“Stop making creepy movies!” This piece of advice to filmmaker Bhaskar Hazarika comes not from a film critic. Or a producer. But from his 10-year-old daughter, Leela, who has the most insightful conversations with her father. “A few months ago, she told me she was bored. I asked her to go write a poem. She said she had nothing to write about. So I told her to write a poem on ‘nothing’. And she did!” says Hazarika. The two are now writing a children’s film together, quite a departure from Hazarika’s dark oeuvre, where popular Assamese folktales get macabre twists and warm, fuzzy love stories take sinister turns.
“I won’t be surprised if people think I live in the basement of the Addams Family house!” says Hazarika, only two films old but already well-known for his dark subversions. But the 40-something director insists he’s just “a regular guy, living a regular middle class life” and that his predilection to darkness is more a career choice than a personality trait.
The questions, however, just don’t seem to stop. After a private screening of Aamis, Hazarika’s new film, last month in Guwahati, a viewer asks him: “Is this autobiographical?” The tall, ponytail-sporting Hazarika hurriedly confirmed that it is not — not even by a stretch — personal or autobiographical. Later, at one of the city’s older fast food joints, he laughs at this memory. “Not all art has to be ‘adapted’ or ‘autobiographical’. I only delve in the subjects I do because it’s an opportunity for me to create original content,” he says.
And indeed, Aamis, a modern-day romance, is probably one of the bravest, most original films of our times — one that got filmmaker Anurag Kashyap to quickly declare that he had seen “nothing like it” from India before. In the 108-minute-long Assamese feature, a relationship between an older woman, Nirmali (played by Lima Das) and a young PhD student, Sumon (played by Arghadeep Barua), borne out of their shared love for meat-based delicacies, takes a manic twist when the lovers, in their quest for morality, end up defying more than one societal norm.
Even before its national release next week, a smattering of film festival screenings has made it one of the most talked about films this year. After one screening, Hazarika was told, a viewer rushed immediately into the bathroom, and “just sat” there for an hour. Another screening led Assamese musician, Angaraag Mahanta, or Papon, to get home and cook himself pork. Yet others claimed to have lost their appetite. “And many say they just want to be left alone,” says Hazarika.
The effect is intended. “The idea was to provoke people, to shake them by the neck, to tell them that humans are capable of strange, unfortunate things,” says Hazarika, “It sometimes bothers me that our art aspires to portray humans as lofty, noble beings who want to do good, which is then used to justify the excesses they commit against nature and against each other. We have to deflate the Ego of Man, as it were. And displaying the depths to which humans can plunge is a good way to achieve that, isn’t it?”
In 2015, Hazarika, aided by his family, successfully crowdfunded his debut feature Kothanodi — a grim adaptation of four-well loved Assamese folktales, Burhi Aai’r Xadhu, or Grandmother’s Tales. A National Award might have made its way to the first-time filmmaker the next year, but it did not deter the more conservative of the Assamese to go up to Hazarika and declare that films like his deserved to be banned, and that they had no place in polite society. But Hazarika takes these in his stride. “There will always be a section of people — probably older — who will not understand my films. They will get offended. If Assamese identity is meant only to be seen from the perspective of the mainland, then there’s no point in watching my films,” he says, “As artists, we should ensure that our culture is evolving. That it is not stagnant. A culture is alive only if we keep encouraging people to experiment.”
He owes much of his experimentation to authors like Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe, whose works he devoured when he was younger. “These weren’t people from the Assamese cultural milieu but American pulp fiction writers. That’s the sensibility I retain. Mix it with a cultural context that has not seen anything like this before and I get something fresh!” says Hazarika. Though, Aamis can be set in practically any city in India, he chose the quaint locales of a wintry Guwahati to tell his story. “Let this (Assam) be my karmabhoomi for now,” he says — even though he spent most of his life outside of Assam, first in a boarding school in Raipur, then a year studying film in the English countryside, and later as a writer-filmmaker in Mumbai. The metropolis didn’t work out but it was still an important lesson. “It made me realise that this was not what I wanted to do,” says Hazarika, who was one of the co-writers in Abbas Mustan’s 2012 Players. “No matter how hard I was trying, the cultural nuances were not visible in the work I was putting out. I had to familiarise myself with Hindi cultural tropes. It wasn’t something I ever related to.”
But back in his parents’ rambling house in Dergaon — the small Assamese town he left when he was seven — making Kothanodi was like a homecoming. “I finally became secure in my identity as an Assamese person, and it turned my life around,” says Hazarika, who admits that on summer vacations back in Assam, he would think to himself, “This place is dead, man. How do I get out of here?” But now all he can think of is how to return.
For Hazarika, the timing couldn’t be better. The 84-year-old Assamese film industry, once known for its languid, beautiful storytelling, is slowly coming back in the spotlight after a slump of sorts, owing to years of militancy and a shutdown of cinema halls. There’s a flurry of fresh faces who are unafraid to experiment or tell bold stories. “In the 1990s, VCD films had become a huge industry in Assam — these were often tacky, focussed less on the craft. But today, there is a revival, even if it’s a small community. You get a Village Rockstars (2017), a Ratnakar (2019) and an Aamis — it goes to show the depth, range and diversity of Assamese cinema,” he says.
While films like Ratnakar, a commercial action feature directed by and starring actor Jatin Bora, and Zubeen Garg’s Kanchanjangha (2019) smashed most box office records when they released recently, the Assamese audiences are still building appetites for films like Aamis and Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing (2018). But that does not mean there is lack of attention on the filmmakers. In his recent trip to Assam, Hazarika has a packed schedule — from film screenings, to radio interviews to television talks shows. For every appearance, he insists that his actors come along with him. “If you start putting the artist in the spotlight in lieu of the art, you are doing disservice to the person’s craft. Cinema is not about one person, unlike a painting or a poem,” he says, “And, of course, it helps because I am shy.”
And indeed — Hazarika’s reticence leads him to do most interviews over e-mail or Whatsapp, mediums where he opens up, talks of the 36-day Aamis shoot, 33 out of which he spent with his arm in a sling, after hurting himself playing football. “It was misdiagnosed as not a fracture. I completed the shoot in considerable difficulty before arriving in Delhi a month later to incredulous doctors who saw the X-ray and said it was, in fact, a fracture and I needed an immediate cast!” he writes. On sets, he came to be called the haath-bhonga director (the director with the broken arm). As he nursed his arm, nervously wondering if it needed to be amputated, his mind briefly flitted to a King short story, Survivor Type (1982), he read as a child. “Just black humour!” he adds. Yes, Hazarika is inspired by the morbid — whether it is in his art or his sense of humour.
But for now, his real life is back home in Noida, where he will listen to his wife’s booming laugh (the one that made him fall in love with her 19 year ago), and spend time with his daughter, and they will possibly talk about nothing.