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)

December 30, 2012

North-East cinemas: Interesting times (Deep Focus Cinema magazine)

By Utpal Borpujari

North-East India has had an interesting cinematic history that started in 1935 with the making of “Joymoti”, the first Assamese film made by author-nationalist-poet-playwright-tea planter-lyricist-composer-and-much-more Jyotiprasad Agarwalla. “Joymoti”, which is the story of an eponymous princess of the Ahom dynasty who laid down her life for the sake of democracy, came four years after “Alam Ara” (1931), the first Indian talkie. Since then, a few hundred movies have come about in the region that is called a heterogenous-sounding “the North-East” for geopolitical reasons, but which is actually a landmass made up of eight states that such an immense ethnic and cultural diversity that the overarching nomenclature sometimes actually feels quite odd. Films have been made in this region in not only in Assamese and Manipuri, the two languages that have had a semblance of an industry, but also in languages for which there are practically no avenue for theatrical release – such as Karbi, Mishing, Bodo, Monpa, Kokborok and Sadri.

But with the advent of digital filmmaking, the region in recent years has witnessed what can be called “democratisation” of cinema. Now, the North-East gets films in a variety of languages and dialects, such as Khasi (in which a single celluloid film titled “Manik Raitong” was made in the 1980s), Jaintia, Garo, Rabha, etc., apart from the languages already mentioned. Most of these films reach the people either through “mobile” cinema format, in which films are shown to people in community halls, tents and even open spaces against tickets through a set of LCD projector, a screen and a DVD player that moves from place to place in interior parts of the region, or through DVDs/CDs sold for home video viewing. It’s quite needless to say that because of this democratisation of cinema, a lot of people without any knowledge of the medium or the art but with loads of allegedly ill-gotten money have become ‘filmmakers’, resulting in a large number of productions that won’t stand scrutiny of the definition of cinema.

But at the same time, the easy availability of low-cost digital movie-making cameras and the resultant possibility of massive reduction in filmmaking costs have also enabled some talented youngsters to experiment with interesting subjects even with limited budgets in recent years. Take for example Manipur, which last made a celluloid feature film way back in 1998 as the format became economically unviable after a ‘ban’ on the screening of Hindi films led to gradual closure of most of the Imphal Valley (which the hub of the Manipuri Meitei-speaking film industry). It is the first state in India to have a fully-digital film industry, and every year its filmmakers have been producing around 50 digital feature films that are made in budgets in the range of approximately Rs 6-15 lakh. The fact that it has been continuously producing that many films every year means that the expenditure-profit ratio has got maintained through the limited theatrical and widespread travelling theatre releases.

The state, which has a vibrant pool of talented young filmmakers who are creating some highly interesting documentaries and short films that have been winning awards at various festivals on a regular basis, will after a long period see a celluloid film with an unheard of budget for the local film industry – all of Rs 1 crore! This ‘big’ budget is the result of the requirement of the subject of the film, which is set in the backdrop of the fierce battles of World War II that were fought between the Allied Army and the Japanese forces in North-Eastern India – perhaps the first fictional film ever to have this backdrop. The film, titled “My Japanese Niece”, according to its young director Mohen Naorem, will bring into focus the unknown humanitarian aspects of the war that was fought in Manipur and Nagaland. The story, Naorem has said in an interview published in the media, focuses on the humane relationship shared by the Japanese, often portrayed as cruel soldiers who committed a lot of atrocities, with the local Manipuri population. The story of the film would take the viewer in a journey of discovery through the lead character Asada, a Japanese woman who comes to Manipur to pay homage to her uncle who was presumed dead in the March 1944 battle. As she reaches the state, she is told about a man, who has dies a few months before her arrival, and who resembled her uncle. Asada goes on a journey of discovery during which she learns about the the trials and tribulations of the Japanese soldiers in India. Naorem, who plans to release the film in August next year, got the idea for the film after he saw how Manipuris raised relief funds after Japan was hit by the massive March 2011 earthquake, as also the visit of a Japanese team to exhume remains of 11 Japanese soldiers in Assam in early 2012. Naorem, who has already cast Osaka-based model Yu Asada for Asada’s character and London-based Junichi Kajioka (seen in films like Devils on the Doorstep, City of Life and Death, and The Flowers of War) as the lost soldier, is looking more at the international market rather than the local market for his film, especially the South-East Asian and Japanese markets. While his film will be in Manipuri, he also plans to dub it in English and Japanese. Several other talented Manipuri filmmakers, such as Haobam Paban Kumar (who made the powerful political documentary “AFSPA 1958”), Oinam Doren and Romi Meitei are planning a slew of interesting films in the near future, all looking majorly at exploring the international market potential for their projects. The Manipur Film Development Corporation has recently acquired a reasonably good digital camera to give a boost to local filmmakers aspirations.

If Manipur, which already has a base built by veterans lie Aribam Syam Sharma, to build its film industry upon, in Mizoram, where in recent years a few low-budget digital films have been made, a young self-taught filmmaker has created a storm by cooking up a visually-rich digital feature film for just Rs 11 lakh – the highest-budget film made in the state ever! Titled “Khawnlung Run” (The Raid of Khawnlung), this film has achieved a level of visual quality that is being discussed quite vigorously among at least the younger generation of North-Eastern filmmakers. Directed by Lunglei-based Mapuia Chawngthu, “Khawnlung Run” is a story of doomed love set in the real backdrop of the 1856 raid of Khawnlung village by rival Lushai chieftains. This is perhaps the first Dulian dialent (the lingua franca of the Mizos) language film to catch the attention of anyone outside Mizoram, and Chawngthu, who is the producer-director-cinematographer-editor of the film, is trying to take his film outside the state following advice from well-wishers about its potential, though his basic idea behind making it was to acquaint the youth about Mizo history and folklore through a well-made film. The film was released in local theatres and community centres of Mizoram in August and got tremendous response from the local people. And why not? This stylishly-mounted film with imaginative cinematography and tight editing has a story drawn from local history and folklore, and has commendable acting from the local cast. Shot on location around 145 km south of capital Aizawl, the film took six months to shoot, and nearly two years were spent in post-production work. The effort shows in the production value of the film!

Meanwhile, in Assam, which saw a real ebb in filmmaking in the last decade, suddenly seems to be witnessing better cinematic days. The greatest living Assamese filmmaker, Jahnu Barua, has made a comeback to the state’s film scenario after about eight years, and his latest film “Bandhon” would have hit the screens by the time this article gets into print. The film has a powerful and humane storyline raising questions about several issues of the day, and has been shot in Assam and Mumbai. Barua’s favourite actor Bishnu Kharghoria, along with popular starts like Jatin Borah and Jerifa Wahid, form the cast of the film that got its world premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival recently. Incidentally, this film has been produced by the Assam Film (Finance & Development) Corporation, which till date has produced only one film before this, that too years ago. The Corporation is also exploring the co-production route to jointly produce four other Assamese films in collaboration with private producers. Hope this trend continues and the state government provides a regular budgetary grant to the Corporation so that it can continue producing meaningful cinema in various local languages. Barua, whose last two filmmaking attempts in Hindi (“Butterfly Chase” and “Har Pal”) remains incomplete for reasons unknown, is already preparing to shoot his next Assamese project, which definitely is a good news for the local film industry.

Another veteran filmmaker, Manju Borah, too has got quite busy suddenly. One of the rare filmmakers who have been seeking out meaningful subjects for her films on a frequent basis at a time when many filmmakers were struggling to get funds, Borah has just completed the shooting of a Mishing-language film titled “Koyad” (Erosion). With music by Isaac Thomas Kottukapally, who has worked with her in more than one project in the past, the film takes a look at “erosion of different emotions in life”, as Borah puts it. The film has the river-man relationship, which is so crucial to the lifestyle of the Mishing community, as its backbone, and is about the human spirit that always triumphs. Borah has also announced a full-length animation feature film on the 15th century saint-social reformer-cultural icon Srimanta Sankardeva, which will also be the first full-length animation film to be made in the entire North-East India. The filmmaker plans to release it in Assamese, Bengali, Hindi and English, and the animation is being developed by Kolkata-based Kaleidoscope Entertainment. Borah is also associated with another interesting project, a mainstream comedy titled “Baralar Bhar” (The House of the Bachelors), produced and directed by Malayalam filmmaker Mani C Kappen. Shot in Assam and Bengal, it is the story of an Assamese boy marrying a Bengali girl and their subsequent travails in a comic format.

Another young filmmaker, Bidyut Kotoky, also made a promising debut recently with his National Film Development Corporation (NFDC)-released “Ekhon Nedekha Nodir Xhipare” (As the River Flows) finally getting theatrical release to encouraging response from the people after nearly two years in gestation. The Hindi version of the film, which sensitively tackles the issue of how the common man of Assam has suffered because of the over three decades of insurgency and social unrest, is also expected to be ready soon. The film ran for four weeks in Guwahati and local film industry insiders said it had the potential to do much better financially all across the state if a proper pre-release publicity campaign had been carried out.

The fact that several other interesting Assamese films – “Dwaar” by Bidyut Chakraborty whose debut film “Raag Birag” had wowed audiences in several international film festivals for its deeply philosophical tone, “Adhyay” by Amulya Manna whose previous film “Aideu” had chronicled the life of the heroine of “Joymoti”, Aideu Handique, young filmmaker Rajesh Bhuyan’s take on female foeticide in “Me and My Sister”, and septuagenarian director Prabin Bora’s socio-cultural drama “Luitok Bhetibo Kone” – are getting ready to hit the big screen puts the local film industry at a possible turning point from where things can get only better. Even Sikkim, the eighth North-Eastern state, is seeking to put itself on the cinematic map through Pradip Rasaily’s film “Katha”, an effort at serious storytelling. Once can only hope – in a year when the Indian film industry celebrates its 100th year – that the trend continues, and the trash abates.

(Published in Deep Focus Cinema, December 2012 – the 1st issue of the relaunched version)



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