Utpal Borpujari

September 20, 2017

Misinformed comments do Priyanka – and the NE – no good

By Utpal Borpujari


(Published in http://www.hindustantimes.com on Sept 14, 2017; http://www.hindustantimes.com/bollywood/priyanka-chopra-your-misinformed-comments-about-sikkim-did-a-huge-disservice-to-northeast/story-OdgSqJC3N93AD8FzwTEVJK.html)

Only a couple of days ago, the cleaning lady at one of my fellow Assamese friend’s music studio in Mumbai had asked him where Assam was. The lady is a Tamilian, who has lived in Mumbai for long, and has not gone to school beyond a few classes. My friend jokingly told her, in his Assamese-tinged Hindi, “Jaise aapka Tamil Nadu India ka niche hai, waise hi Assam India ka upar hai”, meaning just as Tamil Nadu is in the south, Assam is in the North – or the Northeast to be more precise.

It’s a fact that a huge number of people still have either no idea about the Northeast region or India, or just have a vague idea about it. And they include not only the unlettered or social-disadvantaged class, but also what we know as educated and socially-aware classes. As a Northeasterner living in Delhi since last 23 years, and having worked in the media all this time, I personally can vouch for the fact that even within the media, the awareness about the Northeast, and its complex issues, is hardly worth anything to write home about.

But it is also a fact that the visibility of and awareness about the region has improved to some extent now, as compared to even, say, ten years ago, thanks to the multitudes of Northeast cultural events, increasing population of people from the region in the NCR and other parts of the country, and also the increasing number of journalists from the region working in the media houses.

From the initial years of anger and outrage that I would feel when someone otherwise “informed” would make a silly observation on the region, now it’s the feeling of more of a pity on such people, as I increasingly feel that the fault lies more in the lack of virtually any information about the region in the primary, secondary and higher education curricula. If we people from the Northeast know about the Chola dynasty or Chhatrapati Shivaji, it’s because we had read about them in our school books, and if people elsewhere do not know about Lachit Barphukan or U Tirot Singh (to give two examples), it’s because they are absent from the school books elsewhere.

But even then, the misinformed comments on Sikkim by UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, Assam Tourism Brand Ambassador and “Mary Kom” star Priyanka Chopra – in an interview given at the Toronto International Film Festival while talking about her production “Pahuna” – rankles. An unlettered cleaning lady in Mumbai not knowing about Assam is one thing, and a hugely-popular and talented star like Ms Chopra giving wrong information about a region that she is genuinely trying to connect with (if we go by the latest announcement that she is producing an Assamese film with legendary filmmaker Jahnu Barua, coupled with her production of Sikkimese film “Pahuna”) surely is another.

Ms Chopra is a known name now internationally, thanks to her appearances in television series “Quantico” and Hollywood movie “Baywatch”. She is, as we all know, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. And above all, she is the brand ambassador of one of the Northeastern states. Along with that, she is a top name of Indian cinema. So, anything she says, goes out to a huge audience, through conventional media as well as social media.

Therefore, when she says that Sikkim is an insurgency-hit state, and that “Pahuna” is the first feature film to come out of the state, it is quite natural that many would believe both the statements. The only problem is – as social media have already stated emphatically and angrily – that both statements are incorrect. Quite clearly, Ms Chopra is misinformed, or – as most people tend to do – paint the entire Northeastern region with one brush. It is a fact that for most Indians, the term “Northeast” is used to describe a region that has a history of insurgencies, is full of exotic tribes, and a region that lies beyond the mental boundaries of “mainland” India (though it is a dichotomy that the same “mainland” term is never in terms of India’s two island territories of Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep). While it’s a popular coinage, it also works in a strangely negative way – by homogenizing the immense geo-political, social and cultural diversity of the region and its eight states.

But even if one considers this aspect, talking of Sikkim specifically as insurgency affected is far beyond being far fetched. In fact, if there is one state in the Northeast that has stayed free from any such trouble, it’s Sikkim. In fact, it’s one of the most-peaceful states all across India, with an absolutely low crime rate, leave aside insurgency or terrorism. Sikkim actually is mostly talked about for its positive aspects – such as having one of India’s highest per capita incomes, being among the leading states in literacy level, being one of India’s cleanest states, being the first Indian states to be declared Open Defecation Free way back in 2008, and being India’s first – and only one till now – fully organic state.

Sikkim is also a tourism-intensive state, and had led the country in introducing home stays and heli-tourism. A large number of domestic and international tourist visit the peaceful state every year, and Ms Chopra’s comments could hugely impact the tourist inflow as for any lay person, it’s easy to believe a Northeastern state to be insurgency impacted going by the image of the region, especially when it comes from a figure whose comments are quoted widely across media. No wonder, the Sikkim government, along with the people of the state and the region – as well as informed people from across India – has reacted with anger at the comment.

Ms Chopra’s other comment about “Pahuna” being the first film to come out of Sikkim, has also been ridiculed, and rightly so. Sikkim does not have a film industry per se, but films have been made in the state quite regularly. In fact, only this year, Sikkimese film “Ralang Road”, by director Karma Takapa, had its world premiere at the Competition Section of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, one of the highly-respected film festivals of the world. The film will also be screened at the forthcoming edition of the MAMI Mumbai International Film Festival. “Acharya” and “Katha” by another young filmmaker, Prashant Rasaily, has also earned acclaim earlier. And these are just three examples from among the films that have been made in Sikkim over the years.

It’s laudable the way a top Bollywood actor like Priyanka Chopra has taken to producing cinema in various Indian languages, including those in languages from states that have very small domestic markets such as Sikkim and Assam, but her comments in the context of “Pahuna” have unnecessarily diminished that effort while belittling the works of the local filmmakers who make films with unimaginably-limited resources.

It’s quite befitting that the actor has tendered her apology to the Government of Sikkim for her comments regarding the state being insurgency affected. Perhaps, she could also issue one more to the filmmakers from Sikkim, whose works have got negated by that interview in Toronto.


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.

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