“What is rap?” In a scene in Rongeen, an upcoming Assamese movie by filmmaker Shankar Borua, a character questions the very existence of the genre. “Is it even music?” he asks, with derision. The scene is set in small town Upper Assam, where that kind of music usually doesn’t have much currency and certainly not enough to fight an election.
Nonetheless Borua’s protagonist, a villager named Domboru Borbora, decides to take down his enemy — a powerful local leader, Poona Saikia — with a game plan that involves, oddly enough, music and politics. Borbora props up a school teacher to stand for elections, and hires a rapper to campaign for him through his songs.
The story that follows pans out in the context of the turbulent decades of Assam’s history — touching upon the anti-foreigner movement of 1979 to the ULFA-led insurgency and encounter killings of the eighties and the nineties —and is set to “Assamese rap”, making Rongeen what Borua describes as “India’s first political musical.”
Set to release on March 15 in theatres across the state, the film’s novelty is not just in its execution (“the medium is the message” is a truism Borua has always tried to uphold in his art) but also that it comes at a time when the country is gearing up for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The combination, Borua hopes, is likely to click at the box-office.
The filmmaker, who is in his late forties now, has made nine films (features and documentaries) so far. “Rongeen is my latest, I wrote it in January 2018, and the shoot wrapped up the next month in 27 days” he says.
Shot primarily with a cast of non-actors, Borua says he has worked hard to keep the film “as authentic as possible.” He cites the example of Upper Assam musician Kussum Koilash playing the role of the rapper, Pobitro Sonowal, in the film. “A rapper playing a rapper — what can be more authentic than that?” Borua asks.
Koilash, who is well-known in Assam for his “pop” songs, admits that neither has he acted before nor done “this kind of issue-based music.” “I am no actor. I am a musician. When I was approached for this film, I did it only for the music,” he says. The artiste has rapped before — and his songs fall under what he calls “folk rap”, a genre where he says he inserts fast-paced rap lyrics into romantic Bihu songs. “I know rap is a kind of protibaadi xongeet (protest music) — but my music has never been about politics, or issues even remotely close to the topic,” says the 37-year-old Koilash. Yet, Borua and he collaborated to create the nine songs — six of which have strong, overtly political content — that made up Rongeen.
Two weeks before it hits screens across Assam, Borua is busy travelling to gather funds for his film. “This is not a low budget film. It’s a no-budget film!” he says, admitting that he’s passed the hat around several times. “When you tell people you’re making a movie on politics, they get the creeps. Is it about the current dispensation? Will it irk anyone in power? But Rongeen is not about any political party — it is a sharp indictment of politics and the political class in general,” says Borua.
An indictment Borua believes is best meted out through rap — a genre he first experienced during his time in USA. “Rap is not just Eminem and Jay-Z. It is also the music people make on the streets of New York, drumming buckets and containers,” he says. “It’s an urban phenomenon which, for Rongeen, I have adapted to rural Assam.” Shot and based in the villages of two Upper Assam districts (Dibrugarh and Charaideo) Borua grew up around, Rongeen highlights issues, both obliquely and directly, that has affected the region for decades: corruption, insurgency, and infiltration. “These villages are traditional Assamese bastions known for intense pride towards their community,” says Borua, “In Assam’s troubled past, they have been affected the most.”
Adds Koilash, who hails from the same part of Assam, “There is no reason why people will not like it. It’s a simple story about Assam, shot in Assam. And of course, there’s all that rapping.”