(Interview on http://www.thethumbprintmag.com, February 2013)
Guwahati has grown into a city without really meaning to be a city. From a centre of pilgrimage to a boisterous city, from tin-roofed small houses to tall skyscrapers — the city has grown seamlessly as the waters of the mighty Brahmaputra which flows by the side of the historic city. A recent survey (2006) by a popular Indian magazine – Outlook (Money) ranked Guwahati 16th among all the major and medium sized Indian cities.
But the individuals who lend a warmth and character to the city had never been celebrated. This is an attempt to honour Guwahatians who are either born in the city or have made the city their home and have been responsible for taking the name of the city to the world. The Thumb Print, a contemporary news magazine (www.thethumbprintmag.com) will honour the Giant Guwahatians from different walks of life who have left their imprint on the city.
Scribe. Writer. Critic. Film-maker. Curator. Multi-tagged film critic Utpal Borpujari talks about his passion – cinema, and Northeast to Teresa Rehman
This man literally eats dreams and breathes cinema. This avid movie buff and film critic has his hands full. Utpal Borpujari is the name, of the passion.
He recently finished a documentary Mayong: Myth or Reality which visually explores of Mayong. it takes a look at the legends associated with Mayong’s magical traditions and what are the realities as of today.
Another documentary, Soccer Queens of Rani is under production for Rajya Sabha Television Channel. It is about a bunch of girls from economically weak sections of society in Rani area in west Guwahati, who are training in soccer through coach Hem Das’ initiative. His work and achievements list is exhaustive.
What in the world entices this man to cinema?
He talks at length. “I have been a journalist for nearly two decades, and my first pieces that appeared in newspapers in Guwahati, as a freelance journalist even while I was a college student, were on cinema. Over the years, I have been able to watch through various forms of cinema – fiction and non-fiction – the immense power the medium has. As a journalist, I covered important political and social events, and have written extensively about arts, culture, literature, apart from, of course, cinema,’’ says the man.
“Journalism has its charms, and has now got a massive makeover because of online journalism where thousand voices can bloom unlike in print or electronic media, I have chosen to move to filmmaking – both feature films and documentaries,’’ says Borpujari.
I felt that beyond a point, the power of films is much more than the power of the word. As they say, one single picture can capture a story of a thousand words. So imagine what millions of images that make up a film can achieve! ‘’ says Borpujari.
He is enjoying the freedom now, of not having to spend every day looking for “one or more stories in my `beats’, and having the liberty to choose his work schedule.
At times, doing nothing can create that frustration which eluded you when you were chasing stories for so many years, on a daily basis. “That is probably my withdrawal symptom! But yes, I occasionally do write journalistic pieces,’’ says the film-maker, calm and at ease with his new-found work flexibility.
The Northeaster at heart has lived in Delhi for work, and as anyone who has left the hills to work elsewhere, Delhi at that, would put it, the difference is huge, “be it in Delhi, Mumbai or anywhere else. Definitely Northeast is more conducive to creative thoughts as you have so much happening around, and so many cultures surrounding you,’’ muses the critic.
What then drives people to the big cities? “Competitive mindset’’, is his response.
“ You cannot develop a competitive mindset in Northeast. Because I came to Delhi, I got so many opportunities to meet people across professions during my career.’’
Living in Delhi has also made the man develop a “less emotional and more realistic view’’ of the societies back home.
However, he feels that anyone and everyone have the life’s fondest memories about the place one is born in and has grown up, and he is no exception. Hailing from Guwahati, he feels that it is a city that has great history and been home to some of the most creative minds of Assam. “For me, the soul of Guwahati lies in its history and culture. Unfortunately, with rapid and unplanned growth, which has resulted in near-decimation of its civic facilities (imagine a city that is situated on the banks of one of the world’s biggest rivers and yet suffering from a despicable water supply system that has resulted in rapid decline its ground water resources!) is killing Guwahati,” he rues. With this unplanned expansion has come a loss of civility among its citizens, and that is something that should worry every one of its inhabitants. While he would like Guwahati to be one of the most-beautifully planned cities, unfortunately, that has become a lost opportunity. “It is a city that now looks beautiful only from the sky, or from the hills of Nilachal or Xarania. That is, to put is mildly, sad,” he says.
He strongly feels as someone from Northeast India though, that a thousand stories of the people need to be told in the cinematic medium. “My first independent documentary on Mayong an effort in that direction. While as a filmmaker I may tell stories from anywhere in the world, as I used to as a journalist, it will be my constant effort to develop subjects from Northeast India into documentary and fiction films. I have several ideas already up my sleeve.’’ His zest is palpable.
He is realistic about where film-makers from the northeast stand though, and rues for more international quality work. “We need to choose subjects that resonate globally and make cinema that aesthetically matches up to current standards. Often our filmmakers make films that look like TV serials – dialogue heavy, rarely exploring the silences and visuals,’’ is his complaint about not being able to mainstream cinema from the region yet.
The Mizo film Khawnlung Run by Mapuia Chawngthu has quality camera work and visual design, says Borpujari.
According to him, Northeast cinema is taken seriously by those who have seen the work of Aribam Syam Sharma, Jahnu Barua and Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia, and also films like Adajya, Raag Birag, Haladhar, and Wosobipo. “But when you talk of mainstream cinema people in Mumbai, they have hardly any idea about cinema from Northeast. The truth is that our cinema has been left behind in quality by cinemas in Marathi, Malayalam, Tamil, Bengali and others.’’
He goes on, “ Jahnu Barua made his debut in 1982, and there has not been another name from our region who has risen to those levels. What we need is international standard cinema and not just cinema that ends up getting a Rajat Kamal for the best Assamese (or whatever other ethnic language) film at the national awards and the makers remain satisfied with that.’’
Borpujari idolizes the top filmmakers “from our own Jahnu Barua and Aribam Syam Sharma to Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Ritwik Ghatak, Mani Ratnam to world greats like Alfred Hitchcock, Wong Kar Wai, Abbas Kiarostami, Godard, Antonioni, Fatih Akin to Akira Kurosawa, and many more, have inspired me as a lover of cinema. And the list keeps growing!’’ he says, enthusiasm intact in his words.
His own script for Assamese children’s feature film Ishu, based on Monikuntala Bhattacharjya’s novel, recently got selected for the Co-production market of Cinekid Film Festival, the world’s largest children’s film festival. It was the only non-European script selected among the 15 selected from among hundreds of entries received from the world over. It was earlier among 18 scripts selected for the Green Screen Lab, 2012, a screenwriting lab focused on children’s cinema held on Bhubaneswar in August last.
He plans to start shooting once the script’s final writing stage is over. And he hopes to make it soon.
Another feature film script, for a Hindi film to be made from a story by Atulananda Goswami, is under development. Actor Adil Hussain of Life of Pi fame who also essayed roles in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, English Vinglish, Ishqiya, Agent Vinod, Lessons in Forgetting will play the lead role in this film.
“Adil and I have been long time friends. We are discussing a few ideas that might lead us to work with each other in near future,’’ says the journalist turned filmmaker.
He belongs to an era when it when children were not encouraged to watch films. However, he was fortunate as he hailed from a family which had a general love for cinema. His maternal grandfather Suresh Chandra Goswami had made the 9th Assamese movie Runumi, the only surviving print of which they found over four decades after it had gone missing and got it restored through the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) recently. Noted director Siba Prasad Thakur was his father’s cousin.
As kids though, he and his younger brother were often taken to watch movies as little children by his parents. They grew up watching many Assamese and Hindi movies. In a subtle way, it imbibed in him the interest for the medium. His family nurtures a healthy respect for cinema as a form of entertainment and art.
“Of course, understanding cinema as something that is much beyond just entertainment came as I grew up, and got to watch films from various parts of India and world on Doordarshan and various film society screenings in Guwahati as a school student,” he explains.
He is working on two books in English – on Assamese and Northeast Indian cinema. All these years, his association with films was not limited to critiquing about. Borpujari was a script consultant to films and has also consulted for international film festivals.
He has co-authored the book Secret Killings of Assam brought out by Human Rights Law Network and Nanda Talukdar Foundation. He is also part of a team that brought out the first-ever comprehensive coffee table book on Assam, published by Nanda Talukdar Foundation, covering all interesting aspects about the State.
He lives in New Delhi with his wife and two sons, and is associated with the Northeast Media Forum, the platform for journalists from Northeast India working in the Indian capital.
With a track record like this, it is no doubt the man is passionate about his work. But it is a popular notion that passion consumes the creator. Has he ever felt as, on the verge of being consumed by his work?
His take – “Passion for one’s art is absolutely necessary – or else an artiste won’t be able to produce art that would be remembered. But cinema being a finance-heavy art form even at the stage of creation unlike paintings or literature which do not require much financial investment at the time of creation, one must keep creative passions in balance with available resources.’’ Utpal Borpujari finds it a limitation of cinematic medium.
For now, he goes back to his pen and paper, to finalise Ishu’s script.