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.

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December 23, 2015

The healing touch of Naga music

By Utpal Borpujari

It was one clear, sunny day in April, 2013 when I landed in Khonoma, a drive of an hour or so from Nagaland’s capital Kohima via a winding hilly, road. Khonoma is a village of the Angamis, one of the most-prominent tribes of Nagaland. Nestled amidst tall mountains on all sides, Khonoma is, however, not just any other village. It’s the birth place of Angami Zapu Phizo, the legendary Naga leader who led the Naga National Council (NNC) through the most-turbulent years of Naga insurgency. He was the signatory of the Shillong Accord of 1975, which had led to the split of NNC and the subsequent formation of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) by the breakaway group lead by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu.

The first thing that would strike a visitor to Khonoma is its gigantic terrace fields – and a NNC memorial to those who had died while fighting for “Naga sovereignty”. As we walked into the village, we heard the sound of mass singing. We headed towards the sound, and found ourselves in the Thevoma “Khel” (each Naga village is demarcated into specific areas for different “Khels”, or clans). And the members of the clan, we were informed, were practising folk songs and dances for a cultural exchange programme with another village of the Chakhesang tribe. It was godsend for me, and immediately me and my crew got busy shooting the singing and dancing. Eventually, this formed the opening sequence of my film, Songs of the Blue Hills.

As the Central government announced what it called was a “historic” agreement with the NSNC (IM) leadership with the goal of ending the nearly-seven-decades-long insurgency, my immediate thoughts went to Khonoma, where both songs and guns did boom with equal felicity at one point in time. In fact, that can be true for any Naga-inhabited area, though I would like to believe that one is likely to hear more song notes than gun shots in Naga villages these days.

At least, that was my experience as I travelled around Nagaland shooting for my film on contemporary practices in Naga folk music. It was almost as if music flowed in the veins of the Nagas. And the Nagas know it. As ethnomusicologists like Dr Abraham Lotha and folk music legends like Sademmeren Longkumer said in interviews for my film, music is an integral part of the Naga social life as all Naga tribes depend on oral storytelling to keep alive (and pass on to the next generations) their social customs, folk tales, history et al. In fact, Nagas don’t have the written word historically and everything is traditionally preserved orally. And music forms the base of these oral traditions, perhaps to ensure that it not only sounds nice but also becomes easier to remember.

Since the late 1940s, Naga society has witnessed continuing violence, by both state and non-state actors. Insurgents have been killed by the security forces, security personnel have been ambushed by the insurgents, those belonging to various insurgent factions have killed one another, and as the saying goes, innocent villagers – in huge numbers over the years – have been “collateral damage”. Amidst all this, if something has kept the normal Naga’s spirit alive, it is music. As Khyochano Tck Ngully, an accomplished young musician in Kohima whose band Ru’a has an astonishing variety of folk fusion songs in various Naga dialects, told me, it has been music and music alone that has given the “healing touch” to the Naga psyche amidst all the violence. Be it the hymns in the Church or the traditional folk song, music, according to her, has helped the violence-ridden society maintain a semblance of normalcy. Hojevi Cappo, a Sumi Naga who has formed a band called Nagagenous that excels in playing folk tunes in a completely bamboo instrument ensemble, put one more perspective to this. He says that music has also helped bridge the traditional gap between the various Naga tribes, many of which used to fight against one another in the days of yore. In fact, as I found out while shooting for my film, musicians like Lamstala Sangtam and Mhathung Oduyo of the band Purple Fusion, and Lipokmar Tzudir of Nagaland Singing Ambassadors, have taken this aspect to a different level by picking up folk tunes from one tribe and singing lyrics from another Naga tribe.

This would have been unthinkable in the not-too-distant-past when tribal identities were rigidly followed. But those were the refrains – “healing through music” and “Inter-tribe bond through music” – that reverberated through the interviews I conducted with many musicians, music entrepreneurs and social historians. Tribal societies the world over have their own strong musical traditions, but for the Nagas, it has been much more than a mere tool of expression. It has helped them ease their pain, and hope for a better future.

(Published in Economic Times, 30/08/2015: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/why-one-is-likely-to-hear-more-song-notes-than-gunshots-in-naga-villages-these-days/articleshow/48726582.cms)

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