes get ‘complimented’ — like I was by a journalist colleague in PTI in the mid-1990s, for “not looking like one from the Northeast”!

Meanwhile, we can hopefully chalk out and implement an action plan incorporating the above and other such interesting ideas to narrow the information gap vis-à-vis the Northeast. Let’s at least start off with a strong campaign — and I urge all the eight state governments of the region to unitedly make a pitch for this — to banish the derogatory term ‘chinki’, just as the words ‘chamar’ have been made unlawful in India and ‘negro’ in the United States.


(published in Seven Sisters Post, http://www.sevensisterspost.com, 17-05-2012)


Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.