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Tuesday, April 07, 2020

The Marketplace of Stories

Filmmaker Pradip Kurbah grew up in the warrens of Shillong’s oldest bazaar. Now, he takes Iewduh’s story to the world through an award-winning feature.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Updated: November 3, 2019 6:31:47 pm
filmmaker Pradip Kurbah, Pradip Kurbah interview, Pradip Kurbah Iewduh, Pradip Kurbah sunday eye Real to Reel: Pradip Kurbah in Iewduh market in Shillong. (Express photo: Tora Agarwala)

The market stops for no one. Not for a thunderstorm. Not for a fire. And certainly not for a band of filmmakers, cameras in tow.

So last April, when Pradip Kurbah and his crew, stood in the middle of Iewduh, men, bent double carrying loads twice their size, hissed at them to make way. Jainsem-clad Khasi kongs looked up from their wares, intrigued by the paraphernalia of people and cameras. In the warren of narrow alleyways that sold everything from fish to hair pins, children formed groups as quickly as they dispersed, to point and stare. “Then one day, just like that, they stopped caring,” says Kurbah.

And that is how Iewduh, his award-winning film, named after and set in Shillong’s busiest and oldest market, was made — much like how new shopkeepers are initiated into the market, first with a hint of caution and then acceptance for life.

In Photos | In Lewduh, Shillong’s oldest market, it’s a constant trade with the past

Take MJ Sweets, for instance, established in the 1980s. The mithai shop, with walls painted pista green, belongs to a migrant Marwari family from Rajasthan. On a Wednesday, the owner, Juggal Kishore Sharma, sits behind the counter, as customers — local Khasis and Jaintias and Biharis, Bengalis and Assamese labourers — walk in for their tumbler of special chai. Sharma remembers the old days.“Pehle toh chalte hue aadmi ko ek-do boxing de deta tha (It wasn’t uncommon for the locals to give an outsider a punch or two),” he says. There was a time when violence broke out on the streets of Iewduh every other day.

But much water has flown under the bridge since. In the market where Kishore’s father and now Kishore and his brother have set up shop, relationships are interwoven as intimately as its crisscrossing lanes and bylanes.

The film, produced by Shankar Lall Goenka, delves into a Shillong one rarely sees. This isn’t the city of pretty little colleges and pine trees but the gritty reality of working-class dreams, best portrayed through one of the film’s main characters. Mike (played by Albert Mawrie) is a man in his forties, who cleans the market’s public toilet and has a penchant to save people: whether it’s Hep, a teenage drug addict now on the road to recovery, or Priya, the clothes seller who is beaten up by her alcoholic husband every night, or Lamare, the market dement, who spouts football trivia from the 1980s.

It is these bonds that Kurbah has fictionalised in his sharp 100-minute feature: a microcosm of human relationships set in a sprawling traditional market. “It could be this market we are in, or any market in the world — human relationships are universal,” Kurbah says, seated at MJ Sweets. Just last month the 43-year-old Khasi filmmaker was in South Korea, to accept the prestigious Kim Ji-seok Award at the 24th Busan International Film Festival (BIFF).

Now back in the mithai shop, where some scenes of the movie were shot, Kurbah is met with an avalanche of queries from the market folk. “When will we get to see the film? Are we in it? Did you actually even make a film?”

Kurbah laughs but says that the scepticism isn’t misplaced. There aren’t many films that emerge from the hills of Meghalaya. Films that win awards are rarer still.

filmmaker Pradip Kurbah, Pradip Kurbah interview, Pradip Kurbah Iewduh, Pradip Kurbah sunday eye A still from the film, Iewduh. Established in pre-colonial times, Iewduh translates to biggest bazaar. Duh is also a refuge, a second chance — something Iewduh is ready to provide to anyone.

But Kurbah started young — in fact, right in Iewduh itself, where his father ran a small film rental store in the Nineties, filled with VHS tapes of every film imaginable. As a child, he started with Tom and Jerry on VHS and graduated to Mackenna’s Gold (1969) and Godfather (1972) on an 8mm projector they had at home. Shortly after Class X, Kurbah, then 16, dropped out of school to explore a filmmaking career in Mumbai — he went from Bollywood to Tollywood, from Raju Chacha (2000) to innumerable telefilms, before finally returning home to make his first full-length feature film Ri: Homeland of Uncertainty in 2014. In 2016, his next film Onaatah: Of The Earth won him a National Award. While the earlier two dealt with issues of militancy and rape respectively, Iewduh is Kurbah’s first “non-issue film” — a film on the simplicity of the everyday. “Take this mithai shop for example. We have someone sitting on the right, we have someone on the left. We have people all around us. But do we ever stop to ask if they have stories? Or if they have dreams?” he asks.

That is what led Kurbah to make Iewduh, on a market he practically spent his childhood in. “It was only on the shoot for Onaatah that I realised the beauty of the place, its people and their stories,” says Kurbah, who spent the subsequent year speaking to vendors, spending time with the toilet cleaner, listening in on conversations or just observing them in their natural habitat. “First, they barely spoke, but gradually opened up,” says Kurbah. The result is a film that tells a compelling part-fiction, part-fact story of multiple characters, parallel threads knit together by a kind of refuge only a big, bustling market can provide.

“Established in the time of pre-colonial Hima Shillong (or kingdom of Shillong), Iewduh literally translates to ‘biggest bazaar’ (iew means bazaar, duh means biggest). But it also means something else: duh is refuge, a second chance — something Iewduh is ready to provide to anyone…the lost, the hungry, the poor,” says Sweetymon Rynjah, 83, a Shillong-based author.

Over the years, the market, also referred to as Bara Bazaar, has seen distressing times. In 2018, the infamous clash between the Khasis and Punjabis happened in a lane right next to Iewduh. But these aren’t what Kurbah meant to focus on.

ALSO READ | In Lewduh, Shillong’s oldest market, it’s a constant trade with the past

“I won’t deny that there are undercurrents of negativity even within the market — and I wouldn’t paint this as an idyllic bastion of unity. I have only looked at it through the lens of humanity. Maybe there are two shopkeepers who do not get along but they are still a family…an unfamiliar family, but a family nonetheless, who help each other, who are each other’s heroes,” says Kurbah.

The thought is exemplified by Mike, a character based on a number of people Kurbah met in the market: a toilet cleaner, a man who helps drug addicts reform in the market, and a protective elder brother. “When I met the cleaner at Iewduh, we spoke of life at length. Not once did he complain to me about his job. In fact, he spoke about it to me with almost a sense of pride. Does that not make him a hero?” asks Kurbah, who made his actors rehearse in the market for two months before they actually began shooting.

To make the experience as real as possible, every conversation was recorded live, on location. “When people watch the film in whichever part of the world, they should feel they are in the market,” says Kurbah.

And one does. In the web of characters and their complex lives, the market emerges as the strongest protagonist. “The market has taught me many things,” says Sanjana Kurbah, 62, who sells iron vessels in a shop set up by her mother 40 years ago, “What sells, what doesn’t, what’s good and what’s bad.”

She talks of demonetisation and the fear that followed, she talks of the time when Iewduh had only wooden shops covered with tarpaulin, and the time later when the brick ones came up. “If the market could talk, there would be a thousand more stories tell,” she says. And probably a dozen more films to be made.

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