Updated: February 6, 2021 3:11:49 pm
A little after day break, they stood waist-deep in water, balancing their cameras — and themselves — against the push and pull of the mighty Brahmaputra. At many points, they nearly slipped and fell, at the mercy of the mercurial river. But they called it a day only seven long hours later — for that is how long it took director Kripal Kalita to get what he wanted: a two-minute-clip that had his main characters, two children, guide their epileptic mother through an inundated field. “It was risky, but worth it,” Kalita says, “To make a movie on the floods, you have to truly experience it, you have to live it.”
And that is what Kalita’s debut feature film Bridge, which bagged the ‘Special Mention’ award, at the International Film Festival of India (IFFFI) in Goa last month – is about: living with — and overcoming — the Assam floods.
Kalita is no stranger to the annual tragedy, the baan in Assamese. “One day, you have your home, your family, your animals, your land— and the next day you may have nothing,” he says.
While Kalita can speak from experience (having grown up in Niz Defeli, a small low-lying village in Baksa’s Tamulpur Circle), it is not his story, but several news reports he has read over the years that make up Bridge. “At the end of 2017, I read about a girl who, worried about her future, asked the local MLA to build a small bridge in their village. Another time, I saw heart-breaking visuals of kids wading their way to school, books and clothes bundled up on their heads,” Kalita recalls.
Incidents like this are so frequent in Assam during the floods that they are rarely surprising for the locals. But not Kalita. Starting December 2017, he worked on building the character of Jonaki (played by Shiva Rani Kalita), the 17-year-old protagonist of his film, her life loosely based on such true incidents. “Her father is swept away by the waters, her mother falls ill and the burden of taking care of her little brother falls on her shoulders,” says Kalita, “At 17, she builds a house, ploughs the fields, takes care of her brother and her ailing mother. In many ways, her story could be the story of many young girls in Assam.”
But the film is not just about the weight that pulls you down, but also the ability of humans to stay afloat — “After all, life must go on,” Kalita says. And that is one of the key takeaways from Bridge, a film centred around a demand of the local populace for a bridge over the little tributary, whose waters cut them off every monsoon. “While a seemingly physical demand, the bridge can be metaphorical too,” says Kalita, “The floods don’t just cut you off from the rest of the world, but it also snaps relationships, ambitions and dreams.”
Kalita’s crew started filming in May 2018. And the schedule lasted 14 months, primarily in the flood-ravaged districts of Upper Assam, including Dhemaji, Golaghat, Lakhimpur and Tinsukia. “My aim was to make it as real as possible,” says the 43-year-old filmmaker and theatre actor, who was trained under noted Manipuri theatre personality, Heisnam Kanhailal. “Our story is set across all seasons, so we actually made it a point to shoot it like that — in shine, in thunder, in rain.”
The 89-minute-long Assamese language film, which is now making its rounds in the film festival circuit, has no background score, no make up on actors. “I made the actors live in the village for three months, plough the fields, walk in the mud — it had to be as authentic as possible,” says Kalita, “As authentic as what we face every year.”
“If it’s one thing that is pulling Assam down — it’s the floods. And a lack of solution to the problem,” says Kalita, “And mind you, this is something we have lived with for centuries. Even Sukapha, the founder of the Ahom dynasty, was compelled to change his capital multiple times because of the floods.”
That said, it is important to remember that floods are something Assam — through which the Brahmaputra flows — has to live with.
Just like Kalita’s characters do in the film. In one poignant scene, the brother, angry at all the river has taken from his young life, shouts in rage, “I will bury this river, it has destroyed our home, killed our father, spoilt our sister’s wedding.”
But his sister gently tells him that the river had bred civilisation, given them food and water, and enabled them to farm their lands. “It can never be our enemy,” she says.
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