Utpal Borpujari

November 27, 2013

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

EasternChronicleIFFINE171113

(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)

May 27, 2012

The Hills Have Eyes (Outlook Collector’s Edition/100 years of Indian Cinema)

By Utpal Borpujari

Cinema from the Northeast has mostly remained on the margins of Indian cinema, just like this most misunderstood region of India has been in the country’s consciousness. This, despite the fact that it has had a 77-year history of cinema, produced internationally feted filmmakers like Jahnu Barua and Aribam Syam Sharma, and given to the nation’s cinema personalities like Pramathesh Chandra Barua, S.D. Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Bhupen Hazarika, Danny Denzongpa and Seema Biswas.

Home to hundreds of ethnic communities speaking hundreds of dialects, this geographical swathe is like a tower of Babel. However, Assamese and Manipuri filmmakers have dominated the landscape for obvious reasons of having a slightly respectable viewer base. It is also here that cinema has acted as a platform—at least in the last three decades or so—to showcase ethno-cultural aspirations, no matter if such endeavours have been sure-shot recipes for financial disaster. How can one hope to recover the investment, let alone make profits, if a film is made in languages like Kokborok or Monpa, spoken by small tribes who inhabit areas where there are no cinema halls? But despite that, films have been made in these languages (spoken in parts of Tripura and Arunachal) as there has been cinema in languages like Bodo, Karbi, Mishing, Khasi and even Sadri, the lingua franca of the tea garden labourers of Jharkhand origin.

The history of cinema in northeastern India remains an unwritten one outside the region, barring one or two passing reference books on Indian cinema. Beyond film festival regulars, how many have seen films like Barua’s Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai (The Catastrophe), one of the most-travelled Indian films internationally, and a winner of the National award for Best Feature Film? It was made with a paltry budget of Rs 7 lakh but earned over Rs 1 crore in domestic and international sales (you will fall off the chair if you calculate the profits in percentage terms). Or heard about Sharma’s Ishanou, whose actress won a jury’s special mention at the Cannes Film Festival and whose selection to the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section of that festival in 1991 had elicited a headline to this effect in a ‘national’ English daily: ‘No Indian films in Cannes this year, but a Manipuri film makes the cut’!

The roots of cinema in Northeast India were implanted way, way back, on March 10, 1935. On that date the first Assamese film, indeed the first film from Northeast India, was released in the Raunaq cinema hall in Calcutta. The film was Joymoti, made by Assam’s freedom fighter-poet-playwright-lyricist-litterateur-and-composer Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, who learnt the basics of filmmaking in Berlin’s UFA Studios under Franz Ozten and Himanshu Rai. From a family that had its roots in faraway Rajasthan but had adapted the Assamese culture several generations before him, Jyotiprasad chose the nationalistic tale of Joymoti, a 16th century princess of Assam’s Ahom dynasty who was tortured to death for not revealing the whereabouts of her husband Gadapani, the rightful heir to the throne. It was probably India’s first go at realistic filmmaking, and thanks mainly to lack of venues to screen his film in Assam, the film was an unmitigated financial disaster. Jyotiprasad, in the absence of local talent, had hired Lahore’s Bhopal Chandra Mehta as his cinematographer, and had to carry the responsibilities of being the scriptwriter, producer, director, choreographer, editor, set designer, lyricist and music director of Joymoti.

Jyotiprasad’s film was based on the play Joymoti Kunwari by Sahityarathi Lakshminath Bezbaruah, one of Assam’s all-time literary giants, thereby starting a tradition of close links between cinema and literature, something that continues till date. Joymoti was also the maker’s tribute to Gandhiji’s passive resistance movement—a freedom fighter, he was an ardent follower of the Father of the nation. It also had a strong feminist viewpoint, unlike the male-dominated films being made in other parts of the country at that time.

Another Assamese who shone around the same time was Pramathesh Barua, the scion of the royal family of Gauripur, a quaint little town in Dhubri district of lower Assam. His exploits in the Indian cinema world are too well-known to be recounted here, but unfortunately, he never made a film in Assamese. The mid-1950s saw the emergence of composer-singer Bhupen Hazarika as a filmmaker too, with his directorial debut Era Bator Sur (Tunes from the Deserted Path) showcasing the musical genius in him. He went on to make films like Pratidhwani, Lotighoti and Chikmik Bijuli, each different in genre and thus reflecting Hazarika’s versatility.

It was in 1976 that the Northeast got its first film since Joymoti that followed a realistic style of storytelling. The film was Ganga Chilanir Pakhi, directed by Padum Barua. Based on a novel by Lakshmi Nandan Bora, the film showcased Barua’s remarkable grasp of the medium, presenting a realistic picture of rural Assam. Unfortunately, it failed at the box office. In 1977, Assamese cinema really caught the attention of the outside world through Sandhyarag of Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia, a physics professor, novelist and playwright who went on to make seven more films, including Agnisnaan, a powerful women’s rights story fixed in a feudal setting. But it was Jahnu Barua, who debuted in 1982 with the gentle love story Aparupa, starring Suhasini Mulay, who took Assamese cinema to great heights through Halodhiya… and Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (It’s a Long Way to the Sea).

Meanwhile, tiny Manipur, known more for its sports-crazy people, theatre legend Ratan Thiyam and, unfortunately, its innumerable insurgent groups was also making a mark in the reel world. The state saw its first film, Matamgee Manipur, in 1972 but carved its name on the world cinema map with A.S. Sharma’s Imagi Ningthem and Ishanou, both universal tales in ethnic settings. A state brimming with young cinematic talent, it is, however, yet to produce another filmmaker of the calibre of Sharma. But the young brigade has done the unthinkable by converting their film industry completely into a digital one to meet the challenge of closure of cinema halls. This followed a ban in the mid-1990s on Hindi films by an insurgent group, making celluloid filmmaking unviable. The state now produces around 60-70 digital feature films every year, all extremely low budget of course. And it is this bunch that, through a petition in the Gauhati High Court, got the I&B ministry to change the rules to make digital films eligible for the national film awards and Indian Panorama, opening the doors for low-budget films made in unheard-of languages to compete with others.

Unfortunately, despite filmmakers like Gautam Bora (who made the first Karbi-language film Wosobipo), Manju Borah, Bidyut Chakraborty, Sanjeev Hazarika, Jwngdao Bodosa (who has made several acclaimed Bodo films), Sanjib Sabhapandit and Joseph Pulinthanath (a Malayali settled in Tripura who has made two feature films in Kokborok) continuing to make realistic cinema, the Northeast is yet to have its ‘This is it’ moment, its own path-breaking Pather Panchali that will be counted among the world’s classics. But there’s hope, and despite the heavy odds it’s what the region’s filmmakers thrive on.

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Top picks from the Northeast:

Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai (Assamese; Dir: Jahnu Barua): A tale of a small-time farmer’s fight to get his property and rights back with great performances. Indra Bania got the Best Actor award at the Locarno Film Festival.

Imagi Ningthem (Manipuri; Dir: Aribam Syam Sharma): A moving tale of a grandfather’s relationship with his grandson put Manipuri cinema on the world map.

Sandhyarag (Assamese; Dir: Dr B.N. Saikia): A young girl struggles with her aspirations in the backdrop of a rural-urban divide.

Agnisnaan (Assamese; Dir: Dr B.N. Saikia): Strong dialogues, superb characterisation. Still great viewing even 27 years after its making.

Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (Assamese; Dir: Barua): A debate on development couched in a grandpa-grandson story set in rural Assam.

Ishanou (Manipuri; Dir: Sharma): Uses the backdrop of folk traditions and a mother-son story to question how religion intrudes in one’s life.

Wosobipo (Karbi; Dir: Gautam Bora): His only feature film till date, it’s rich in visual details.

Adajya (Assamese; Dir: Santwana Bardoloi): Based on an Indira Goswami novel, a powerful portrayal of a woman who rebels against patriarchal societal norms.

(Published in Outlook Collector’s Edition on 100 Years of India Cinema, http://www.outlookindia.com, 04-06-2012)

http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?280996

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