Utpal Borpujari

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)

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)


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