Utpal Borpujari

September 20, 2017

Films from Assam win big in National Awards, but we must look beyond just awards

(Assamese translation of this article was published in Monthly publication Raijor Batori, May 2017 issue)

By Utpal Borpujari

After quite a long gap, Assamese cinema has scored big at the National Film Awards in its 64th edition. For quite sometime now, cinema from Assam has had to be content with just the best in a particular language category of Rajat Kamals (“Best Assamese”, “Best Bodo”, “Best Mising”, “Best Rabha”, etc.). Without taking out any credit of the films that won these awards, one must concede that the award for the Best Film in a particular language is actually just equivalent to a state film award in which only films from that state compete. Why, in certain cases, such as awards that are given to films made in languages not included in Schedule VIII of the Indian Constitution, there is only one film in that category and the jury awards it as the “best” in that language because it has got a certain cinematic merit but does not – according to the jury – deserve to win a bigger, “all India” category award. Of the recent films that have won the Rajat Kamal in specific language categories, I personally believe that Jahnu Barua’s “Ajeyo” (Best Assamese), Manju Borah’s “Ko:Yad” (Best Mising) and Suraj Duarah’s “Orong” (Best Rabha) are films that deserved more than what they got.

Anyways, the latest edition of National Film Awards, the 64th edition to be precise, has brought back some of the deserved glory back to the state’s film industry (of course, it is another matter if it can be really called an ‘industry’). This year, Cinema from Assam (a more correct term instead of the often-used term “Assamese Cinema”, to reflect the various languages in which cinema is being made in the state) won two major honours at the National Awards – the Indira Gandhi Award for the Best First Feature Film of a Director (a Swarna Kamal) and the Nargis Dutt Award for the Best film on National Integration (a Rajat Kamal). In addition, there is a special mention each in acting (to the brilliant but underrated Adil Hussain) and documentary filmmaking (to “Sikar Aru Sitkar” by Romen Borah and Sibanu Borah).

The Indira Gandhi Award, which has earlier been won thrice by the state’s filmmakers – Gautam Bora for his classic Karbi film “Wosobipo”, Bidyut Chakravarty for “Raag Birag” and Sanjeev Hazorika for “Haladhar” – this year went to Deep Choudhury for his film “Alifa”. What is significant is that “Alifa” is a Bengali language film. It is the first time that a Bengali feature film made in Assam has won a National Award, and it is to the credit of Choudhury that the film won this prestigious award even though the film industry in West Bengal regularly churns out quality feature films every year, including at least a couple by debut filmmakers. Produced by Arman Ahmed, starring veterans Baharul Islam and Jaya Seal along with young Pakija Hashmi, and photographed by Nahid Ahmed, the film is the story of young girl Alifa and her family who live in the outskirts of Guwahati. It’s a human story about survival, hardship and basic truths of life, and addresses issues like poverty, immigration, basic human struggle to exist and lost innocence. According to Choudhury, “Above all it is a beautiful love story about a family, it’s a story which needs to be told, a story which needs to be seen.”

The Nargis Dutt Award for the Best Film on National Integration has come to Assam for the second time. Manju Borah’s “Aai Kot Nai” had won it earlier, and this time it has gone to “Dikchow Banat Palaax”, Sanjib Sabhapandit-directed and Utpal Das-produced Assamese-Naga love story set in the backdrop of the Freedom Struggle. With veteran Kulada Kumar Bhattacharyya in the lead role, the film examines the traditional relations that the Assamese and the Nagas had shared in the past and where those ties stand in the present times. Sabhapandit’s films, while technically being minimal, always strives to raise current socio-political concerns facing the society in Assam, and this film also does not shy away from doing so, even as it on the surface is about lost love of a high caste Assamese young man and an Ao Naga girl.

On the other hand, by getting the Special Mention for acting in two different films, the internationally-acclaimed “Mukti Bhawan” in Hindi and “Maj Rati Keteki” in Assamese, Adil Hussain has at last been acknowledged, even if a bit grudgingly, by a National Awards jury. It is, however, a kind of travesty of justice that the jury describes his acting in these two films as “brilliant” but gives the Best Actor Award to a star like Akshay Kumar for an ordinary film like “Rustam”. It reminds one of the year when Nana Patekar was given the Best Actor Award for a very loud and melodramatic performance in “Krantiveer” while Bishnu Kharghoria was given the consolation prize of a Special Mention for his brilliant portrayal of an old boat man in Jahnu Barua’s “Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door” (Kharghoria won another special mention much later, for “Bandhon”, another Jahnu Barua film).

The Best Assamese film award this year went to Dr Santwana Bardoloi for “Maj Rati Keteki”, her second feature film that has come 20 years after she made “Adajya” in 1996. On the other hand, the Best Moran Language film award (for the category of films made in languages not mentioned in Schedule VIII of Constitution) went to Jaicheng Dohutiya’s evocative and powerful “Haanduk”, which has brought in a breath of fresh air to the state’s cinema with its treatment that is unusual for Assamese cinema (the only comparison could be “Orong”) – long takes, a treatment that creates a world both real and unreal at the same time, and some beautiful cinematography, editing and sound design. “Haanduk” is not a conventionally-treated film and it would have limited appeal for the usual cinema viewer, but its artistic elements will ensure its place in the history of the state’s cinema. Incidentally, “Alifa” was in the international competition section of the Kolkata International Film Festival, “Majrati Keteki” in the same category in the International Film Festival of Kerala, and “Haanduk” won the 2nd Best Award (the Best Film award wen to to Manipuri filmmaker Haobam Paban Kumar’s “Loktak Leirembee”) at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival last year – all highly credible achievements.

But one thing must be said here, and that too, with emphasis. While a National Award or an Indian Panorama selection is surely a prestigious thing, they are not the ultimate benchmarks of a film’s merits, unlike what is usually projected in Assam’s media. A few Assamese films and filmmakers have made bigger international splashes, which, according to this writer, are far more important developments as far as the film industry of the state is concerned than either of the two. One is Bhaskar Hazarika’s “Kathanodi”, an adaptation of four stories of Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s “Burhi Aair Xadhu”. The film, of course, won the National Award last year, but more importantly, it had won the Post Production Grant at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, becoming the only second Indian film to win this honour. Similarly, Rima Das’ under-production “Village Rockstars”, which she has been making with shoe-string budgets at her village in Chaygaon, has won an editing grant in Rome and also has been picked up from Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Work in Progress Lab by the Marche du Film (Film Market) section of the Cannes Film Festival. Getting selected by the Marche Du Film is a big development considering that filmmakers from all over the world pay big amount of fees to enter their films in the market section of Cannes Film Festival, with the hope of attracting the attention of production companies and sales agents. Das, who recently made “Antardrishti”, finds herself in an enviable position where, because of the pre-selection made by Marche du Film, will have the world’s attention on her project, rather than her chasing prospective co-producers and sales agents. Given the very limited market size of Assamese cinema locally, seeking out the world market is the right approach to take for sensible and artistic cinema, and these two films have shown how that can be done. Hopefully, young filmmakers of the state will try to break ground internationally more rather than just targeting a National Award in the category of best in a particular language.

November 12, 2013

NEthing, NEwhere….. AAP in Delhi is a reason for Déjà vu

Filed under: Assam,Eastern Chronicle,Indian Politics,Media,Politics — Utpal Borpujari @ 6:06 pm
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(Published in Eastern Chronicle, http://www.easternchronicle.net, on 27-10-2013)

By Utpal Borpujari

The same day that newspapers carried the information that 11 political parties from Northeast India had joined hands to form a regional grouping called the North-East Regional Political Front at the initiative of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), my neighbourhood in Delhi saw a public meeting by renowned social scientist and now Aam Aadmi Party leader Yogendra Yadav. Yadav was addressing a motley crowd about how the usual political parties like Congress and BJP had failed the people and how AAP was the best and only option to set things right. In fact, the refrain of civil servant-turned-Magsaysay Award-winning social activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP has been that the ‘usual’ political parties are all irreversibly corrupt and only a new idea like AAP can turn the tide in favour of the common man.

Hearing the AAP refrain, and reading about the formation of the North East Progressive Alliance at the same time, gives quite a sense of déjà vu to someone like me, who grew up in Assam during the tumultuous years of early 1980s. If Delhiites are witnessing the birth of a new political party led by men of impeccably clean credentials such as Kejriwal, Yadav and Prashant Bhushan (no matter even if they got separated from others like Anna Hazare and Kiran Bedi who did not agree with the idea of converting the now-famous-but-dead people’s movement led by Hazare into a political formation), we, as young, impressionable minds, had seen not only the birth but also an unprecedented straight-from-university-hostels-to-the-State-Assembly march of a young brigade who had captured the imagination of Assam’s people like never before.

AAP is surely not going to achieve success of the scale that the Prafulla Mahanta-Bhrigu Phukan-led AGP had done in 1985. It at best will, going by the present pre-poll surveys, will emerge as a strong third force in Delhi Assembly elections, and play a major spoil sport to both Congress and BJP. Of course, the growth in fortunes of AAP, going by opinion polls held in August and October, if extrapolated, could show that AAP’s rise can even surprise the political pundits by the time the poll results come in on December 8. But then, given that AAP is going to emerge as an important player in its very first election itself, its leaders can have a look at how AGP squandered the immense goodwill of people, and how many of its leaders got mired in one allegation of corruption after another, before it went into oblivion within less than 30 years of its birth.

The formation of AAP is quite similar to that of AGP in that both parties got formed after huge public upheavals (the AASU-Asom Gana Sangram Parishad-led anti-illegal immigration movement was of course a much bigger people’s movement than the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement has been in terms of mass participation, though the latter got immense visibility thanks to the numerous television channels that exist today) over highly-important issues. It is now a historical fact that AGP not only failed in its avowed goal of freeing Assam from illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but its leaders lost all goodwill of the people – one just has to check the election results of recent years, including the recent Guwahati Municipal Corporation elections in which it could win just one ward, to visualize its downward spiral – through their various alleged acts of omissions and commissions. And in recent years, quite a few of its younger leaders have joined other parties, ostensibly disillusioned with the way the party was functioning.

AAP, whether or not it wins the majority in the Delhi elections as it is claiming it will, now has an image that the pre-1985 election AGP had – a pro-people party led by those who had the vision to change the society and whom people believed in. I am pretty sure – you may call it cynical – a few years down the line, once AAP tastes fruits of election results, the party will face the predicament of how its ‘clean’ MLAs (presuming it will win quite a few seats as is being predicted) have turned ‘unclean’, at least some of them. One hopes for the sake of those who will vote for the party’s candidates that it won’t happen, but the history of Indian political firmament shows that there is no party that has not got some of its members embroiled in cases of financial and/or moral corruption. Those who had voted for AGP (I too had as a first-time voter) in 1985 would tell you from experience that the Assamese adage “Lanka loi jieyi jai xiyei Ravan hoi” (whoever goes to Lanka becomes a Ravan) holds quite true when comes to politics. Or else, how would one explain that the student leaders, many of them from poor background, suddenly acquired immense wealth despite having no other sources of income, soon after they became ministers. Of course, now they are reaping as they sowed, having lost all goodwill of the people and ceding much of its space to BJP, which is led in the state by former AGP leader Sarbananda Sonowal.

Of course, given the predictions that AAP will at best emerge as a strong opposition, it faces less of this danger because opposition MLAs have less scope of turning corrupt! And that probably could be the solace for both the party and its supporters. One hopes that having been in the wilderness for so long, AGP’s leadership would turn a new leaf too with the formation of the regional front. It’s now a given fact that in Assam’s politics, AGP is not even among the top three, though political parties with a regional bent of politics are still strongly relevant in many parts of the country. The Northeast needs powerful political parties that can keep the ruling parties on their toes as far as developmental issues are concerned, and that they can do only if they are at least a strong opposition. Perhaps, just like AAP needs to draw a lesson from AGP’s rise and fall, AGP itself needs to do the same at a moment when it’s aspiring to unite the regional forces on Northeast. If you ask me frankly though, I would say fortunes are not going to be on the upswing for AGP unless they first change their fundamental flaws, which need not be elaborated here again. Its regional front leadership notwithstanding. Meanwhile, only time will tell if AAP will be an exception or if it will go the AGP way!

(http://www.easternchronicle.net/index.php?archive=27.10.2013&city=2 – once the page opens, go to Page 7)

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