Thirty-five years after Nellie in Assam saw one of independent India’s worst acts of violence, which left about 1,800 people dead in one single day, a new Assamese film looks at how the violence that the state has witnessed since the 1980s has left a deep scar in the minds of children who have grown up with it.
Mumbai-based filmmaker Bidyut Kotoky’s Xhoixobote Dhemalite (Rainbow Fields) is based on true events and depicts stories of children growing up amid violence and brutality around them, with the director saying he himself was one among those children.
The filmmaker goes on a soul-searching journey back to his village on learning of the death of one of his closest childhood friends, only to find that the vicious cycle of violence continues to affect newer generations of children more than three decades later.
A group of children on the way to school in a car is caught in violence in which a mob set houses on fire and hacks people to death. Kuwoli, the youngest of them, is so shocked that she stops talking, before a storytelling grandfather helps her recover by bluffing that what she saw was not real but a film shoot. Her 10-year old brother gets access to a revolver, and a child gets shot as they try to enact a “realistic” play. Decades later, this boy — the filmmaker — learns his best friend has died in a so-called encounter after he had joined a militant group.
“The story is inspired by my own childhood experience of witnessing violence from close quarters,” says Kotoky, whose film had a world premiere in November. “As children, many of us had seen violence around us. And as has happened to me, I am sure violence had left an indelible mark on the minds of thousands of children who grew up in Assam from the 1980s until very recent times,” Kotoky says.
In one scene, one of the boys talks about counting up to 40 bodies floating down a river immediately after the Nellie massacre. One recalled finding a human finger in a fish brought home for food. The young boys hear three youth hatch a plot to plant a bomb when the chief minister comes to the small town. And the cycle of violence continues.
“A large number of children in Assam have grown up amid violence. While no institutional study has been conducted, I have come across many cases of post-trauma stress disorder among children,” says Jayanta Das, Guwahati-based psychiatrist who had also written and staged a play about children caught in the web of violence.
While the impact of violent incidents of the 1980s was by and large localised, those that took place in the post-television era have affected even those living far away from the scenes of crime, Das says. “The images of the serial blasts of October 30, 2008 [in Assam; 81 were killed] that children saw on television screens can never be erased,” he says.
“I have come across several children who have either seen their father shot in from of them, or have seen mutilated bodies brought home after a militant attack. The scars of such violence, which are not always visible in a child’s behaviour, are definitely indelible,” says Dipesh Bhagabati, professor of psychiatry at Gauhati Medical College. “Good that Bidyut Kotoky has brought the issue to the fore. There is need for study to find out the exact types of trauma that several generations of children have suffered in Assam.”
“The film touched my heart and made me nostalgic,” says Jahnu Barua, the award-winning filmmaker. “Bidyut’s choice of images and detailed elements of the story, an account of repent, regret and atonement, what also seemed like a personal saga to me over his memories and reminiscenes, certainly makes an audience identify and feel the deep pain that the filmmaker has been carrying with him since childhood.”
Kotoky’s film features Victor Banerjee, Dipannita Sharma, Nipon Goswami and Nakul Vaid (of Ab Tak Chappan fame), apart from about a dozen children including Maharnav Mahanta, Rishiraj Baruah, Mrinmoy Medhi, Krish Talukdar, Mihir Pegu, Hiya Kotoky and Jiya Baruah. While it has failed to draw crowds in his home state, it has recently won the Best Foreign Film award at Hollywood CineFest, apart from being selected for the US-based Kids First, the largest platform for children films.