Anupam Kaushik Borah has a penchant for metaphors — and while they are deployed discreetly in his directorial debut Bornodi Bhotiai, a two-hour-long film set in the river island of Majuli, he spells them out more clearly in conversation. “It’s like people look at Majuli through a pair of coloured goggles,” says Borah, “For outsiders, the island is this romanticised, exotic place, with two narratives that oscillate between the tragedy of the floods and the celebration of its rich culture.” And Borah, born and raised in Majuli, has a problem with that.
In reports, books and the handful of films that it has been depicted in, Majuli, the world’s largest river island situated on the mighty Brahmaputra in Assam, has always been portrayed as a beautiful, serene haven, albeit, one which is shrinking every monsoon. “It’s a trope everyone uses — the simpleton villager, the enamoured outsider, in the backdrop of this tragedy” says Borah, “But through my film, I wanted to say that there is more to Majuli than Xattras (or the monastic orders that dot the island), the rains and the floods. That Majulians are as complicated as other, regular folk,” he says.
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In Bornodi Bhotiai — that uses multiple sub-plots and a touch of magical realism — Borah follows the lives of four youths pursuing not just the same dreams, but also the same woman. “And of course, Majuli sets the context,” he says. Like the four young men, hundreds in Majuli harbour similar aspirations and dreams, be it personal or professional: they briefly flirt with the idea of stepping out into the real world, yet there is something which draws them back to the only place in the world they have known as home. Borah describes this as “a lack of action”, an attitude inherent among many young people owing to the circumstances they have been brought up in and inured to.
“It is because, in the island, many things depend on uncontrollable, external factors. The ferries — something that excites an outsider — can often be just a burden for a resident. They determine schedules for entire days. Sometimes services are shut, and life comes to a standstill,” he says, adding that the “drive to change things around hasn’t reached the regular resident yet.”
The film was shot over two months (in two segments: January and March 2018) — and had its world premiere at the recently concluded Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI 2018), the only other Assamese film to be screened apart from Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing. “Before making Bornodi, I had ideas for about ten films — and while they varied from a thriller to a love story — the common element in all of them was Majuli. It’s the only place in the world I have imagined things,” says Borah, who is the first native of Majuli to have graduated from the National School Of Drama, Delhi.
Bornodi has a cast of about 110 people out of which 105 are local, non-actors from Majuli — another way by which Borah tried to maintain authenticity in his film. It was not that hard, for the residents of the culturally-rich island — that was once home to the 16th-century poet-saint Sankardeva — continues to promulgate his unique “worship through art” approach with music (borgeet), dance (xattriya) and theatre (bhauna). Thus, for most Majulians, acting is a way of life. “Even outside of the Xattras, common people practise art as a part of life. You might be a carpenter, but there is a lot of chance you are an actor too,” says Borah.
At MAMI 2018, the film received widespread acclaim through its three screenings. “I guess people could relate to it. Many found it funny too. But it’s not specific instances that I can cite — it’s just the way I approached the film. When I wrote the script in December 2017, I would imagine each scene pan out in the exact locations I had planned to shoot them in. Moreover, I never gave the actors dialogues in printed form. It was more a conversation I had with them,” he says. These things are what makes Bornodi Bhotiai arguably the first full-length feature film truly about Majuli, from Majuli and featuring Majuli. “My idea was to not just celebrate Majuli, but look at it from within,” says Borah.