Utpal Borpujari

September 12, 2013

Movie Matters in Assam


(Published in Eastern Chronicle, http://www.easternchronicle.net, 08-09-2013)

Movie Matters in Assam

By Utpal Borpujari

When a Facebook group uploaded a recent news item published in newspapers in Assam regarding Asom Gana Parishad’s demand that all movie theatres in Assam run all Assamese films for at least three weeks from the date of release, the comments to the “post” were revealing. The respondents, all with Assamese names and surnames, gave a big thumbs down to the idea, saying if the quality of Assamese films were good, people would watch them and make them run for more weeks than just three, and that nobody can force a business venture like cinema halls to run a film for a particular period of time if no tickets got sold. One comment was quite tongue-in-cheek, “If the films are of the ‘VCD film’ quality but released in halls, why would anyone go and watch them?” Another response angrily asked whether AGP wanted the remaining halls also to shut down, while a few others suggested that Assamese cinema requires at least good “promos” to attract viewers. One comment pointed out that if our cinema was of the standards of Tamil or Bengali cinema, there was no reason why they won’t run.

Well, AGP’s suggestion, attributed to party leader Durga Das Boro, is well intentioned by surely ill informed. The current state of Assamese cinema – and here I am talking only about Assamese-language cinema as films made in other ethnic languages suffer from the bigger problem of even more limited scope of theatrical release given the smaller geographic boundaries within which they are spoken, and given that Assamese is a language understood and spoken by people across ethnicities – is surely that of a crisis. It has been so for quite some time, actually. And there are multiple reasons for it. And unlike what AGP – the party that has been suffering of late from a huge crisis of identity given its intra-party situation and its performances in the last few elections of various levels – would like us to believe, that there is as simplistic a solution as making cinema halls run Assamese films for three weeks in all halls to return the local film ‘industry’s’ health to a robust one, there is NOT a simple, or single, solution.

There are multi-layered issues here at stake. From the government’s lack of interest in supporting local filmmakers in the real sense of the term, to the diminishing quality of our local cinema as compared to cinema from several other parts of India, and from lack of enough space to screen local cinema to an avid lack of interest among people to watch their own cinema to the failure of our filmmakers to create cinema literacy unlike filmmakers in Bengal and Kerala who took an active part in creating such an environment in their states.

Lets try to analyse and discuss some of the issues here, if not all. First, lets take the issue of lack of space to screen films. Assam never had a robust number of cinema halls. In the best of times, it had just around 150-odd halls, which now have fallen to the zone of between 50 and 60, thanks to reasons we all know. Compare that with Kerala, a state with a comparable geographical size as Assam. Recently there was a great hue and cry in the cinema circles of that state because a large number of cinema halls there had closed down in recent years, leaving the state with “only” 550 halls. Imagine, a state with 550 halls – 11 times as the number of halls in Assam, is being concerned about the reduced space for cinema screening! While we can continue discussing till the end of the world on how the revive closed-down cinema halls or build the required mini cinema halls – because the way things are going, we will only continue discussing it, without any real action on ground in this regard – why cannot we think of alternative spaces to screen cinema in local languages, at least as in interim measure? Why cannot we use all available public space – government and private auditoria, community halls, etc., – in places without cinema halls to screen local films? It is a fact that a huge chunk of viewers of Assamese and other ethnic-language cinema live in places where there are no cinema halls. These are the places where people throng to watch Bhramyoman theatre, which means they crave for entertainment in their own language. In fact, even the model of a travelling (“bhramyoman”) cinema screen is one worth attempting – but that could work only with a proper business model, and not through individual efforts as seen in the past by individual filmmakers to screen one’s own films. These are the models that are under successful use for several years in states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Manipur and in places like Ladakh, where people watch films made in local dialects in either travelling screens that go from village to village, or in local community/theatre halls. Such efforts will take cinema to the people, and will hopefully help create enough revenues for local films. We don’t even have to look far – just learn and take the positives from the Manipur model, where thanks to militancy, virtually all cinema halls closed down, but in turn made the local filmmakers innovate to turn the whole industry into digital. Manipur makes nearly 60 low-budget films a year now – of course, like elsewhere, they are a mix of all kinds of films – and they are screened in various venues by an enthusiastic public. The same model, I understand is getting replicated in various forms in Meghalaya and Mizoram too.

While attempting to emulate such a model, the idea mooted by an industry body to revive around 100 halls that had closed down, by networking them with a satellite screening (something like the UFO technology already being used by many halls in Assam) model with the server based in Guwahati must be vigorously pursued by all stakeholders, including the government. And while reviving those cinema halls, it should be kept in mind that this is the age of compact halls – maybe 75 to 150 seaters depending on the population profile of the place where a particular hall is located – and the rest of the place can be given out to shops, food plazas, art galleries, exhibition spaces (say for book and handicraft fairs that happen frequently these days) so that these places can become a sort of local art/entertainment zones.

Any of these models discussed would not only help Assamese cinema but also cinema in other ethnic languages to find their target audiences. Just to give an example, someone like Manju Borah makes a Mising language film that wins national awards (“Ko:Yad”) but is never released in areas where Mising-community people live (Majuli, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, etc.). A travelling screen model, or allowing such a film to be commercially screened in local auditoria, or developing mini cinema halls in such interior places in the long run, will help such films to reach out to their audiences effectively. And apart from the commercial aspect, such measures will help develop a culture for appreciation of cinema as an art too.

But all said and done, none of this can become a reality if the government does not have a concrete structure to support such ideas. The government’s – and of all political parties’ – lack of interest in promoting and supporting cinema in Assam is all too apparent. Unlike states like Maharashtra and Karnataka, Assam does not have any policy to support filmmaking and help regular screening of local films in theatres. Whatever the state policy on films is there, we all know its status and fate – even the outdated idea of returning first-year’s entertainment tax on a film has no meaning if a film does not get the space to get screened. What is the need of the hour is that we need an updated film policy that would look at all these issues, and developed after studying film policies of other states.

The fact of the matter is, though we have the Assam State Film (Finance & Development) Corporation, it does not get the required support from the government. Facts of ground prove it – after long years, it got funds to produce a couple of films from the state government, and produced Jahnu Barua’s “Baandhon” and three other under-production films. In addition, it has recently given a call for scripts so that it can allot a miniscule amount of about Rs 25 lakh, that is still in its kitty from the earlier fund it got from the government, for another film. In the budget for ongoing fiscal of 2013-14, it got no funds for further film production, which means there is no more scope for production of films by it, at least in the near future. Also, it beats all understanding why the government’s funds for documentary filmmaking are vested with the Department of Cultural Affairs when ASF(FD)C is there as its filmmaking wing. Nobody knows to whom or how the funds for documentary films are granted, and what happens to those films made by the Cultural Affairs Department – there are no public screenings, and none of these films make it to either film festivals or television. Perhaps, a little digging by someone – or an RTI application – might unearth a big scam there, because unlike as in the case of other film funding agencies like Central Government’s Films Division, the Cultural Affairs Department never gives a public call for proposals for documentaries, though over the years many documentaries are said to have been produced.

ASF(FD)C also has a lot of fine-tuning to do with regard to its own work. While it has done commendable work in developing what is probably the country first state-level film archive, its filmmaking endeavours seem to not take latest realities in account. For example, when it gave the call for proposals that led to production of its new slate of upcoming films, it kept out the digital format of filmmaking. This at a time when filmmaking worldwide is moving fast towards digitalization – Kodak has even stopped making film rolls, and the last James Bond film “Skyfall” was shot in completely digital format – because of various technological and economical issues involved. In the latest call for proposals, it has restricted the calls only to National Award winners, which is almost ridiculous because that way ASF(FD)C will never be able to a new talent, say a graduate from one of the leading film schools who might have made a very good short film that might have travelled to several prominent international film festivals but did not win a national award. The criteria in such cases need to be more realistic, keeping in mind that there are many films that never a national award but are feted in leading international film festivals. The National Award has its own value, no doubt, but it can be just one of the criteria, not the sole criterion (though the fact is that for a long time now, hardly any film from Assam has really travelled to any important film festival in recent times). Why, even Doordarshan, while recently asking filmmakers to submit their award-winning films for telecast, widened the criteria beyond the national awards, and said films screened in official sections of some of the leading film festivals of the world would also be telecast on the national broadcaster.

Having said all this, it’s also a fact that our filmmakers have failed to think out of the box. Anyone who have seen recent Marathi (the most creative films are coming from there in the last couple of years), Malayalam, Bengali and Tamil films, will know what I am talking about. Be it commercial or socially-relevant, the themes, the treatment and the whole thought process into making cinema has changed drastically, but most of our filmmakers are not really aware about these trends – simply because very few of them actually keep themselves updated about what is happening elsewhere. That is a hard truth. The truth is that if there is promising work happening in the Northeast, it is happening in Manipur, and some exciting stuff seem to be happening in even traditionally non-filmmaking states like Mizoram (Mapuia Chawnghtu’s “Khawnlung Run” is an excellent example) and Arunachal Pradesh (where a young Sange Thongdok Dorjee, a recent passout from Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute of Kolkata, has seen his under-production Sherdukpen-dialect film “Broken Bridges” picked up for world sales by a French company just on the basis of a rough cut). And yes, we need private producers who will invest in the art of cinema, and not only in the commerce of cinema. What use spending huge amounts in so-called ‘commercial’ ventures that don’t run in theatres because of outdated storylines and treatment? Why not rather invest in cinema that can sell internationally too – so that there is at least a window to recover the investment while earning critical praise? Many small film industries across the world are surviving because of international marketing, and not domestic business, but unfortunately, our film industry has remained totally inward looking all these years. The fact is very few of our filmmakers know about screenwriting workshops run by prominent film festivals across the world, where selected screenplays not only get fine-tuned under expert guidance, but also get noticed by prospective funders, producers, buyers and sales agents. Neither do they know about the various co-production events that connect local and international producers for possible joint ventures. A lot of feature films and documentaries in India have benefitted by participating in such events. An example is Ritesh Batra’s indie film “Dabba (Lunch Box)”, which, after a still-continuing run across prominent film festivals including Critics Week at Cannes, is all set to get a nationwide release through UTV. This, after the film has already made a tidy profit after its rights were sold almost all over the world right after the Cannes screening. Of course, all these are highly-competitive processes and only quality projects will get shortlisted. But they are worth giving a try. And above all, don’t take the audience for granted – they won’t watch films with outdated, repetitive, copycat themes. Period.

Which brings us to the audiences. It’s a fact that we as a people have somehow made it seem that buying the ticket and watching an Assamese film is below our dignity. Okay, one would not watch bad films, but what about films that give some food for thought? Or those that have won a National Award? Give a free show, hundreds will turn out to watch those films, but not many of them will land up when the film is released in theatres. Of course, most of the time, our films suffer from lack of publicity – one hardly gets to know when a film is released – as the producers don’t have plans or funds kept separately for this purpose. In this age and era when capturing people’s mind space is becoming more and more difficult thanks to the information deluge through television channels, it is paramount that publicity before a film’s release is given maximum importance. But even the so-called ‘commercial’ films in Assam don’t get enough publicity, leave alone the low-budget socially-relevant films. This needs to change to attract the audiences.

My cure for this lack of interest among audiences is a long-term one – introduce film appreciation courses in schools and colleges and make it a must. Cinema is something that attracts anyone and everyone. A film appreciation course as part of the curricula will surely attract a lot of students. Once they see cinema from various parts of the world under such a course, we will slowly but surely develop an audience for good cinema. The solutions are not easy and can only be in long term as far as our cinema is concerned, and we have to think long term. While we ponder about all the issues I have raised here, lets at least start with starting film appreciation courses and creating a temporary model to take cinema to the people (travelling screen, using all available auditoria) till the time more cinema halls get constructed.

And yes, going back to AGP’s demand – instead of populist-sounding but unrealistic demands, all political parties need to be on one page with regard to not only cinema but also overall culture. Let them sit together and create an environment and structure that is realistic for revival and sustenance of our local cinemas. Rhetoric won’t do. We need real and realistic action that can evolve through taking along all stakeholders. The question is, who will bell the cat?

(http://www.easternchronicle.net/index.php?archive=08.09.2013&city=2# : go the page 7 once the link opens)

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