When she first decided to make a Sherdukpen film, Bobby Sarma Baruah could think of a hundred reasons not to. “Was this a risk? Would people watch it? It wouldn’t even have a theatre release,” Baruah remembers thinking to herself. The filmmaker had made her first Assamese film, Adomya, in 2014. “Apart from first-time filmmaker jitters, it was still in a language people knew of…but Sherdukpen?” Even she did not know the language. In fact, the little-known dialect, a part of the Kanauri branch of the Tibeto-Burman family, has only 4,000 odd speakers in a few villages of Arunachal Pradesh’s Kameng district.
Yet Baruah, a 45-year-old Guwahati based self-taught filmmaker, devoted nearly four years to Mishing, a film that on Friday won a National Award in a special language category, reserved for those that fall outside Schedule VIII of the Constitution.
Giving it company were two other films from the Northeast: Ma.Ama, a Garo film by Shillong-based filmmaker Dominic Sangma and Bishkanyar Deshot (In the Land of Poison Women), a Pangchenpa film by Assamese filmmaker Manju Borah. While Garo, a Sino-Tibetan language is relatively well-known and spoken by about 889,000 people living primarily in Garo Hills of Meghalaya and pockets of Assam, Tripura and even Bangladesh, Pangchenpa, is a dialect of the Monpa language and spoken by about 4,000 people of the the Monpa tribe settled near the Indo-China border in Arunachal Pradesh.
Both Mishing (Apparition) and The Land of Poison Women (Bishkanyar Deshot) are based on books by Itanagar-based Sahitya Akademi award-winning author Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi, who writes primarily in Assamese.
“His book Mishing was in Assamese — when I read it in 2014, something drew me to it. And since it was based on the lives of the Sherdukpen tribe, the film had to be in that language”, says Baruah, who spent months with the tribals, talking to them, trying to pick up their languages, and learn about their customs and beliefs.
While Mishing is based on a Sherdukpen belief of how spirits contact the mortal world to pass on messages, In The Land of Poison Women, based on Thongchi’s Bishkanyar Deshot, fictionalises how a superstitious belief among the Panchenpa tribe leads to the death of many women.
“This particular topic drew me because of the efforts of the new generation working hard to eradicate a blind belief that women have ‘poison’ in their nails and if they serve food to the males, they die,” says Borah, who described the filmmaking process as one of “strenuous research” mostly because she did not know the language. “It was very expensive too — but it’s all worth it because the anthropological value of such films are immense,” she says.
Baruah agrees. “If you can preserve something and even say something new, yes, it will take tons of effort but it’s all worthwhile,” she says, “Most of the Sherdukpen locals knew Hindi, so that helped a lot.”
Dominic Sangma, who made Ma.Ama had it a little easier since Garo is his mother tongue. The film is a deeply personal story of how Sangma lost his mother to a black magic ritual when he was only two-and-a-half. While Ma.Ama is his first full-length feature, the filmmaker has made two other short films: Rong’kuchak (2013), Karyukai Inc. (2011) both in Garo.
“It was never a conscious decision to make a film in Garo — it’s a language I express myself in so it was only a natural choice,” says Sangma, “While Garo has equal number of speakers as Khasis in Meghalaya, a lot of people, even in the Northeast don’t know about the Garos. If I tell them I am from Meghalaya, they automatically think I would speak Khasi,” says Sangma.