Utpal Borpujari chucked up his job as a journalist to follow his heart. That paid off. Today, the journalist-turned filmmaker is naturally upbeat as his maiden documentary Mayong: Myth/Reality has been doing the rounds of international film festivals. The critically-acclaimed film is being well-received, allowing viewers and critics alike to sit up and take note of Borpujari’s work. Given that the documentary genre of filmmaking is yet to get its due in the Indian market, Myong: Myth/Reality not only breaks the clutter, it also makes a vital contribution to the Indian documentary genre. The first documentary film, NE Travel and Life finds out, got another feather in its cap with the Royal Anthropological Institute of Britain and Ireland archiving Mayong: Myth/Reality. He has also just completed his second documentary film, Songs of the Blue Hills, based on contemporary Naga folk music practices.
What sort of stories from Northeast India would make a good subject for a film? Would you consider making more films on NE?
This is difficult to answer simply because there are so many stories to tell from Northeast India! From the rich folk tales to contemporary literature that emerges from there, the historical stories of the region or accounts taken from contemporary socio-political backdrop to even the chronicles of the socio-cultural practices of the over 220 ethnic communities, the rich narrative of this region is waiting to be told to the world. Many of these can be told through formats like feature films and documentaries. But whatever the format, there are many good subjects from the northeast waiting to be made into films.
One of the prime reasons for me to shift to filmmaking from film criticism/journalism is the same reason why I had become a journalist – to bring out as many stories as possible from the Northeast to the outside world. Mayong: Myth/Realiity was my first film and it got a reasonably good response despite the obvious flaws it had as a first-effort at filmmaking by me. I have just completed a documentary, Songs of the Blue Hills, which takes a look at the contemporary folk music practices in Nagaland. This film has been produced by the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT), a wing of the Union Ministry of Culture. I am also in the process of completing a documentary, for Rajya Sabha television channel on a football coach in Assam who spends his own money to teach football to roughly 40 girls from economically-underprivileged girls in a place called Rani along the Assam-Meghalaya border. A few other documentary projects on subjects from the Northeast are under various stages of development. I have also written some scripts for feature films with a focus on the region. Though I will look at making films outside of the region, for now my area of interest continues to be Northeast India.
Your film has been in the selections of the 6th International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala; Silent River Film Festival, California; Cinema Verite International Documentary Film Festival, Iran, among others. Considering that this is your maiden work, what do you think appealed to the western audience and those back home?
The response Mayong: Myth/Reality has received has come as a big encouragement to me, given that it is my maiden effort at filmmaking. It has been selected for screening at several international film festivals and that has given me the required confidence to take on more subjects from the Northeast. The recognition has allowed me to further hone my skills and improve my abilities as a filmmaker. I think the film has appealed to viewers because of its subject more than anything else.
Your film looks at the little-known practices of witchcraft and black magic in some villages in Assam’s Morigaon district and brings alive something entirely unknown to the world. How did this subject come about? How long did you research on the subject?
Mayong is a place that’s a part of folklore of Assam, yet many of the younger generation are unaware about this place, even though it is roughly 40 km from Guwahati. I, too, had been hearing about Mayong since childhood but had never thought of visiting it ever. This became a trigger for taking up the subject and I wondered why no one visited the place that was so intrinsic to Assamese folklore and legends? This, combined with the fact that the generations before failed to transfer this important part of our oral folklore to the next generations pushed me towards making an effort to visually document Mayong and create a film that could kindle interest for the place among people, serving as basic information for anyone wanting to research on the manuscripts of magic that existed in Mayong or the folklore and legends, which continue being associated with the place.
While your film is a blueprint of sorts for those who want to research on magic in this region, what was your starting point in documenting material on the subject?
Lokendra Hazarika, a senior teacher at the Mayong Higher Secondary School, shared his years of grassroots level research about Mayong with me. I was grateful that he agreed to become the narrator of the story of Mayong. Additionally, I made several visits to Mayong to collect information and meet people before I shot the film. The main problem was to make the local people share the information. While some were ready to tell us stories and show manuscripts that existed in some homes, others were reticent. Then there were some who were reluctant to talk on camera.
Did you have any personal experience with the subject matter that prompted you to make a documentary?
I have not had any personal experience with the subject apart from hearing about the place from childhood. Quite clearly, it was the intriguing subject that prompted me to make the film.
From being a journalist to a filmmaker, was the transition smooth? Did you train in filmmaking or are you self-taught?
On the surface of it, the transition has been quite smooth, especially since I have been a film critic for over two decades now. But then, after having been a salaried journalist all these years, it was a risk to shift to another profession where I was on my own. I always had the necessary backing and encouragement from my family and friends. I also think if I hadn’t pursued my dream of making a film someday, I would have perhaps grown to be a frustrated old man. Even if I don’t succeed commercially in the long run, I can at least take solace from the fact that I didn’t try. You see, I did my M.Tech in Applied Geology from IIT, Roorkee, before becoming a lowly-paid journalist instead of a highly paid technocrat of geologist. So, I think risk-taking is a bit in my blood! But jokes apart, I strongly believe one has to pursue one’s passion.
What is the commercial scope of documentary films from the region?
Commercial scope for documentary films in India is very limited and it is very difficult to get adequate funding to make quality documentary films. Apart from the Films Division and the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), and, perhaps, some ministries, there are virtually no other regular funding avenues for documentaries. Now some windows are opening up what with foreign television networks and funders coming forward to fund interesting subjects, though the process to secure such funding are extremely competitive because of the limited number of opportunities. Also, now documentaries are getting commercially released in the form of DVDs and, sometimes, also online. So, there is definitely a change, even though it will be a while before they become commercially viable.
What are your marketing strategies (if any) that have helped you to publicise your work?
Since it was my first film, there were not too many marketing efforts barring sending the film to various festivals and using social media to disseminate information about it. However, the most encouraging part has been that Junglee Home Video, the home video wing of Times Music, has released the documentary internationally on DVDs and also online through the Junglee Film Club online channel on YouTube. While we will know in the near future if that translates into any economic outcome, it is encouraging that the film has become accessible for viewers.
Mayong: Myth/Reality is now archived by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Britain and Ireland. What does this mean for you and your work?
It obviously means that the subject I chose was an important one from the point of view of cultural anthropology. It has given me the encouragement to tackle more such subjects from the Northeast.
Is it an expensive proposition to make a documentary film? Did you get any support from anywhere considering that it is an interesting and important subject?
Yes, to make a quality documentary film is an expensive proposition, especially in places like Northeast India where often the terrains are difficult and equipment has to be carried long distances. Luckily for me, my friend Jayanta Goswami, who had produced the National Award-winning Assamese feature film Mon Jai, starring singer Zubeen Garg, came forward to produce Mayong: Myth/Reality since he, too, was intrigued by the subject.
Look out for Mayong: Myth/Reality at Planet M stores (a Times Group venture) apart from other leading DVD stores.
Available online at Flipkart and http://www.induna.com/1000015698-productdetails/
The film has been in the selections of the 6th International Documentary and Short film Festival of Kerala; Silent River Film Festival, California; Cinema Verite International Documentary Film Festival, Iran; 5th Cine ASA Guwahati International Film Festival; Indie8, Shillong; Gandhinagar International Film Festival.