Features

Passion Over Profit - Indie Films in Assam Witness Resurgence

Archita Kashyap - 44 weeks ago

The state’s cinema has stayed niche, over shadowed but fiercely independent. Assamese films are fewer in number than Bengali, Tamil or Telugu, but their authenticity and distinctive voice make them definitive Indies.

Rima Das shot to fame for her genre bending low budget indie Village Rockstars - India’s entry to the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. Beyond the attention that this film received, Das has scored another credible success with her next, Bulbul Can Sing, applauded across international films festivals. The film focuses on a young girl’s search for her identity and self-discovery. Recently, it has won a Special Mention as part of the Generation 14 Plus competition section at Berlin Film Festival this year. Another low budget but enriched and realistic story from Assam, Das has beaten commercial restrictions to filmmaking with her third feature as well. 

Not quite as applauded but in a similar vein, Bidyut Kotoky, whose film Xhoixobote Dhemalite won some applause at a Los Angeles based film festival, has been successfully re-released across Assam. Kotoky has made this partly autobiographical film of his childhood experiences during the violent Assam Agitation. Having released in just 21 theatres, this film was made with labor, love and sacrifice by its entire crew. For instance, actor Nakul Vaid, who plays the lead in the film, put his own money in the project. Crowdfunded on Wishberry.in, the film has finally found an audience in its home state and won appreciation. 

 (A still from Village Rockstars)

Like Assamese people, it is not unusual for Assamese cinema to be clubbed together or identified with ‘Bangla’ culture. Similar languages and a common written script have often led to mistaken identities for the Assamese. The state’s cinema has stayed niche, over shadowed but fiercely independent. Assamese films are fewer in number than Bengali, Tamil or Telugu, but their authenticity and distinctive voice make them definitive Indies. 

Currently, a flock of Assamese filmmakers and film folk represent a clear trend of young, confident creative people from the state working towards making relevant stories that connect with native audiences. Between 2016 to 2018 films like Bornodi Bhotiai, Maj Rati Ketiki, Kothanodi and others have innovated to get funds and make poignant, relevant stories. Fuelled by a filmmaker’s passion primarily, made on shoestring budgets and focused on complete creative freedom, these Assamese films ring in a progressive change for the region’s cinema. 

Das wrote, shot, edited and directed the film, much like the first Assamese film- Joymoti, made by the state’s literary and cultural icon, Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla in 1935.  Agarwalla’s film screened in Kolkata first as Assam had no infrastructure to show a movie. It didn’t do well, naturally, as not many related to Assamese as a language in Kolkata where the film was screened first. Assam didn’t have any facilities to show a moving picture in most places. 

But Agarwalla laid a legacy with his first. Ever since, little commercial compromise has been made by some of the state’s filmmakers, whose stories capture difficult realities of Assam’s multi ethnic, economically backward society. Memories and experiences from childhood and youth marred by insurgency reflect in present day Assamese cinema, carrying forward a tradition that stayed focused on telling important stories. Utpal Borpujari, critic turned filmmaker made Ishu in 2018. It won the National Film Award for best Assamese film. It’s a disturbing story about the regressive practice of witch-hunting amongst rural tribes narrated from the point of view of a child. 

Filmmakers that have returned to Assam after stints in employment and education outside the state or overseas have made heartfelt, experiential stories have not always counted on commercial releases to find audiences. The cost of releasing a film theatrically deters most filmmakers from aspiring to getting one. Reema Borah (not to be confused with Rima Das), from Biswanath Chariali, a small town 2 hours away from Guwahati, has made two films so far- Bokul and Noi. Both have critical acclaim on their side. Screened at college auditoriums and community hall, Borah didn’t aspire to a theatrical release, as costs become a huge deterrent. 

(Director Manju Borah at the shooting location of Ko:Yad (Image Courtesy – Manju Borah)

Manju Borah, a seven time National Film award winner, made Ko:Yad, a Mishing film, capturing realities of the Mishing tribe from Assam. Sudhir Palsane, cinematographer of Hindi mainstream films like Baby, Aiyaary and Naam Shabana shot the film and reputed editor A Sreekar Prasad edited it. Borah isn’t troubled by the lack of visibility or exhibition for her film. “Its unfortunate that though so many tribes live in Assam, and are the color of our society, we (Assamese natives) don’t bother to understand their culture or language. We showed Ko:Yad in few theatres where Mishing population lives. Otherwise, with Doordarshan exhibiting regional films, my focus has always been on telling a true to life cinematic story. With support from the national broadcaster Doordarshan, I make enough to continue making my films.” Borah completes postproduction of her films at Prasad Labs, Chennai.  She rues the fact that the large, expansive state film studio Jyoti Chitraban, though abundant in space and once the hub of editing and postproduction for most Assamese films, doesn’t have adequate and updated infrastructure to meet a filmmaker’s needs in present times. 

STORY SO FAR

Assamese cinema has purposefully stayed niche. Its sensitive storytelling form has always been an easy fit for international film festivals, where audiences seek culturally distinctive cinema. With Joymoti, a brave queen’s torturous story of virtue, Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla, a poet, playwright and cultural icon from the state began making films in Assamese. Agarwalla, a Marwari by origin, is revered in Assamese literature and culture. His acceptance, like that of Bishnu Rabha, poet, activist and philosopher of the Rabha tribe, is evidence of Assam’s assimilative culture. Pramathesh Barua’s Devdas, made in Assamese, was a break through film as well. Men like Barua and Agarwalla were part of a new wave of creative minds that explored newer avenues of art with political and inspirational ideas. Their legacy- of building a free nation and egalitarian society- flourished in the cinema that followed for two decades. 

Cinema from the state got a whole new lease of life after the end of the Second World War. Assamese identity, with its diverse and tribal influenced customs, was beginning to take shape in literature and music as independent of Bengali culture. Post-Independence, Bhupen Hazarika, who sang for Agarwalla’s second film Indramalati in 1939, was coming off age in the late 40s and 50s. Hazarika’s legacy, now honored as a delayed damage control exercise by the Government of India with a Bharat Ratna, spearheaded a confluence of Assam’s music and cinema with Hindi and other regional industries since the early 50s. 

Assamese cinema of this era reflected a progressive mindset of intellectually driven artistes and thinkers. They chose cinema to connect with the state’s diverse masses. Assam is home to over 32 different tribes, each with their own dialect, a native Assamese speaking population, Marwaris, Bengalis, Nepalis and people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Cinema from the state focused on Assamese speakers during this phase, but rang with optimism for a united, free nation. 

So you had Piyali Phukan in the 1950s; a film about a freedom fighter with music by Hazarika and with Phani Sharma as director. Bhupen Hazarika also directed Era Bator Sur, a film that tackles exploitation of migrant laborers by tea gardens in Assam. It also featured Hindi film legend Balraj Sahni and Lata Mangeshkar and the late Hemant Kumar sang for its soundtrack. The 60s and 70s saw a proliferation of innovative and qualitative films that focus on contemporary socio-political issues. 

(A still from Jahnu Barua’s Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai)

Filmmakers and technicians did grow in numbers but Assamese cinema has never crossed more than 60 films in a decade. Their focus is on capturing the influence of ethnic violence, indifferent politics and their impact on shaping Assam’s reality. The 80s witnessed a Renaissance of sorts in Assamese film with Jahnu Barua and the late Bhabendra Nath Saikia.  Saikia’s Sandhya Raag was the first Assamese film to be produced by NFDC and went on to win a National Film Award. Barua’s subtle, underplayed form of filmmaking has an organic allure in international film festivals. 

Barua’s Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai redefined boundaries for Assamese cinema with its Swarna Kamal (National Film Award for Best Feature Film in 1988). Saikia’s best works include Kolahol and Agnisnaan. Together, their films opened the gamut for a significant distribution window and revenue stream- the Doordarshan telecast. 

THEN AND NOW

In the 2000s, Zubeen Garg, the prolific singer-composer and social activist, has become integral to expanding revenues of Assamese cinema. Garg’s films, like those of filmmaker- producer Munin Bora and actor Jatin Bora, have gradually pulled in audiences to theatres in larger numbers. His film, Mission China, went on to make over 6 crores, a record for an Assamese film. 

As Manju Borah points out, Assam displays huge potential in creative and popular art. North East India has seen a steady outflow of educated youth to seek jobs. Cinema in Assam has seen a reverse trend of sorts, with low budget, crowd-funded films being made by younger filmmakers. It’s high time that the state’s government makes a concerted effort and provided adequate funds to nurture it’s artistic talent, a key export for Assam beyond tea, oil and coal. Without organized government support, despite the existence of a film institute, Assam’s cinema will not be able to access alternate avenues of seeking audiences over time.

Tags

Village Rockstars / Bulbul Can Sing / Xhoixobote Dhemalite / Joymoti / Rima Das/ Manju Borah / National Awards / Jahnu Barua / Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai / Zubeen Garg / Bhupen Hazarika

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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