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Express Rewind: Assamese cinema and the murmurs of a comeback

After years of being in the shade, Assamese cinema came under the spotlight in 2018 courtesy Rima Das’s Village Rockstars. As a new guard — a bunch of young and largely self-taught filmmakers — takes over its mantle, what does it mean for the 83-year-old Assamese film industry?

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: December 30, 2018 11:07:17 pm
In 2015, hundreds of actors, directors, technicians and producers from the Assamese film fraternity even observed a “Day of Solidarity” for the “revival of Assamese cinema” in Guwahati’s Dighalipukhuri area highlighting the apathy of the state government towards the industry. (A still from Calender)

In 1935, when poet and playwright Jyoti Prasad Agarwala finished making Joymoti, the film premiered not in Assam but in Bengal’s Rownac Hall in Calcutta. There were no film theatres in Assam to screen what is famous today as the first ever Assamese film, the one that heralded the humble beginnings of a film industry in Assam.

Cut to 2018, Assamese cinema, an industry that is now more than eighty years old, came under the spotlight after several years of being in the shade. The film that almost made it to the Oscars 2019, Village Rockstars, brought the focus back on an industry that was once known for its languid, beautiful storytelling but had, over recent decades, witnessed a lull.

While it would premature to point at any solid trends of resurgence, the success of Village Rockstars got a conversation started. “I won’t call this a wave — but it is certainly a beginning or an indication of a wave,” says filmmaker Utpal Borpujari, whose film Ishu, bagged the National Award for the Best Assamese Film in 2018. While Ishu is a children’s’ movie, it deals with the very somber problem of witch-hunting in Assam.

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In the past few years, it’s socially relevant topics like these — closely entwined with the human emotion — that are slowly seeping back into Assamese films. Among them are Xoixobote Dhemalite (2018) by Bidyut Kotoky, Alifa by Deep Choudhury (2018), Bhoga Khirkee (2018) by Jahnu Barua or even Haanduk (2016) by young Tinsukia-based filmmaker, Jaicheng Jai Dohutia — all compassionate films set in the backdrop of strife and violence.

“Assamese cinema has passed through many shades of light, both dark and bright,” writes Bobeeta Sharma in her book The Moving Image and Assamese Culture. “Assamese films became a popular source of entertainment in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.”

Till the 1960s, writes Sharma, Assamese films were characterised by themes that were socially relevant. Filmmaking was not a purely commercial venture, it had a sense of social responsibility as well.

In the 1980s, there came a gradual decline in their popularity.

“Made with meagre budgets, they naturally could not attract audiences. Assamese films began to become bad copies of Bollywood films,” Sharma says.

Things took a turn for the worse in the past decade.

“In the past decade, the filmmaking style was not up to date with the rest of the world — the dialogues were too verbose, the cinematic language was not strong,” says Borpujari, “Even the commercial blockbusters of the early 2000s vanished.”

In 2015, hundreds of actors, directors, technicians and producers from the Assamese film fraternity even observed a “Day of Solidarity” for the “revival of Assamese cinema” in Guwahati’s Dighalipukhuri area highlighting the apathy of the state government towards the industry.

Borpujari adds that independent cinema had practically no space to grow in Assam. “Only when a film got recognition in the form of a National Award, then people noticed it,” he says

THE NEW GUARD

In February 2018, a little-known film called Calendar released across theatres in Assam. The premise followed the simple story of a small town family in Assam, and did unexpectedly well (it ran for three weeks) throughout the state. The filmmaker, 33-year-old Himjyoti Talukdar from Biswanath Chariali, says Calendar isn’t “an easy film to club.”

 

A still from Bornodi Bhotiai

It was low budget, rich in content, and “non-masala”, and yet commercially successful — an anomaly in the current times for cinema in Assam. “Content rich cinema and commercially successful. We usually separate the two but it can happen,” says Talukdar.

While the commercial success of Calendar was an exception, its treatment and topic, is congruent with several recent Assamese films. Says filmmaker Borpujari, “And these are by a new crop of filmmakers — they are young, fresh and are making films that are cinematically strong.”

These new faces — both men and women — are between the ages of 30 and 40, hail from various parts of Assam, and shoot on shoestring, and often crowdsourced, budgets.

Bornodi Bhotiai poster

Growing up in Biswanath Chariali, about 200 km from Guwahati, Reema Borah, director of the critically-acclaimed film Bokul, says “For me, being in films was a distant dream — we knew of only a few filmmakers.”

However, Borah, in 2007, pursued her dream of filmmaking and graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. Similarly, Anupam Kaushik Borah, who hails from the riverine island of Majuli, ventured out to study at the National School of Drama, Delhi, the first person from his hometown to do so. In September, his film Bornodi Bhotiai, a beautiful, slow-paced film on the “real Majuli” opened to packed audiences at the MAMI festival.

“When we graduated, we had no connection to Assam. Then I thought — ‘it’s high time, I need to make a film for my people’,” says Borah, adding that how experiences of growing up in a “troubled region” inevitably finds its way back in creative expression. “It all comes out in the our movies: our struggles, our fears, our crisis, our identity,” she says.

Bhoga Khirkee poster

Borah who made Bokul is almost done with her new film Noi, about a fisherman who stumbles upon a dead body. “But I am not sure I want to even consider a theatrical release. First of all you need a lot of money for that, then there’s the promotion. Moreover, it’s a movie meant for only a certain kind of audience,” says Borah, who is happy to screen in colleges, auditoriums or “anywhere people would like to see it.”

These young directors often find space in film festivals — both in the country and abroad — and in Assam too, where the last few years have seen a spurt in their numbers be it small or big, government or private: Guwahati International Film Festival, Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival to smaller ones like Adda and the student-organised Jonaki film festival.

CROWDFUNDING

While lack of money is an issue most of these young filmmakers face, they often look to crowdfund their films. In 2014, Bhaskar Hazarika crowdfunded 22 lakhs for his film Kothanodi on Wishberry — next year the film won a National Award. This set the trend.

While Borah tried to crowdfund for Bokul through Facebook, 33-year-old filmmaker Dhruva J Bordoloi, says he ultimately ended up self-funding (Rs 6-7 lakhs) his film Dooronir Nirola Poja (2017), set in hometown in Dhekiajuli. “Crowdfunding might not work every time.If you have personal contacts, it helps — for example, the musician might say he won’t charge,” he says.

A still from ‘Ishu’

Actor Adil Husain, who despite big ticket Hindi films, is known (through his roles) to support regional cinema, says, “More and more people have chosen to become courageous, to explore this medium, to go out of Assam. When I grew up in Assam, everyone wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. Those who dreamt differently were considered outcastes.”

CARRYING ON

The last two years have seen the return of some of Assam’s critically acclaimed filmmakers from the 1990s. Director Santwana Bordoloi’s Maj Rati Keteki (2017) — which is also streaming on Netflix — a story about a writer who returns to his hometown after years, was her second film after two decades. In October, Jahnu Barua’s Bhoga Khirkee, premiered at the 2nd Guwahati International Film Festival.

While Maj Rati Keteki had a good run, for other movies, it’s usually a poor show. “I didn’t get half my money back for my first movie,” says filmmaker Bordoloi, who spent seven years in Mumbai to learn the art before returning to Assam in 2014 to make Dooronir Nirola Poja. “I realised one needed to stay here to make a film viable. So I always wanted to come back,” says Bordoloi, who is now based in small town Dhekiajuli. His next film Kokaideo Bindaas, about two brothers on a road trip, is set to release in February.

Most filmmakers feel that the real challenge comes after the film is made: promotion, release etc. “But Village Rockstars changed the scene,” says filmmaker Talukdar, adding that the movie has given young filmmakers like himself to the confidence to carry on.

While Borah’s Bokul — which was screen independently in a few colleges and an auditorium in Assam — never hit the theatres (due to lack of funds), other independent cinema, like Kenny Basumatary’s, have seen some amount of box office success.

Basumatary — whose “martial arts comedy film” Local Kung Fu was one of the first ‘indie’ Assamese films to attract national attention back in 2012 — feels that all films in Assam are, in some way or the other, “independent”. “There are no big studio set ups here. So we can’t call some films independent, and the others not. The right categories would be small-budget and big budget,” says the 37-year-old.

In 2012, Basumatary made Local Kung Fu on a budget of Rs 95,000. Local Kung Fu 2 followed in a sequel in 2016, shot on a crowd-funded budget of eight lakh. The latest one, Suspended Inspector Boro, is a serious action film hit the screens on December 7. “This time we had a producer,” he says.

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