Last year when Rajni Basumatary was shooting for her new film in Assam’s Udalguri, it was common for her actors to come up to her, sometimes in tears, and say: “Abo, (sister) this is our story too.”
For Jwlwi-The Seed — a Bodo-language film, set in the backdrop of Assam’s turbulent Nineties — is everyone’s story: a story of a thousand families, including the filmmaker’s own. “It’s a life of more than twenty years that has gone into Jwlwi,” says Basumatary.
Beginning in the Eighties, a bloody separatist insurgency ravaged Assam. Militant groups like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) took over the state in a bid secede from the Indian union.
To quash the rebels, the state engaged in an equally damaging crackdown. “Whether you took part in the movement or not, you suffered — either in the hands of state or non-state actors,” says Basumatary, who knew the feeling only too well, having lost two nephews and her brother to the violence.
Thus Jwlwi, while it may have cut too close to the bone, was also a cathartic experience for the filmmaker. “To date our family doesn’t know what really happened to my brother. Was he killed? Was he kidnapped? Is he still aorund? My parents lived and died, carrying this burden. In a way, making this film gave me the closure I long seeked,” she says.
While Jwlwi loosely draws from her own family’s narrative of loss and longing, Basumatary insists that it’s not just their story. “It’s an amalgamation of all the stories I have heard for the past twenty five years from families around the Northeast,” she says, citing examples of bomb blasts, curfews, dreaded midnight raids, and stories of young boys arbitrarily picked up from their homes never to return.
These encounters make up Jwlwi, poignantly told through the story of a family — one small happy family of three, till they were not. Caught in a cross-fire between the militants and security forces, the father suddenly dies, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. This sets the base for the 90-minute film.
Basumatary, who plays the role of Alaari, the mother, then seeks to shield her growing son from all that was happening around them.
But like in real life, in the film too, things rarely go as planned — and Alaari does whatever a mother can to keep her jwlwi, her seed, her son safe, and by her side.
Jwlwi is Basumatary’s second film — a contrast to her first, Raag (2014/Assamese), a story of how a migrant Assamese couple (played by Adil Hussain and Zerifa Wahid) adjusts to life in cosmopolitan Delhi. “But even in Jwlwi, while the context is deeply political, it’s a story of human relationships I am trying to tell.”
The penchant for such stories took root years ago when Basumatary, as a young school-goer in Assam’s Rangapara, nurtured the writer in her to pen down what she calls “silly” love stories and family dramas in Assamese. Later in college she graduated to more mature political commentaries. “The situation demanded it — you couldn’t help not being involved,” explains the filmmaker, who is in her forties.
Making — and acting in —Jwlwi, was then natural progression.
“For the longest time, I wouldn’t call my self an actor — but after doing Jwlwi, I’ve begun referring to myself as one,” says Basumatary who played Mary Kom’s (Priyanka Chopra) mother in the eponymous biopic of the boxing champion from Manipur.
The film is waiting to do its rounds in the film festival circuits before a commercial release — when it does, it will be one of the very few Bodo films (made by a Bodo filmmaker) to reach a national audience. “It had to be in Bodo — the entire subject was in Bodo,” she says.
Jwlwi also seeks to send a message to the youths of a region, where the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (or AFSPA which gives the army special powers to maintain order in “disturbed areas”) is still in effect.
“When I was in college, I remember admiring those who took part in the revolution,” says Basumatary. It wasn’t just her — in rural Assam, the rebels, perceived as harbingers of peace and development to a land long ignored by the power centre of the country, had a strong support base.
“It was only later we realised how damaging everything was. Nothing good can ever come out of gun violence,” she says.
But even within this bleak milieu, Basumatary’s films spells more than just doom and despair. These are highlighted in the more subtle elements in the film: comic relief from a friend’s suspicious and jealous wife (played by Queen Hazarika), a celebration of a festival through song and dance, and a group of teenagers forming their own rock band.
“Despite everything — the violence, the bloodshed, the loss — I wanted to say that life goes on,” says Basumatary, just like her and her family’s did, while hoping in their heart of hearts, that one day they would find their missing brother.