Utpal Borpujari

November 3, 2017

Cinema of the Northeast: From early Assamese films to star Manipuri directors, all you need to know

(Published on http://www.firstpost.com on 07/10/17)

http://www.firstpost.com/entertainment/cinema-of-the-northeast-from-early-assamese-films-to-star-manipuri-directors-all-you-need-to-know-4109699.html

By Utpal Borpujari

The positive reviews that Rima Das’ totally-independent Assamese film “Village Rockstars” received (she has directed, written , produced, photographed, edited the film, while Amrit Pritam Dutta has done the sound design and Nilotpal Bora has composed the score) at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) almost got overshadowed back home as the media space got captured by actor Priyanka Chopra’s misconstrued comments made on Sikkim being an ‘insurgency-hit state’ and ‘not having’ a filmmaking history till she produced the children’s film “Pahuna”, also screened at the same festival.

Thankfully, the comments by Ms Chopra got only a limited-space time in the media, as the controversy died down soon following her acknowledgement of the mistake and the subsequent apology to the Sikkim government. Thankfully, because, the spotlight needs to be on the exciting cinema that is being made by some fresh talents like Das, Haobam Paban Kumar and Pradip Kurbah in North East India rather than on ill-informed comments made by some on the geo-politically, ethnically and culturally-complex region.

What Chopra said is the not the first time that anyone has made a wrong observation on the North East, but it got more traction simply because she being a celebrity, it became saleable news. In fact, even within the media, the knowledge about the region is rarely more than perfunctory, and this writer can vouch for that having been worked in the media space in Delhi for over two decades. What made Chopra’s comments more newsy was the fact that it contrasted with her connection with the region as a Brand Ambassador for Assam Tourism and also as a producer who is looking at it seriously (after “Pahuna”, she is producing an Assamese films that will be directed by master filmmaker Jahnu Barua).

That “Pahuna” is not the first film out of Sikkim is a fact. And that gives us an opportunity here to take a look at cinemas of North East India. You may call it a primer, or a check list, but here it is, a basic guide on cinemas from what perhaps still remains India’s most less-understood region.

First, let’s find out where it all started. To be precise, the journey of cinema in what is now called North East India started in Bholaguri tea estate, located in the northern bank of the Brahmaputra, not very far from the historically-rich town of Tezpur, also called the cultural capital of Assam. Why a tea estate? The numerous histories of Indian cinema would not tell you that, because in most of them, the genesis of cinema in the region is either completely absent or is just about a footnote. The fact is that Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, an icon in Assam and the scion of a business family that had migrated from faraway Rajasthan several generations before he was born, had set up a temporary film studio in this family-owned tea estate to shoot the first Assamese film, titled “Joymoti”, which was released in 1935, initiating the film movement of Assam and also the whole region. (In a state where still “Marwaris”, as the business community with origins in Rajasthan are broadly called, are viewed as profiteers who make money at the cost of locals, the Agarwalla family is an exception and is credited with being a leading contributor to Assam’s cultural space, thanks to several poets and writers among Jyotiprasad’s predecessors).

Jyotiprasad, who collaborated with his contemporaries and giants of Assamese cultural space such as Bishnu Prasad Rabha and Phani Sarma, to make “Joymoti”, based on a play by Lakshminath Bezbarua, often considered as the father of modern Assamese literature. But it was not a whim of a man from a rich tea planter community that led Jyotiprasad to make a film. He was already an established writer, playwright, lyricist, poet, composer, in addition to being a prominent Freedom fighter (it’s perhaps not a coincidence that he gave the break to a teenager in his second and last film “Indramalati”, made some years later, who later on emerged as another cultural giant of Assam and India, and who went by the name of Bhupen Hazarika).

It was just four years ago, in 1931, that India’s first “talkie” film “Alam Ara” had been released, and films were regularly being made in Mumbai and Bengal by then, but in Assam, it was still an unknown realm. But Jyotiprasad did not want to do an amateurish job, and went to the famed UFA Studios in Germany where he learnt the basics of filmmaking, and also got impressed by the realistic approach of cinema taken by the Germans and the Soviets. So, while much of the filmmaking in rest of India was focusing on religious and mythological cinema, he picked a historical subject, about an Ahom princess Joymoti who had sacrificed her life for the sake of the Ahom-ruled Assam in the 17th century,

Being a nationalist, Jyotiprasad picked a theme that had much resonance in those days, with the anti-British sentiment building up across the country. And he used the inspiring tale of Joymoti to subtly lend a cinematic support to the Freedom Struggle. While doing it, he took a realistic approach, and eschewed the melodramatic route, thus laying the foundation of Assam’s cinema on realism. It’s another matter that it took more than four decades after that for Assamese cinema to actually strongly pick up the realistic approach to cinema.

The tragedy was that Jyotiprasad had to release his film in Raunak cinema in Calcutta (now Kolkata) because there was no cinema hall in Assam. He of course released the film later in Assam, starting with a theatre hall in Guwahati, called the Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir. The lack of screening space meant “Joymoti” was an unmitigated financial disaster.

After Jyotiprasad showed the way, films started getting made in Assam quite regularly, though not many in number. Quite a few of them were notable in local context, and some are now considered as films that need fresh re-evaluation for their cinematic value, such as Bhupen Hazarika’s first film “Era Bator Sur (The Song of the Deserted Path”), in which he documented must of Assam’s musical culture through a fictional story, and Sarbeswar Chakraborty’s patriotic sage “Maniram Dewan”, which has several immortal songs by Hazarika, including the stirring “Buku Hom Hom Kore”, which was later transliterated by him into “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare” in Kalpana Lajmi’s “Rudali”.

As the North East India as we know it now took shape over the years, with states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram carved out of Assam, and Sikkim getting incorporated first into India and then made a part of the “North East” region as an administrative decision, filmmaking efforts also started gradually in other states. Manipur, which had its first film made by Deba Kumar Bose, a Bengali filmmaker from Kolkata, in 1972 – the film was “Matamgi Manipur (Today’s Manipur) – has the most well-developed film industry along with Assam in the region, with both content-driven and mainstream masala stuff being made concurrently over the years. In other states, filmmaking is a more recent phenomena, with only Meghalaya having a sporadic filmmaking journey since 1981, when the first Khasi language film “Ka Synjuk Ri ki Laiphew Syiem (The Alliance of 30 Kings)” directed by Hamlet Bareh Ngapkynta, was released.

In a region where the usage of the term “film industry” is done more for the want of a more appropriate term, the reality is that only Assam and Manipur has a regular filmmaking tradition, though video films in local languages for local consumption have been made in other states quite regularly in recent years, though their cinematically they have hardly any merit simply because of the fact that while the easy availability of digital cameras has enabled lot of young film makers from the region make interesting short films and documentaries, it has also enabled some film illiterate but glamour-struck people to make what can be described at best as poor imitations of B or C-grade films in Hindi, Bengali or Telugu films. And even in these two regular filmmaking states, Manipuri filmmakers make films for budgets in the range of Rs 10-15 lakh, while in Assam, a film with a budget of over Rs 50 lakh is still considered a big budget one. In fact, in Assam, only in recent years a couple of films have crossed the Rs 1 crore budget, and only very recently, singer-musician Zubeen Garg produced and directed “Mission China” which with its reported Rs 2 crore-plus budget, has become the highest-budgeted film of North East ever.

The major problem for filmmakers in the region is lack of enough theatres, with quite a few states not even having a permanent cinema hall, and except Assam, all other states having cinema halls having less than 10 screens each. But in addition to that, another problem is that North East India is a virtual Tower of Babel with nearly 275 ethnic communities with as many languages and dialects, most of which are not understood by communities other than that which speaks it. So, when a film is made in, say Monpa, Sherdukpen or Wancho dialects of Arunachal Pradesh (for example “Sonam” by Ahsan Mujid, “Crossing Bridges” by Sange Dorjee Thongdok and “The Head Hunter” by Nilanjan Datta respectively), their local target audience comprises small tribes of a few thousand people (in most cases less than 50,000), who are spread across difficult mountain terrain in small villages, all places which have no access to cinema halls. So, a film made in such a dialect can have no commercial prospect locally, and can hope to earn back its investment back only if the film travels outside India and is acquired by a foreign distributor. Even local distribution efforts, through “travelling” or “tent” cinema models, are not easy to achieve in the region that has a difficult geographic terrain. And, of course, outside their specific local regions, in rest of India, such films stand no chance commercially as even films made in much bigger languages hardly travel outside their respective states (though the scenario is now changing with multiplexes in major cities releasing films in various languages, though in a limited manner).

Quite clearly, films are not made in this part of the world for only commercial reasons, though there was a time when Assamese films had quite a sizeable market, glimpses of which got seen with recent stupendous Box Office success of “Mission China”, with Assamese crowds thronging the halls in such a way after over two decades, the last time being in 1995, when the gargantuan hit “Joubone Amoni Kore (My Youth Troubles Me)” had come along.

But undaunted by inter-connected problems like dearth of funding, lack of enough cinema halls and a society that has been almost always in turmoil, filmmakers in the region have continued to weave their dreams, seeking to tell stories relevant to the region and its societies, over the years, and more so in recent times. While funding for feature films are often hard to come by, talented youngsters are making a gamut of interesting short films and documentaries, picking up themes that are relevant and current. But, like everything else about the Northeast, this had remained largely outside the so-called ‘mainland’ India’s consciousness.

Over the years, the region has produced several filmmakers who have earned high praise nationally and internationally through their socially-responsible cinema. They include Jahnu Barua and the late Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia of Assam, and Aribam Syam Sharma of Manipur, as also the multifaceted genius Dr Bhupen Hazarika. This, even as those like P C Barua, Danny Denzongpa, Seema Biswas, S D & R D Burman and Salil Choudhury have made a place in ‘mainland’ cinema of different eras, including Adil Hussain and Reema Kagti in more recent times.

Manipur is actually a great example of how one can turn in adverse situation to an advantage. After Hindi films were ‘banned’ by Revolutionary People’s Front , one of the numerous militant groups in the state, in September 2000, leading to the closure of most of the cinema halls in the Imphal Valley (the hill distrcits of Manipur did not have a single cinema hall then, and do not have even now). This led the local filmmakers to devise an economic model in which they shoot their films in the digital format in ultra low budgets and hold ticketed shows in various available halls (theatre halls, community halls, etc., though a few cinema halls in Imphal city has reopened in recent times), this recovering their investments and even making profits.

Those who follow meaningful Indian cinema would know that in Assam, both Jahnu Barua and Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia have contributed immensely given some really good films. Barua’s “Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai” (Catastrophe) that did commendable international business. There have been several other filmmakers who have made one or two acclaimed films before fading into the oblivion as despite winning both national and international honours for their initial films, they never got the funding for their next films. Among them the most notable one is being Gautam Bora (whose only film “Wosobipo” in the Karbi tribal language was screened at the Berlin Film Festival apart from winning the Indira Gandhi Award for the Best First Film of a Director in the National Film Awards), and Dr Santwana Bordoloi (whose only film till recently was “Adajya” in Assamese, which had won a jury award at the International Film Festival of India in 1996. She recently made another film titled “Maj Rati Keteki”). There have been a couple of notable exceptions though, such as Manju Borah (“Baibhav”, “Laaj”, “Aai Ko Naai”, etc., in Assamese, “Ko:Yad” in Mising, and “Dai Huduni Methai” in Bodo languages) and Sanjib Sabhapandit (“Juye Poora Xoon”, “Jatinga Ityady”, “Dikchow Banat Palaax”, etc.), who have managed to make socially-relevant films with small budgets. There have been several other serious filmmakers who have shone through their films, such as Sanjeev Hazorika (“Haladhar”, “Meemagxa”), Bidyut Chakraborty (“Raag Birag”), Ahsan Mujid (who made “Sonam”, the first film in the Monpa dialect of Arunachal Pradesh), etc. And before all of them, it was Padum Barua who in 1976 gave rebirth to Jyotiprasad’s vision of realistic cinema through his unheralded master piece “Ganga Chilanir Pakhi” in Assamese, which remained his only film.

Manipur, where Aribam Sharma gave outstanding films like “Imagi Ningthem” and “Ishanou” (screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1991 Cannes Film Festival), younger filmmakers are making an effort to make films to tell stories that capture the turmoil of the present-day society as well as folk tales and stories from literature. The most prominent among them, and perhaps of the most important young cinematic voice in the entire North East now, is Haobam Paban Kumar, who after a string of internationally-acclaimed documentaries, recently made his debut fiction film “Loktak Leirembee (Lady of the Lake)” which has scorched the festival circuit from Busan to Berlin.

Some remarkable young talents are emerging from states like Mizoram, from where self-taught filmmaker Mapuia Chawnghtu made the highly-stylised “Khawnlung Run”, or “The Raid of Khawnlung”, with a miniscule budget of only Rs 12 lakh, and Arunachal Pradesh, from where a young Sange Dorje Thongdok made “Crossing Bridges”, the first feature film in the Sherdukpen dialect, which was acquired by Insomnia Films of France), In Meghalaya, Pradip Kurbah made the dramatic Khasi language film “Ri”, which sought to create a debate around the sense of alienation among the youth of the region and how some of them get sucked into a world of violence, and followed it up with the much-appreciated drama “Onataah”, whose Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam remake rights have been sold, a feat for North Eastern cinema that has only once been achieved earlier by Abdul Majid’s Assamese film “Chameli Memsaab” that was remade in Bengali and Hindi. In Sikkim, the smallest of the North Eastern states, several young filmmakers have emerged, such as Karma Takapa whose “Ralang Road” got its world premiere at this year’s Karlovy Vary, and Prashant Rasaily, whose “Acharya” and “Katha” got good reviews in several festivals. In Tripura, Joseph Pulinthanath, a Keralite priest settled in the state, has made a couple of acclaimed films in the tribal Kokborok language, most notably “Yarwng”.

A few films from the North East have got limited release outside the region, such as Jahnu Barua’s “Baandhon”, Rajni Basumatary’s “Raag” and Kenny Basumatary’s laugh riot of a martial arts comedy “Local Kung Fu” (all Assamese), via the now-defunct PVR Director’s Rare initiative. The 2nd installment of “Local Kung Fu” got a commercial release in a few metro cities earlier this year, while Zubeen Garg’s “Mission China” also got a good few days’ run in the metros, thanks to the increasing Assamese population in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Pune. With the emergence of popular video-on-demand platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which are picking up good content for a global audience, a window of opportunity sure exists for the filmmakers from the region who want to tell their own stories. Bhaskar Hazarika’s Assamese film “Kothanodi (The River of Fables)” sometime back became the first North Eastern film to be picked up by Netflix and is said to be having a decent run on the platform. Still, filmmaking in the North East remains more of a passion project than a commercial venture. But then, only passion can lead to the birth of a film like “Village Rockstars”.

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February 24, 2014

Tales from the Margins

By Utpal Borpujari

In 1935, when Freedom fighter-poet-playwright-lyricist-tea planter and scion of one of Assam’s most-prominent families replete with literary and cultural giants, Jyotiprasad Agarwalla made “Joymoti”, the first Assamese (and thus also the first film in the entire region that came to be known as Northeast India), he had to release it in Calcutta (now Kolkata) because there was no cinema hall in Assam. Just a year before Northeast India celebrates 80 years of its cinematic journey, filmmakers from the region still continue to face the problem of where to screen their films. That, in a nutshell, is the story of cinema from Northeast India.
But that, luckily, is not the end of the story! Undaunted by this and a gamut of other inter-connected problems like dearth of funding and a society almost always in turmoil, a new, young breed of filmmakers continue to weave their dreams on the big screen, seeking to tell stories relevant to the region and its societies . From Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, states which that cannot boast of even a single cinema hall, to Assam and Manipur where filmmakers have made quality films over the years, the journey is continuing, but, like everything else about the Northeast, largely outside the so-called ‘mainland’ India’s consciousness.

The region has produced several filmmakers who have earned high praise in international circuits through their art house/parallel/socially-responsible/meaningful/by-whatever-name-you-may-call-it cinema, such as Jahnu Barua and the late Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia of Assam, and Aribam Syam Sharma of Manipur, as also the multifaceted genius Dr Bhupen Hazarika. And others like P C Barua, Danny Denzongpa, Seema Biswas, S D & R D Burman and Salil Choudhury have made a place in ‘mainland’ cinema in different eras. But despite that, cinema from Northeast India has remained outside the cinematic narrative of India.

Take for example Jyotiprasad’s “Joymoti” itself. It was perhaps the first Indian film to have a realistic treatment and to have a theme that drew from history and yet had a contemporary resonance, the in studies or publications about Indian cinema, it has had barely a cursory mention. The narrative of Manipuri cinema, and how circumstances made it the first film industry in the country to go fully digital (after all cinema halls in the state closed down making celluloid filmmaking unviable after one of the numerous militant groups active in the state enforced a ban on Hindi cinema in the 1990s), is another interesting example of the cinematic narrative from the region that has not seeped into the film history of India yet (except through a few documentaries).

If Manipuri filmmakers have devised an economic model in which they shoot their films in the digital format in ultra low budgets and hold ticketed shows in various available halls (not cinema halls, but theatre halls, community halls, and so on), in Assam, which in the 1980s had more than 150 halls but now has less than 60 (out of which Assamese films get released in approximately 40, and other ethnic language films in virtually none), filmmaking has seen a recent upswing with the availability of cheaper digital technology. Those who follow meaningful Indian cinema would know that both Jahnu Barua and Saikia have given some really good films, including the former’s “Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai” (Catastrophe) that did commendable international business, but there have been several other filmmakers who have made one or two acclaimed films before fading into the oblivion as despite winning both national and international honours for their initial films, they never could get funding for subsequent films, among them notable being Gautam Bora (whose only film Wosobipo in the Karbi tribal language was screened at the Berlin Film Festival apart from winning the Indira Gandhi Award for the Best First Film of a Director in the National Film Awards), and Dr Santwana Bordoloi (whose only film Adajya in Assamese had won a jury award at the International Film Festival of India). There have been a couple of notable exceptions though, such as Manju Borah and Sanjib Sabhapandit, who have managed to make socially-relevant films with small budgets.

Manipur, where Aribam Sharma gave outstanding films like Imagi Ningthem and Ishanou, younger filmmakers are making an effort to make films – whether full length or short fiction – to tell stories that capture the decades-old atmosphere of uncertainty that pervades the state as well as folk tales and stories from literature. And some remarkable young talents are emerging from states like Mizoram (from where comes Mapuia Chawnghtu, whose Khawnlung Run, or the Raid of Khawnlung, is perhaps one of the most stylishly-mounted films of recent times, despite its miniscule budget of only Rs 12 lakh), Arunachal Pradesh (from where a young Sange Dorje Thongdok has made Crossing Bridges, the first feature film in the Sherdukpen dialect, which has already been acquired by Insomnia Films of France for international distribution), and Meghalaya (where another young filmmaker Pradip Kurbah, has just completed a Khasi language film called Ri, which seeks to create a debate around the sense of alienation among the youth of the region and how some of them get sucked into a world of violence following certain ideologies.

In fact, Khawnlung Run attracted much attention when it was screened at the International Film Festival of India in Goa last November, as the opening film of the first-ever Focus section on Northeastern cinema (curated, incidentally, by this author). So did films like Prashant Rasailly’s sensitive Katha from Sikkim and Khasi short film Ka Lad by Dondor Lyngdoh and Gautam Syiem. Thongdok’s Crossing Bridges has already had good reviews after getting screened at the Mumbai Film Festival and International Film Festival of Kerala, and the trailer of Kurbah’s Ri is generating a buzz for its stylistic look.

But all said and done, these filmmakers face the dilemma of how to continue making films in their own ethnic languages considering that they can get hardly any theatre to release their films. While in Assam, the exhibitor-distributor combine often remove a local film that is having a fairly decent run as soon even a moderately big ticket Hindi film is up for release (the latest victim this month itself has been Raag, directed by Rajni Basumatary, which, even while getting appreciation, was removed from theatres as Yash Raj Films Gunday was to be released), filmmakers like Thongdok or Chawngthu cannot even dream of even having that ‘luxury’ as their states do not have even a single screen. Chawngthu, more than a year after completing his film, has been able to recover just about half of his Rs 12 lakh investment in Khawnlung Run, earned by screening the film in community halls, theatre halls and by selling DVDs. At least he has the advantage of his language Lushai being spoken all over Mizoram. Thongdok is further disadvantaged by the fact that his native tongue Sherdukpen (also the name of his tribe) is spoken by only a few thousand people spread across inaccessible mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, a state that has many tribes and as many dialects, none understood by another tribe. Simillarly,, in Assam, those who make films in tribal languages like Mishing (recent example, Manju Borah’s award-winning Ko:Yad), Karbi or Bodo have no avenues to show these films to people who speak those languages unless someone creates a system of taking the films to the people in the interiors using a “travelling cinema” model, something that a few people are giving a serious thought to.

In India, it’s a tragedy that we don’t get to watch (or don’t watch) our own varied cinemas outside the film festival circuit and on the big screen, except for Hindi films, because of the obvious limitation of languages from one region not being understood in another. While it’s easy to say that a subtitled film can be enjoyed by anyone, or even a dubbed one (like the South Indian movies dubbed into Hindi and shown on various movie channels), but the fact of the matter is that viewing another language film buying tickets in a local theatre is still not part of our movie-going culture. But even then, there is a niche audience for such films across India definitely. PVR’s Director’s Rare programme, in which indie films get limited release across some of the bigger cities across India, has been releasing various language cinemas too, and a couple of Assamese films have got an exposure through this distribution process too – Jahnu Barua’s Baandhon (which opened the Indian Panorama at the International Film Festival of India in 2012) and Kenny Basumatary’s martial arts-comedy “Local Kung Fu” got multi-city release outside Northeast in 2013 and Rajni Basumatary’s Raag will soon do so this year.

Northeastern cinema has and will continue to have the limitations of local marketing because of diversities of languages and sparse populations of various ethnic communities, and barring Assamese and Manipuri films, others cannot even practically think of having a viable domestic market ever. But in an era when cinema is the most-popular art form globally, it’s important that smaller communities and languages too has the opportunity to tell their stories in this medium that connects instantly with people at an emotional level. Quite clearly, the governments and the Centre and the eight states need to play an active role in enabling filmmakers do so, and the filmmakers need to learn to access the various sources of funding from various film funding agencies across the globe. But therein lies another story.

(Published in Pioneer, http://www.dailypioneer.com, http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/agenda/cinema-issue-special/tales-from-the-margins.html, 23-02-2014)

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