By Utpal Borpujari
North-East India has had an interesting cinematic history that started in 1935 with the making of “Joymoti”, the first Assamese film made by author-nationalist-poet-playwright-tea planter-lyricist-composer-and-much-more Jyotiprasad Agarwalla. “Joymoti”, which is the story of an eponymous princess of the Ahom dynasty who laid down her life for the sake of democracy, came four years after “Alam Ara” (1931), the first Indian talkie. Since then, a few hundred movies have come about in the region that is called a heterogenous-sounding “the North-East” for geopolitical reasons, but which is actually a landmass made up of eight states that such an immense ethnic and cultural diversity that the overarching nomenclature sometimes actually feels quite odd. Films have been made in this region in not only in Assamese and Manipuri, the two languages that have had a semblance of an industry, but also in languages for which there are practically no avenue for theatrical release – such as Karbi, Mishing, Bodo, Monpa, Kokborok and Sadri.
But with the advent of digital filmmaking, the region in recent years has witnessed what can be called “democratisation” of cinema. Now, the North-East gets films in a variety of languages and dialects, such as Khasi (in which a single celluloid film titled “Manik Raitong” was made in the 1980s), Jaintia, Garo, Rabha, etc., apart from the languages already mentioned. Most of these films reach the people either through “mobile” cinema format, in which films are shown to people in community halls, tents and even open spaces against tickets through a set of LCD projector, a screen and a DVD player that moves from place to place in interior parts of the region, or through DVDs/CDs sold for home video viewing. It’s quite needless to say that because of this democratisation of cinema, a lot of people without any knowledge of the medium or the art but with loads of allegedly ill-gotten money have become ‘filmmakers’, resulting in a large number of productions that won’t stand scrutiny of the definition of cinema.
But at the same time, the easy availability of low-cost digital movie-making cameras and the resultant possibility of massive reduction in filmmaking costs have also enabled some talented youngsters to experiment with interesting subjects even with limited budgets in recent years. Take for example Manipur, which last made a celluloid feature film way back in 1998 as the format became economically unviable after a ‘ban’ on the screening of Hindi films led to gradual closure of most of the Imphal Valley (which the hub of the Manipuri Meitei-speaking film industry). It is the first state in India to have a fully-digital film industry, and every year its filmmakers have been producing around 50 digital feature films that are made in budgets in the range of approximately Rs 6-15 lakh. The fact that it has been continuously producing that many films every year means that the expenditure-profit ratio has got maintained through the limited theatrical and widespread travelling theatre releases.
The state, which has a vibrant pool of talented young filmmakers who are creating some highly interesting documentaries and short films that have been winning awards at various festivals on a regular basis, will after a long period see a celluloid film with an unheard of budget for the local film industry – all of Rs 1 crore! This ‘big’ budget is the result of the requirement of the subject of the film, which is set in the backdrop of the fierce battles of World War II that were fought between the Allied Army and the Japanese forces in North-Eastern India – perhaps the first fictional film ever to have this backdrop. The film, titled “My Japanese Niece”, according to its young director Mohen Naorem, will bring into focus the unknown humanitarian aspects of the war that was fought in Manipur and Nagaland. The story, Naorem has said in an interview published in the media, focuses on the humane relationship shared by the Japanese, often portrayed as cruel soldiers who committed a lot of atrocities, with the local Manipuri population. The story of the film would take the viewer in a journey of discovery through the lead character Asada, a Japanese woman who comes to Manipur to pay homage to her uncle who was presumed dead in the March 1944 battle. As she reaches the state, she is told about a man, who has dies a few months before her arrival, and who resembled her uncle. Asada goes on a journey of discovery during which she learns about the the trials and tribulations of the Japanese soldiers in India. Naorem, who plans to release the film in August next year, got the idea for the film after he saw how Manipuris raised relief funds after Japan was hit by the massive March 2011 earthquake, as also the visit of a Japanese team to exhume remains of 11 Japanese soldiers in Assam in early 2012. Naorem, who has already cast Osaka-based model Yu Asada for Asada’s character and London-based Junichi Kajioka (seen in films like Devils on the Doorstep, City of Life and Death, and The Flowers of War) as the lost soldier, is looking more at the international market rather than the local market for his film, especially the South-East Asian and Japanese markets. While his film will be in Manipuri, he also plans to dub it in English and Japanese. Several other talented Manipuri filmmakers, such as Haobam Paban Kumar (who made the powerful political documentary “AFSPA 1958”), Oinam Doren and Romi Meitei are planning a slew of interesting films in the near future, all looking majorly at exploring the international market potential for their projects. The Manipur Film Development Corporation has recently acquired a reasonably good digital camera to give a boost to local filmmakers aspirations.
If Manipur, which already has a base built by veterans lie Aribam Syam Sharma, to build its film industry upon, in Mizoram, where in recent years a few low-budget digital films have been made, a young self-taught filmmaker has created a storm by cooking up a visually-rich digital feature film for just Rs 11 lakh – the highest-budget film made in the state ever! Titled “Khawnlung Run” (The Raid of Khawnlung), this film has achieved a level of visual quality that is being discussed quite vigorously among at least the younger generation of North-Eastern filmmakers. Directed by Lunglei-based Mapuia Chawngthu, “Khawnlung Run” is a story of doomed love set in the real backdrop of the 1856 raid of Khawnlung village by rival Lushai chieftains. This is perhaps the first Dulian dialent (the lingua franca of the Mizos) language film to catch the attention of anyone outside Mizoram, and Chawngthu, who is the producer-director-cinematographer-editor of the film, is trying to take his film outside the state following advice from well-wishers about its potential, though his basic idea behind making it was to acquaint the youth about Mizo history and folklore through a well-made film. The film was released in local theatres and community centres of Mizoram in August and got tremendous response from the local people. And why not? This stylishly-mounted film with imaginative cinematography and tight editing has a story drawn from local history and folklore, and has commendable acting from the local cast. Shot on location around 145 km south of capital Aizawl, the film took six months to shoot, and nearly two years were spent in post-production work. The effort shows in the production value of the film!
Meanwhile, in Assam, which saw a real ebb in filmmaking in the last decade, suddenly seems to be witnessing better cinematic days. The greatest living Assamese filmmaker, Jahnu Barua, has made a comeback to the state’s film scenario after about eight years, and his latest film “Bandhon” would have hit the screens by the time this article gets into print. The film has a powerful and humane storyline raising questions about several issues of the day, and has been shot in Assam and Mumbai. Barua’s favourite actor Bishnu Kharghoria, along with popular starts like Jatin Borah and Jerifa Wahid, form the cast of the film that got its world premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival recently. Incidentally, this film has been produced by the Assam Film (Finance & Development) Corporation, which till date has produced only one film before this, that too years ago. The Corporation is also exploring the co-production route to jointly produce four other Assamese films in collaboration with private producers. Hope this trend continues and the state government provides a regular budgetary grant to the Corporation so that it can continue producing meaningful cinema in various local languages. Barua, whose last two filmmaking attempts in Hindi (“Butterfly Chase” and “Har Pal”) remains incomplete for reasons unknown, is already preparing to shoot his next Assamese project, which definitely is a good news for the local film industry.
Another veteran filmmaker, Manju Borah, too has got quite busy suddenly. One of the rare filmmakers who have been seeking out meaningful subjects for her films on a frequent basis at a time when many filmmakers were struggling to get funds, Borah has just completed the shooting of a Mishing-language film titled “Koyad” (Erosion). With music by Isaac Thomas Kottukapally, who has worked with her in more than one project in the past, the film takes a look at “erosion of different emotions in life”, as Borah puts it. The film has the river-man relationship, which is so crucial to the lifestyle of the Mishing community, as its backbone, and is about the human spirit that always triumphs. Borah has also announced a full-length animation feature film on the 15th century saint-social reformer-cultural icon Srimanta Sankardeva, which will also be the first full-length animation film to be made in the entire North-East India. The filmmaker plans to release it in Assamese, Bengali, Hindi and English, and the animation is being developed by Kolkata-based Kaleidoscope Entertainment. Borah is also associated with another interesting project, a mainstream comedy titled “Baralar Bhar” (The House of the Bachelors), produced and directed by Malayalam filmmaker Mani C Kappen. Shot in Assam and Bengal, it is the story of an Assamese boy marrying a Bengali girl and their subsequent travails in a comic format.
Another young filmmaker, Bidyut Kotoky, also made a promising debut recently with his National Film Development Corporation (NFDC)-released “Ekhon Nedekha Nodir Xhipare” (As the River Flows) finally getting theatrical release to encouraging response from the people after nearly two years in gestation. The Hindi version of the film, which sensitively tackles the issue of how the common man of Assam has suffered because of the over three decades of insurgency and social unrest, is also expected to be ready soon. The film ran for four weeks in Guwahati and local film industry insiders said it had the potential to do much better financially all across the state if a proper pre-release publicity campaign had been carried out.
The fact that several other interesting Assamese films – “Dwaar” by Bidyut Chakraborty whose debut film “Raag Birag” had wowed audiences in several international film festivals for its deeply philosophical tone, “Adhyay” by Amulya Manna whose previous film “Aideu” had chronicled the life of the heroine of “Joymoti”, Aideu Handique, young filmmaker Rajesh Bhuyan’s take on female foeticide in “Me and My Sister”, and septuagenarian director Prabin Bora’s socio-cultural drama “Luitok Bhetibo Kone” – are getting ready to hit the big screen puts the local film industry at a possible turning point from where things can get only better. Even Sikkim, the eighth North-Eastern state, is seeking to put itself on the cinematic map through Pradip Rasaily’s film “Katha”, an effort at serious storytelling. Once can only hope – in a year when the Indian film industry celebrates its 100th year – that the trend continues, and the trash abates.
(Published in Deep Focus Cinema, December 2012 – the 1st issue of the relaunched version)