Utpal Borpujari

February 24, 2014

Tales from the Margins

By Utpal Borpujari

In 1935, when Freedom fighter-poet-playwright-lyricist-tea planter and scion of one of Assam’s most-prominent families replete with literary and cultural giants, Jyotiprasad Agarwalla made “Joymoti”, the first Assamese (and thus also the first film in the entire region that came to be known as Northeast India), he had to release it in Calcutta (now Kolkata) because there was no cinema hall in Assam. Just a year before Northeast India celebrates 80 years of its cinematic journey, filmmakers from the region still continue to face the problem of where to screen their films. That, in a nutshell, is the story of cinema from Northeast India.
But that, luckily, is not the end of the story! Undaunted by this and a gamut of other inter-connected problems like dearth of funding and a society almost always in turmoil, a new, young breed of filmmakers continue to weave their dreams on the big screen, seeking to tell stories relevant to the region and its societies . From Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, states which that cannot boast of even a single cinema hall, to Assam and Manipur where filmmakers have made quality films over the years, the journey is continuing, but, like everything else about the Northeast, largely outside the so-called ‘mainland’ India’s consciousness.

The region has produced several filmmakers who have earned high praise in international circuits through their art house/parallel/socially-responsible/meaningful/by-whatever-name-you-may-call-it cinema, such as Jahnu Barua and the late Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia of Assam, and Aribam Syam Sharma of Manipur, as also the multifaceted genius Dr Bhupen Hazarika. And others like P C Barua, Danny Denzongpa, Seema Biswas, S D & R D Burman and Salil Choudhury have made a place in ‘mainland’ cinema in different eras. But despite that, cinema from Northeast India has remained outside the cinematic narrative of India.

Take for example Jyotiprasad’s “Joymoti” itself. It was perhaps the first Indian film to have a realistic treatment and to have a theme that drew from history and yet had a contemporary resonance, the in studies or publications about Indian cinema, it has had barely a cursory mention. The narrative of Manipuri cinema, and how circumstances made it the first film industry in the country to go fully digital (after all cinema halls in the state closed down making celluloid filmmaking unviable after one of the numerous militant groups active in the state enforced a ban on Hindi cinema in the 1990s), is another interesting example of the cinematic narrative from the region that has not seeped into the film history of India yet (except through a few documentaries).

If Manipuri filmmakers have devised an economic model in which they shoot their films in the digital format in ultra low budgets and hold ticketed shows in various available halls (not cinema halls, but theatre halls, community halls, and so on), in Assam, which in the 1980s had more than 150 halls but now has less than 60 (out of which Assamese films get released in approximately 40, and other ethnic language films in virtually none), filmmaking has seen a recent upswing with the availability of cheaper digital technology. Those who follow meaningful Indian cinema would know that both Jahnu Barua and Saikia have given some really good films, including the former’s “Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai” (Catastrophe) that did commendable international business, but there have been several other filmmakers who have made one or two acclaimed films before fading into the oblivion as despite winning both national and international honours for their initial films, they never could get funding for subsequent films, among them notable being Gautam Bora (whose only film Wosobipo in the Karbi tribal language was screened at the Berlin Film Festival apart from winning the Indira Gandhi Award for the Best First Film of a Director in the National Film Awards), and Dr Santwana Bordoloi (whose only film Adajya in Assamese had won a jury award at the International Film Festival of India). There have been a couple of notable exceptions though, such as Manju Borah and Sanjib Sabhapandit, who have managed to make socially-relevant films with small budgets.

Manipur, where Aribam Sharma gave outstanding films like Imagi Ningthem and Ishanou, younger filmmakers are making an effort to make films – whether full length or short fiction – to tell stories that capture the decades-old atmosphere of uncertainty that pervades the state as well as folk tales and stories from literature. And some remarkable young talents are emerging from states like Mizoram (from where comes Mapuia Chawnghtu, whose Khawnlung Run, or the Raid of Khawnlung, is perhaps one of the most stylishly-mounted films of recent times, despite its miniscule budget of only Rs 12 lakh), Arunachal Pradesh (from where a young Sange Dorje Thongdok has made Crossing Bridges, the first feature film in the Sherdukpen dialect, which has already been acquired by Insomnia Films of France for international distribution), and Meghalaya (where another young filmmaker Pradip Kurbah, has just completed a Khasi language film called Ri, which seeks to create a debate around the sense of alienation among the youth of the region and how some of them get sucked into a world of violence following certain ideologies.

In fact, Khawnlung Run attracted much attention when it was screened at the International Film Festival of India in Goa last November, as the opening film of the first-ever Focus section on Northeastern cinema (curated, incidentally, by this author). So did films like Prashant Rasailly’s sensitive Katha from Sikkim and Khasi short film Ka Lad by Dondor Lyngdoh and Gautam Syiem. Thongdok’s Crossing Bridges has already had good reviews after getting screened at the Mumbai Film Festival and International Film Festival of Kerala, and the trailer of Kurbah’s Ri is generating a buzz for its stylistic look.

But all said and done, these filmmakers face the dilemma of how to continue making films in their own ethnic languages considering that they can get hardly any theatre to release their films. While in Assam, the exhibitor-distributor combine often remove a local film that is having a fairly decent run as soon even a moderately big ticket Hindi film is up for release (the latest victim this month itself has been Raag, directed by Rajni Basumatary, which, even while getting appreciation, was removed from theatres as Yash Raj Films Gunday was to be released), filmmakers like Thongdok or Chawngthu cannot even dream of even having that ‘luxury’ as their states do not have even a single screen. Chawngthu, more than a year after completing his film, has been able to recover just about half of his Rs 12 lakh investment in Khawnlung Run, earned by screening the film in community halls, theatre halls and by selling DVDs. At least he has the advantage of his language Lushai being spoken all over Mizoram. Thongdok is further disadvantaged by the fact that his native tongue Sherdukpen (also the name of his tribe) is spoken by only a few thousand people spread across inaccessible mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, a state that has many tribes and as many dialects, none understood by another tribe. Simillarly,, in Assam, those who make films in tribal languages like Mishing (recent example, Manju Borah’s award-winning Ko:Yad), Karbi or Bodo have no avenues to show these films to people who speak those languages unless someone creates a system of taking the films to the people in the interiors using a “travelling cinema” model, something that a few people are giving a serious thought to.

In India, it’s a tragedy that we don’t get to watch (or don’t watch) our own varied cinemas outside the film festival circuit and on the big screen, except for Hindi films, because of the obvious limitation of languages from one region not being understood in another. While it’s easy to say that a subtitled film can be enjoyed by anyone, or even a dubbed one (like the South Indian movies dubbed into Hindi and shown on various movie channels), but the fact of the matter is that viewing another language film buying tickets in a local theatre is still not part of our movie-going culture. But even then, there is a niche audience for such films across India definitely. PVR’s Director’s Rare programme, in which indie films get limited release across some of the bigger cities across India, has been releasing various language cinemas too, and a couple of Assamese films have got an exposure through this distribution process too – Jahnu Barua’s Baandhon (which opened the Indian Panorama at the International Film Festival of India in 2012) and Kenny Basumatary’s martial arts-comedy “Local Kung Fu” got multi-city release outside Northeast in 2013 and Rajni Basumatary’s Raag will soon do so this year.

Northeastern cinema has and will continue to have the limitations of local marketing because of diversities of languages and sparse populations of various ethnic communities, and barring Assamese and Manipuri films, others cannot even practically think of having a viable domestic market ever. But in an era when cinema is the most-popular art form globally, it’s important that smaller communities and languages too has the opportunity to tell their stories in this medium that connects instantly with people at an emotional level. Quite clearly, the governments and the Centre and the eight states need to play an active role in enabling filmmakers do so, and the filmmakers need to learn to access the various sources of funding from various film funding agencies across the globe. But therein lies another story.

(Published in Pioneer, http://www.dailypioneer.com, http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/agenda/cinema-issue-special/tales-from-the-margins.html, 23-02-2014)

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