Against odds

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Jahnu Barua, to whom the cinema of Assam is greatly indebted. Photo: The Hindu;THE HINDU

Manju Bora, a successful and prolific film-maker, was originally a writer. Photo: V_V_Krishnan

From Jahnu Barua's 1991 film "Firingoti" (The Spark). Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Bhupen Hazarika, one of India's finest film musicians. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

A look at the film history of Assam reveals a pathetic tale of struggle for survival in a market-driven situation.

AFTER making his 10th film in the Assamese language, Jahnu Barua declared that it was better to do petty business than film-making, apparently pained by the failure of his films at the box office. Soon afterwards, he made forays into Hindi cinema and made feature films, including the well-acclaimed Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara. However, the nine-time National Award-winner ended his sabbatical and staged a comeback, after eight years, when financial help was made available by the Assam State Film (Finance and Development) Corporation (ASFFDC). The result was Baandhon (Waves of Silence, 2012), a film about the ordeal of an aged couple losing their grandson against the backdrop of the infamous 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai. It was shown as the inaugural film of the Indian Panorama at the 2012 edition of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI). Now he is busy with his next feature film based on an acclaimed novel exploring human relations in times of turmoil.

Rejection by the general audience is not new in Assamese film history. The very first film made in the State met with this fate in spite of creating a sensation. The gap between serious cinema and the audience continues to exist, much to the chagrin of committed film-makers. The reasons are mainly the lack of a proper film culture that might have fostered appreciation of good, meaningful cinema. No matter what steps are taken by the ASFFDC, the fact remains that financing films is risky. The distribution of films poses a challenge greater than anything else as exhibitor-distributor circles have no interest in building a State-wide distribution system exclusively for films made in Assam.

In spite of the problems that Assamese cinema has faced all along, there has been enough to rejoice over, starting with Joymoti (1935), the first Assamese film, produced and directed by Jyotiprasad Agarwala, the doyen of modern Assamese music and drama. Joymoti can be described as a film of protest; it revolted against the dominant pattern of cinema. Joymoti was not just a legendary figure of a politically turbulent medieval Assam, but stood as a metaphor for the contemporary tribulations of India’s freedom struggle. This made the film directly political, a hitherto unknown endeavour in Indian cinema. It is worthy of note that Jyotiprasad was imprisoned twice for his involvement with the freedom movement. He wrote the script while in jail. He also parted with other obsessions of his contemporaries such as the overdependence on mythological themes and theatrical styles of acting.

Undoubtedly, his sense of the cinematic language was shaped during his unfinished scholarship at Edinburgh University in the late 1920s and short stint at the famous UFA studio in Germany where he befriended Himangshu Rai. It was a time when progressive ideologies were taking root everywhere. Jyotiprasad took a feminist position in the narratives he chose, the very first Indian film director to do so. In the 1930s, women in Indian cinema were passive and were sidelined, unlike the powerful, assertive, diehard and self-respecting Joymoti in Jyotiprasad’s film.

Nevertheless, the pioneer’s bold efforts did not inspire others to follow a similar path because there were concerns about incurring losses. The first film from Assam to receive the President’s Certificate of Merit was Piyoli Phukan (1955), based on a freedom fighter’s life. Its director was Phani Sarma, acknowledged as the first major Assamese film-maker after Jyotiprasad. But the movie was not free from the melodrama that marked mainstream Indian cinema. Piyoli Phukan was released the same year as Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, but film-makers in Assam largely remained indifferent to the new-wave films of the time. Film production took a small leap forward in the mid-1950s, but only with family dramas or romantic sentimentalism could they draw the crowds.

simplification of form and content

In the late-1950s, an Assamese film, Puberun (The Sunrise, 1959), directed by Prabhat Mukherjee, was an Indian entry in the Berlin Film Festival. It won the President’s Silver Medal for the best regional film in Assamese language. But it was not received well by the audience and proved to be just a one-off foray into film-making for both its director and its producers. Films of this period were marked by drastic simplification of form and content to suit viewers’ tastes.

Even Bhupen Hazarika, considered one of the finest film musicians the country has produced (he was conferred the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 1992), made films mainly to satisfy viewer demand. It remains an enigma why a well-versed filmgoer like Hazarika, who did his PhD in mass communication from Columbia University in 1952 and who co-founded the Gauhati Cine Club in 1965, remained oblivious to the parallel cinema movement. His debut film was a musical called Era Bator Sur (Tunes of the Abandoned Road, 1956), which became a phenomenal success at the box office. It was the first major Assamese film with background score and playback singing utilised as an integral part of the storyline. The protagonist was an alter ego of the director himself.

Hazarika’s excellence in film music was proved in Chameli Memsab (1975, a Rajat Kamal winner, directed by Abdul Mazid), which fetched him the Best Music Director award. However, it was Brajen Barua, basically a singer and music director, who reaped the maximum commercial success with his first venture, Ito Sito Bahuto (That One and All, 1963), the first authentic comedy in Assamese cinema, and also with Dr Bezbarua (1969), which introduced the mainstream Hindi cinema formula of melodramatic crime story into the Assamese film industry. Dr Bezbarua won the Rajat Kamal award for Best Regional Film. Its unparalleled commercial success encouraged film producers even from outside the State to make films in Assamese. Dr Bezbarua was said to be responsible for heralding a so-called golden age of Assamese cinema. Armed with a limited budget, Barua even used a semi-professional German spool recorder for out-of-the-studio sound recording to remarkable effect. It was the first Assamese feature film shot entirely without help from the studios and technicians of Tollygunge, Kolkata, and was thus a path-breaker of sorts for local film-makers.

Realistic and humane

After Jyotiprasad, it was Padum Barua’s turn to defy prevailing norms of film-making. Against the backdrop of a strong wind of neo-realism in the Indian cinema of the 1970s, his maiden venture, Ganga Chilanir Pakhi (Wings of the Tern, 1976), announced the arrival of a realistic, humane and quietly revealing film expression, questioning the post-Independence development model through the pathetic story of a young widow. Coincidentally, Padum Barua’s film, his first and also his last, got as little audience support as Jyotiprasad’s first film.

Then, there arrived Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s Sandhyaraag (Cry of Twilight, 1977), a polemical look at the urban-rural divide and the irony of changing attitudes. It got Assam its place in the proverbial “parallel cinema movement” of the country. His films had the stamp of a master storyteller. He was a celebrated writer, a winner of the Sahitya Akademi award. His scripts leaned heavily on narratives in a way that he would call a style of “literary film”. His other notable films like Agnisnan (Ordeal, 1985), Sarothi (The Shelter, 1992) and Itihas (Exploration, 1996) were marked by character-driven dramas and belonged to a type that puts family politics over state politics. He made seven films in the Assamese language and all of them won the Rajat Kamal for the Best Regional Film. Agnisnan, which examined the man-woman equation in a feudal setting, also won the award for Best Screenplay.

The cinema of Assam is indebted to a great extent to Jahnu Barua. His films, mainly Halodhiya Charaye Baodhan Khai (The Catastrophe, 1987), Firingoti (The Spark, 1991) and Hkhagaraloi Bahu Door (It’s a Long Way to the Sea, 1995), brought most of the laurels at the national and international levels for Assamese cinema.

In all his films, the protagonist fights alone, but with deep conviction, against all odds. Halodhiya Charaye Baodhan Khai, which deals with the sufferings of peasants, won the National Award for Best Film (Swarna Kamal), besides several international awards, at Locarno, Tokyo and other film festivals. Narrating the plight of an elderly boatman whose livelihood is threatened in a changing world, Hkhagaraloi Bahu Door also fetched him the Swarna Kamal for Best Director and 15 international awards. Barua is an advocate of simplicity but with the powerful backing of irony, satire, and a rustic charm, which constitute the mainstay of Pokhi (And the River Flows, 2000), Konikar Ramdhenu (Ride on the Rainbow, 2002) and Hkhagaraloi Bahu Door, the three forming a trilogy based on the grandfather-grandchild relationship.

Film in Bodo language

In the mid-1980s, a film in a language other than Assamese was made for the first time in the State. It was Alayaron (The Dawn, 1986) in the Bodo language, directed by Jwngdao Bodosa, which was given the Best Regional Film award for non-scheduled languages at that time. It was a love story against the backdrop of muga silk cultivation. Bodosa’s more acclaimed film, Hagramayao Jinahari (Rape in the Virgin Forest, 1995), is a criticism of government apathy to deforestation. The protagonist is a girl named Mithinga, meaning nature in Bodo. Using an old-fashioned Bolex camera, a pack of Fuji colour film and non-actors and beginners, the director completed shooting in just 10 days on a shoestring budget. Camera and editing were handled by Bodosa himself. The film won the Rajat Kamal for Best Film on Environment Issues.

It is a pity that Jwngdao Bodosa, an alumnus from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, and many other gifted film-makers could not continue making meaningful films. A few such film-makers are Hemanta Das, Gautam Bora, Sanjeev Hazarika and Santwana Bordoloi. Hemanta Das’ exceptional non-narrative Tathapio Nadi (Yet the River, 1989) depicted a boatman community’s plight after a bridge was built over the Brahmaputra. Trained in film-making at the Konrad Wolf Institute in erstwhile East Germany, Gautam Bora made Wosobipo (The Cuckoo’s Call, 1990) in the indigenous Karbi language with the story of a tribal community on the verge of disintegration because of socio-economic changes. The film won the Swarna Kamal for the Best Debut Film and the Best Music Director Award for ace musician Sher Chowdhury.

Sanjeev Hazarika is another winner of the Best Debut Film award, with Haladhar (The Yeoman, 1992), which explored the situation of the rural poor and the dispossessed. A theatre actor-turned-director, Santwana Bordoloi, made a strong statement against the situation of widowhood in a conservative Brahmin family in her debut feature film, Adajya (The Flight, 1996), based on a novel by the Jnanpith Award-winner Mamoni Roisom Goswami. The film won national awards for Best Regional Film and Cinematography, besides important awards at international film festivals.

Bidyut Chakraborty’s first film, Raag Birag (Vacation of a Sanyasi, 1996), also won three major national awards, for Best Debut Film, Best Editing and Best Cinematography (shared with Adajya for the FTII-trained cameraman Mrinal Kanti Das), and earned the distinction of being the opening film of the Indian Panorama at the IFFI. Originally shot in 16 mm and blown up to 35 mm, this beautiful film deals with a well-off middle-class family facing a series of crises. Chakraborty’s new film, Dwar (The Voyage Out, 2012), shows another middle-class drama with glimpses of a complex predicament of contemporary life.

Among other prolific film-makers, Manju Bora emerges as the most successful. Originally a writer, she made her directorial debut with Baibhav (A Scam in Verse, 1998), which was received well in national and international circuits. Her more acclaimed film is her third feature, called Akashitorar Kathare (A Tale Told a Thousand Times, 2003), a feminist flick. It won National Awards for Best Regional Film and Best Female Playback Singer. She produced and directed Ko: Yad (A Silent Way, 2012) in the indigenous Mishing language, and it got awards for the Best Regional Film in a non-scheduled language and Best Cinematography.

There are other dedicated film-makers like Sanjib Sabhapandit, Arup Manna, Suman Haripriya, Moirangthem Maniram and Jadumani Dutta, too. A look at the film history of Assam reveals a pathetic tale of struggle for survival in a market-driven situation. Be that as it may, successful experiments with low budgets and the latest technology have seen advantageous use of non-linear editing and digital camera, heralding yet another chapter of rediscovering and reclaiming the space of cinema as a whole.

Manoj Barpujari is a senior journalist based in Guwahati. He won the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic at the National Film Awards, 2011. He has published books on cinema, literature and politics. He is co-editor of Perspectives