There are many memories of his hometown, Tezpur that 69-year-old filmmaker Hiren Bora has, but there’s one that abides even four decades after he moved away.
It was a memory of, as long time residents of Tezpur like to describe it, hahakar, or pandemonium. In 1962, the sleepy little town in middle Assam, woke up to the very real possibility of war, as Chinese troops swiftly made their way into India — reaching Bomdila, about 150km away. Later, the Chinese declared a ceasefire, but fear had already spread and the evacuation of Tezpur began in earnest: the town’s administration fell and families packed up their belongings to flee war.
Bora, at the time a 12-year-old, remembers how his grandfather told his sons to retrieve all their belongings from the family chest and run away to the nearest big settlement, Nagaon. But the patriarch himself had decided to stay back to defend his town. He wasn’t the only one —many simply didn’t have the means to escape, and others remained, out of love for Tezpur.
Nearly six decades later, Bora now a National Award-winning filmmaker based in Guwahati, revisits this chapter of Tezpur’s history through an Assamese language feature film: Seema – The Untold Story, currently running in theatres across the state. “This is my tribute to Tezpur, and the childhood I spent there,” says Bora, who moved away in 1970, first to Dibrugarh for further studies and later settled in a quiet neighbourhood in Guwahati. In all these years, he says, he regrets that despite such a big incident happening in Tezpur, public memory about it is feeble. “The Chinese Aggression of 1962 was a huge event in Northeast India’s history, but it’s hardly been portrayed in popular culture — neither in books nor films, the way Indo-Pak conflicts have been.”
Many say that the government never actively encouraged any such initiative because there is little glory in defeat. The Sino-India of 1962 began on October 20, 1962 and ended in a month, after China declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew troops.
“Though India lost and war did not break out in Tezpur, the episode has many unsung heroes: volunteers who stayed back for all-night vigils, families who donated gold, money and food to refugees who had trickled into the town from Arunachal Pradesh, residents who stayed on, too attached to part with their home,” he says.
It is their story that Bora tells in a 95 minute fictionalised portrayal of events in Seema, which in Assamese means “border”. “It’s not just one but many stories that come together. I don’t have a hero or heroine,” he says.
In 2016, an investigative documentary on the subject, Tezpur-1962 by filmmaker Samujjal Kashyap, went on to win a National Award — but apart from that there is very little available on the incident.
Bora researched for about a year — he dished out old newspaper articles printed in local English daily, The Assam Tribune, spoke to old residents who provided eye witness accounts and even pieced together what he remembered from memory. “As a child, we would see military trucks pass by my house very often. I remember the tribals who escaped to the plains as the Chinese occupation began,” he says.
Bora also sought out Nishinath Changkakoty, who was serving as the Superintendent of Police, in Tezpur back then. The retired police officer — now in his eighties — lives in Guwahati and recollected a number of incidents for Bora, all of which find mention in the film. A famous story was how the local bank had to burn all their paper currency before the troops came. “The coins, on the other hand, were thrown into Podum Pukhuri (a large pond) located right next to the bank,” says Bora.
Many residents remember how the “administration deserted the town too.” Bora, however, has refrained from portraying that because of lack of concrete evidence. Instead he focuses on stories of families inspired by true events. “There is one story that follows the case of a visually-impaired girl and her ailing parents,” he says.
The film was shot over February 2018 and comprises a cast of veteran Assamese actors Nipon Goswami, Arun Nath, Dr Jahanara Begum, among others. Indian actor and politician George Baker essays the role of a British journalist in the film.
As a school-goer, Bora remembers how he would skip classes every Friday and take a train to the main Tezpur town to watch the new release in one of the town’s two cinema halls. “I was that enamoured by the art of filmmaking,” he says. The movie-buff did not end up studying how to make films, but started assisting his elder brother in the later nineties. In 2009, he won the National Award for his film Basundhara, a story that delved into man-animal conflict in Assam.
Though it has been four decades since Bora left Tezpur, he says he still feels extremely connected to the town, adding that this is what inspired him to make Seema. “It’s like my roots are there,” he says.