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)

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)

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