Utpal Borpujari

November 27, 2013

NEthing…NEwhere… The Joy & Sorrow of curating an NE package at IFFI


(published in Eastern Chronicle, 17-11-2013)

By Utpal Borpujari

The title of this piece would perplex many. Obviously, to get the honour to curate a special “Focus” section on cinemas from Northeast India is reason for joy, and pride. There cannot be any second thought about it. The corollary is that there should be no space for the word “sorrow” here. But unfortunately, for this writer, there is.

Let me explain the cause for sorrow. A couple of months ago, I received a call from Shankar Mohan, the director of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), one of the world’s oldest and biggest film festivals which is going to have its 44th edition this year (between November 20 and 30). “Can you come to my office to discuss something important?” he said. A few days later, we met. His wanting to meet me had a solid reason – the Information & Broadcasting Ministry, the parent body of IFFI, has decided to have a special focus on cinemas from Northeast this year, and I was being offered the responsibility of designing and packaging the whole section. There was no question of having said no to such an offer. I was told that as the curator, I had the complete freedom to do my job, but the only additional request from IFFI was that I should also help in packaging a whole set of activities around the Focus Northeast section, so that delegates visiting the festival get a complete 3600 experience of Northeast India.

It was not very difficult to prepare a “longlist” of films from the Northeast. The names of the important films from our region are virtually on the tip of my tongue. Then I started looking for those films in the list. And that is when the “sorrow” part started. Let me include either “Era Bator Xur” or “Pratidhwani” as a sample of Dr Bhupen Hazarika’s filmmaking capabilities, I thought. But where can I get the prints? Nobody had a clue. The National Film Archives of India (NFAI) in Pune does not have any of the films directed by him. The State Film Archives started by the Assam Film (Finance & Development) Corporation Ltd has the print of “Shakuntala” but it is without subtitles. I asked Kalpana Lajmi about these films, and her reply was frank and forthright – “these films had happened long before I came into his life, and no one knows where the prints had gone even then”. My guess is that – and I am sure I am correct – we have lost all films directed by Dr Hazarika, except “Shakuntala”.

It was almost the same case with “Matamgee Manipur” the first Manipuri film made in 1972. Directed by Deb Kumar Bose and with music by eminent filmmaker Aribam Syam Sharma, the print of “Matamgee Manipur” too is almost non-existent – it is in a shambles. Luckily, a DVD copy of the film exists with filmmaker Haobam Paban Kumar, and – thank god – I was able to convert it to Digibeta so that it can be shown at IFFI, though the quality of the visuals is really poor. “Manik Raitong”, the only film ever to win a National Award (in 1985) from Meghalaya, is also likely to meet the same fate soon. Informed sources say that the subtitled print of the film, which was sent for a festival in Russia, was misplaced by the Indian Embassy in Moscow years ago, and the only existing print that is with the producer’s family does not have subtitles and could already have got damaged as it is lying in the cans for years without scientific archival. Indeed, though we may have a list of around 300-plus films till date from the Northeast, it would be a big surprise if in reality more than 150 exist. As someone immersed in cinema, it pains me deeply that many of our films are lost forever due to lack of archiving. On a personal level though, I have a sense of satisfaction as I could find the print of my grandfather’s “Runumi”, the ninth Assamese feature film, after nearly 40 years of having gone lost, and could get it (about 80% of its undamaged portions) not only restored but digitalized at the behest of NFAI.

The second cause of “sorrow” was more of a technical one that happens with almost all film festivals. Originally, the Northeast Focus was scheduled to screen nearly 30 films from the region. But finally I am being able to showcase only 18 as the number of available slots got reduced because of introduction of some additional sections. As a result, I had to delete quite a few films from the list – including Padum Barua’s “Ganga Chilanir Pakhi” and Atul Bordoloi’s “Kallol” (prints / tapes of both films with English subtitles exist luckily with the State Archive and NFAI respectively), which are two classics that have not been seen outside Assam. But I am sure I will get the opportunity sooner than latter to showcase these two and other left out films at other festivals.

But the “sorrow” has been overcome thanks to the acceptance of my suggestion by IFFI authorities to include another classic from the region – Abdul Majid’s “Chameli Memsab” based on Nirode Choudhury’s (a fantastic litterateur whom our literary pundits and bodies have chosen to forget for some unknown reason – but that is another story) novel and with some immortal songs by Bhupen Hazarika (his only National Award for Best Music came for this film in 1975) – in a special section showcasing the musical journey of Indian cinema.

What is important about the Focus Northeast section is that the movies will be supplemented by cultural shows and handicraft exhibitions (organized with the help of the West Zone Cultural Centre of the Union Ministry of Culture) as well as a special food stall showcasing Northeastern cuisine. That the NE section is getting serious importance is apparent from the fact that perhaps for the first time ever, any section of IFFI is getting a special and separate opening and closing ceremonies. The Indian Panorama and other sections are opened with a brief formal speech and felicitation of the directors of the opening films, but the NE section will have a special cultural performances too – by talented Naga folk fusion band Purple Fusion from Dimapur at the opening and by a Thang Ta group from Imphal led by Raju Laishram at the closing.

The section will kick off in the evening of November 22 with the screening of “Khawnlung Run” (Dir: Mapuia Chawngthu), which will be the first-ever Mizo film to be screened in any international film festival. The special inaugural ceremony will be attended by several prominent cinema and cultural personalities from the region, including internationally-acclaimed actress Seema Biswas and actor Adil Hussain.

One of the special attractions of the section is Dr Bhupen Hazarika-directed “Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad Aru Joymoti”, a documentary on the making of “Joymoti”, the first film made in the North East in 1935 by cultural icon Jyotiprasad Agarwalla. Incidentally, the documentary contains the only surviving portions of “Joymoti” and thus is an important cinematic document. Another film with archival interest will be “Matamgi Manipur”. Along with it will be screened Haobam Paban Kumar’s documentary “The First Leap”, on how “Matamgi Manipur” was made, as recalled by the actors as they watch the film after over three decades of its making.

The other films to be screened, representing all the eight North Eastern states, are “Sonam” (Dir. Ahsan Majid, Monpa language) from Arunachal Pradesh, “Ishanou” (Dir: Aribam Syam Sharma, language Manipuri) from Manipur, “Kathaa” (Dir: Prashant Rasailly, language Gorkhali) from Sikkim, “Ka Lad” (Dir: Dondor Lyngdoh & Gautam Syiem, language Khasi) from Meghalaya, “Songs of Mashangva” (Dir Oinam Doren, Language English & Tangkhul) from Manipur, “Going the Distance” (Dir: Tianla Jamir) from Nagaland, “Panoi Jongki” (Dir Dilip Doley & Narayan Seal, language Mising) from Assam, “Yarwng” (Dir: Joseph Pulinthanath, language Kokborok) from Tripura, “Papori” (Dir Jahnu Barua, language Assamese) from Assam, “Hagramayo Jinahari (Rape in the Virgin Forest)” (Dir: Jwngdao Bodosa, language Bodo) from Assam, “Agnisnaan” (Dir: Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia, language Assamese) from Assam, “Baibhav – A Scam in Verse” (Dir: Manju Borah, language Assamese) from Assam,
and “Wosobipo” (Dir: Gautam Bora, language Karbi) from Assam.

Incidentally, “Ka Lad” is a short film that is being shown as Meghalaya, despite a slowly growing local film industry, has not yet come up with a feature film that can be showcased at an international film festival. The case is similar with Nagaland too, and hence the state is being represented by Jamir’s documentary. And, though technically Doren’s documentary is about Reuben Mashangva who hails from Ukhrul district of Manipur, the spirit of the film more represents the Naga ethos through its story of Tangkhul Naga folk music and Mashangva’s efforts to revive it.

The section will close on November 27 with the screening of Arup Manna-directed Assamese film “Aideu” which chronicles the tragic life of “Joymoti’s heroine Aideu Handique, who for years was socially boycotted by people for having acted in a film despite being a woman.

That is not all. The 44th IFFI will also pay a homage to noted tea planter Hemendra Prasad Barooah, screening “Ek Pal” produced by him and directed by Kalpana Lajmi. The film, starring Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Faroukh Sheikh, has music by Dr Bhupen Hazarika, who counted Barooah among his closest friends. The

These are in addition to Manju Borah’s Mising language feature film “Ko:Yad” and documentaries “Manipuri Pony” by Aribam Syam Sharma, “Resonance of Mother’s Melody” by Dip Bhuyan and “By Lane No. 2” by Utpal Datta, which are part of the Indian Panorama section.

As part of the Northeast section, a panel discussiontitled “Our Stories, Our Cinemas”, will be organized on November 23. The discussion, to be moderated by this writer, will see the participation of the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi from Arunachal Pradesh, Aribam Syam Sharma, noted social activist and author Patricia Mukhim from Meghalaya, actress Meena Debbarma from Tripura, Manju Borah, apart from Chawngthu, Rasailly and Tianla Jamir.

Another North East link to the 44th IFFI, meanwhile is veteran Assamese filmmaker and painter Pulak Gogoi, who is the art director for this edition of the festival and thus is responsible for designing the art work for both the opening and closing ceremonies of the festival as well as all publications and memorabilia related to it.

Quite clearly, if you are in IFFI this year, there is every chance that you would be engulfed by the aroma of the Northeast.

(The writer has curated and programmed the Focus Northeast Section of 44th IFFI)

(http://www.easternchronicle.net/index.php?archive=17.11.2013&city=2# – when page opens, go to page 10)

October 6, 2008

Tragic story of a life sacrificed for cinema

Aideu Handique never could live a normal life because of her ‘fault’ of acting in a movie, and Arup Manna’s movie brings out the tragedy of her life eloquently, finds Utpal Borpujari


After Aideu Handique acted in the first Assamese movie in 1935, she was ostracised for almost her entire life in her village because she had called a male co-actor “Bongohor Deu”, as husbands used to be addressed by royal Ahom women, despite being unmarried. The heroine of Jyotiprasad Agarwalla’s Joymoti was forced to live as a spinster as nobody would marry her after the acting stint, a ‘taboo’ for women in those days. And to make matters even worse for her, she never got to watch the film, except for catching up with some surviving scenes screened during the Golden jubilee of Assamese film industry in 1985. Joymoti itself was a path-breaking movie for its realistic treatment unheard of in Indian cinema of 1930s, but for Agarwalla it was a financial disaster as Assam hardly had any movie halls those days to screen it.

What could be then more ironic than the fact that Handique, who died in 2002, could again not watch a film – Aideu – Behind the Screen – on the tragedy of her life, made by a cash-strapped director who wanted to pay tribute to her enforced sacrifice for the cause of cinema, despite briefly appearing as herself in it? The director, Arup Manna, himself has been forced by the prevailing circumstances, with cinema halls are closing down dime a dozen in Assam, to face a fate like Agarwalla, with his film not even getting a proper release despite picking up its fare share of international accolade and a national award.

Handique was virtually abducted by a cousin of hers who took her to Agarwalla who was looking for a young girl to act as Joymoti. The role in question was of a legendary 17th century Ahom princess who had been tortured by the ruling establishment because of her refusal to disclose the whereabouts of her husband and the legitimate claimant to the throne of the Ahom kingdom. When she returned home at Panidihing village in central Assam after participating in the shooting across the Brahmaputra near Tezpur, the villagers threatened to ostracise her whole family if she was not thrown out of house. Finallly, she was allowed to live at a ramshackle house at one corner of her family’s land, and for nearly 50 years she was forced to live like that before the Assam government decided to felicitate her in 1985.

Manna’s film, despite having moved viewers in film festivals in Munich, Sao Paulo, Singapore, Dhaka, Mumbai (MAMI), Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Porteballo (UK) and Habitat Film Festival in Delhi with its emotional quotient that rises above the lack of production values attributed to financial constraints, has not yet been seen by the larger public of Assam. Except for a few special screenings, a very limited release in Guwahati and a few other towns and some DVD screenings arranged in make-shift auditoria through an LCD projector, the film has not yet travelled to the hinterland.

“Jyotiprasad never returned to inquire the fate of Aideu Handique after she was sent back home with a trusted lieutenant of his. If Agarwalla was guilty of it, I too feel guilty of somehow exploiting her as I could not show her the film,” Manna says. The shooting for the film started in 2000, and it was completed six years later because Manna had to shoot in bits and pieces due to lack of funds. Shortly after giving a few shots as herself, Handique passed away. “She never got an opportunity to watch either Joymoti or the film made on her life that was a tribute to her sacrifice – though enforced – for the cause of cinema,” he says.

The tragic life of Handique, in whose name a girl’s school was established by the government in her village after her death, has been brought alive with all its pathos by young actress Chandana Sarmah after the opening shots in which the original, ailing Handique appears. Manna says, “My film is intended to bring under focus the injustice that we as a society collectively committed against her.” Apart from the mental agony, Handique also suffered lifelong physical agony, thanks to the recurrence of pain that originated during the shooting of torture scenes in which she had been actually whipped and the protective gear made of betel nut tree leaves had slipped from its position.

Manna, who had to mortgage his house in Nagaon town of Assam to make the film on a budget so shoestring – of around Rs ten lakh – that it would not be enough to shoot even a quarter of a lavish song sequence of some big budget Hindi film songs, is a little relieved that he has got Rs two lakh as prize money after the film was awarded as the Best Film in Assamese at the 54th National Awards presented recently. “If Doordarshan telecasts the film, some more of the investments will be recovered,” he says.

“When I met her, Handique was bed-ridden. But she was excited like a child when she learnt that someone would be making a film on her life’s tragedy. To my last breath, I would not be able to forget the spark in her eyes when I started shooting her – the eyes seemed to ask, ‘for whose fault my right to a proper life was lost?’,” recalls Manna. “When my work with her was over, she had said, ‘Now that your work is over, you too will not return’. And I could not meet her again as she passed away even as I was running around trying to complete the film. That will remain my biggest regret in life.”

(An abridged version was published in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com, 03-10-2008)

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