Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content, rasped Bob Dylan in Brownsville Girl. The lyrical depth in his songwriting blew Khasi musician Lou Majaw’s mind back home. He heard records at Moulin Rouge at Kolkata’s Park Street, where he was trying to strum and sing in local clubs after he had spent his days making a living as a daily wage labourer at construction sites or as an attendant at petrol pumps. Soon, Majaw was led back to the region he called home, the Northeast – a place that had been burning for half a century with insurgency and violence – and decided to wish happy birthday to the modern bard through a concert on May 24, 1972, a tradition that continues even today. “The paradox of the Northeast — where the game of death has been unable to silence any melody — fascinated me,” says Assamese filmmaker Bidyut Kotoky, who decided to follow the silk route for his musical travelogue Guns and Guitars. It is a documentary about the existence of melody despite the people of the Northeast being crippled by relentless violence. The film won Best Music Category at the Finisterra Arrabida Film Art and Tourism Festival in Portugal last month.
During the process, Kotoky met eight bands in their respective states, heard their different-yet-similar stories and culminated his journey at Majaw’s May 24 concert in tribute to Dylan in Meghalaya. “These musicians are reminders of hope and peace. Much like Dylan was in the America of the ’60s, ripped by civil rights movement,” says 45-year Kotoky about music being an intrinsic element of the world’s most bio-diversified region, which was isolated after the Partition, “sealing both land and sea routes for trade.” Kotoky begins his journey with Guwahati in Assam, where the filmmaker also went to college.
Apart from meeting the band, D’luzion, that represents Assam in the film, he also meets his professor Jagdeesh Goswami, who recounts being shot at by the members of ULFA, and Assamese musician Zubeen Garg, who talks of being apprehended by the Army and the terror he felt while coming back from rehearsals at night and how his keyboard saved him. He recounts protesting on the streets of Assam after ULFA’s bombing killed schoolchildren in Dhemaji. The next day he was crooning on the roads in Assamese: The rising smoke of the funeral pyres is for whom? Who will see, who will realise, wipe those tears away, dam the deluge.
Actor Adil Hussain talks of the contrast with the outside world and the degradation with regard to the student’s uprising demanding the ouster of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The story of violence and music continues as Kotoky moves to Tripura, where the indigenous people became a minority in their own land. The band Swaraijak lives and sings in a state torn between Bangladesh and India. Mizoram’s tale follows — after the 1959 famine, a relief team, Mizo National Front, called for an armed struggle to “liberate Mizoram from Indian colonialism” that was silenced by a peace treaty after 20 years of curfew.
Evenflow lives here and chooses to sing and strum the blues and rock years after mass arrests by the military, and where youngsters are targets of drug trafficking. Kotoky, who narrates the story in English with a thick Assamese accent, also raises issues of racial violence in which people from the Northeast are treated as outsiders in mainland India. He later brings to fore AFSPA, where the rape of a woman in custody shook the country and resulted in the Kangla Fort protest by 40 women. Plays were made, songs were written, Irom Sharmila went on a hunger strike as alleged fake encounters by the army and police had become nightmares.
The problem remains at the center of human rights concerns. Kotoky’s journey in Manipur, one of India’s most unstable states, reveals people in long queues for hours to get fuel and money. Here a rock band, Cleave, sings of being left alone, and aims to dismantle the imagery of drugs with rock. Kotoky moves to Nagaland, the space of the oldest insurgency in the world boasts of a Ministry of Culture and a Music Task Force. Here, the band Incipit talks of living in a place where any man can be beaten up by the authorities and where dissent existed for Greater Nagaland.
Musicians from Arunachal Pradesh speak of Tibet and the constant insurgency they face. The lead singer of the band, Symmetry Clan, sings of love and loss. The 98-minute film, where Kotoky and his team are seen in many shots, follows the participative style, documenting two things in the warp and weft of the NorthEast — music and violence. Sometimes he seems too focussed only on himself and the act of making the film. “I wanted it to be like that, where it was visible who these people were conversing with and how the filmmaker is involved in the narrative,” says Kotoky, who does not include bands such as Soulmate and Shillong Chamber Choir in the film. “I wanted the scope to be narrow and focus on violence and current bands coming together under one marquee,” he adds.
Kotoky meets all the eight bands together at Majaw’s Meghalaya concert, where all of them come together and sing of the music from their own states, insurgency, and music as a movement. “Every folk tune carries a story. And all the eight states, through this travelogue, have given their distinct stories. I hope it helps India know its own people,” says Kotoky in the hope that the Dylanesque revolution gives people hope.