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In her seventh feature, Ko: Yad, veteran Assamese filmmaker Manju Borah decided to choose as subject the Mishing tribe of Assam, a community that lives and earns by the rivers. “There are many such communities and a variety of dialects spoken in the state. Our cinema needs to bring them into focus to give a complete picture of the region,” says Borah. But her film is not just some ethnographic mapping. It is a subtle and universal tale of the clash between tradition and modernity. For Paukam, the river Brahmaputra is a lifeline. It’s this very life that his educated son Migam doesn’t want to be tied down to; he leaves home and family to seek a better future. “There is a larger philosophy my film talks about, how there is nothing permanent in life and there are no people, possessions or relationships that you can hold on to,” explains Borah.
Like Ko: Yad, Arunachal Pradesh’s first filmmaker Sange Dorjee Thondok’s debut feature, Crossing Bridges, also zooms in on a local dialect and a remote tribe, the Sherdukpen. The first person from his state to pass out of film school, Thondok decided to make his first film in his own dialect in his own village of Shergaon. However, unlike the trajectory depicted in Borah’s film, Thondok focuses on a man’s journey back to the fold. The film’s protagonist, Tashi, is a Mumbai-based web designer who returns to his village after losing his job in the recession. While waiting to hear from a new job, he slowly begins to reconnect with his lost identity and culture, something he had once derided. Last heard, its theme mix of the local and the global has helped the film find a French sales agent.
Meanwhile, just a few months ago, Kenny Basumatary opened up an entirely different window to the Northeast with his first film, Local Kung Fu, a comic, hyper-energetic action flick on the street fights and gang wars of Guwahati (released by PVR Rare). Ironically, there’s little in the film that reminds you of an Aribam Shyam Sarma or a Jahnu Barua. It’s more in the zone of a Jackie Chan or an Isaac Florentine. But it takes all kinds.... For his next film, Basumatary is willing to take up any subject but it all depends on “who pays and how much”, he says.
“Filmmakers here work with such limited budgets that they don’t even have money to make brochures or pay festival fees.”
On the surface, a lot seems to be happening in Northeast cinema: interesting themes and stories, new filmmakers, fresh and independent voices, an engagement with lesser known communities and a variety of cinematic influences from the world over. But while we celebrate the energy and drive, there are also familiar tight spots to contend with: most specifically those of exhibition and distribution; how to take the films to the halls and in turn to the audiences they deserve. According to filmmaker and critic Utpal Borpujari, who curated the ‘Focus on Northeast’ section at the recent International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, the word ‘new’ is nothing new in the Northeast. “The term ‘indie cinema’ may be in vogue now but it was always a part of us in the Northeast,” he says. One such contemporary indie is the Mizo film Khawnglung Run, made by Mapuia Chawngthu. Born in Lunglei town in Mizoram, Chawngthu teaches Hindi in a government school and makes films in his spare time. He’s already made over a 100 music videos. Khawnglung Run is a love story of a warrior set against the backdrop of battling village clans. Prashant Rasaily’s Sikkimese film, Kathaa, is a tragic indie love story. “It’s an amazingly beautiful film that uses the landscape of Sikkim and the language of cinema to tell the story of the contradictions and obstacles in the way of love,” says actor Adil Hussain. Coming from a family of artistes, Rasaily is a musician, composer and self-taught filmmaker who picked up the basics of camera and editing on his own for “self-expression”, because he felt like “telling stories on celluloid”.
Then there is the understated terror of Bidyut Kotaky’s As The River Flows, set in Majuli. “We know the points of view of both the terrorist and the state. I am interested in the person stuck in the middle of the crossfire about whom no one bothers,” says Kotaky. He feels these narratives are missing now in the new Northeast films. (Incidentally, his next film is about an insurgent brought back into the mainstream via football.)
The stories and themes of these new-age Northeast films, though diverse and contemporary, are all rooted in the region’s concerns. “These are our stories, told with a human touch and an international feel,” says Rasaily. But the irony is that there are no great spaces in the Northeast to run them. Many halls in the region were shut after militant groups, especially in Manipur, put a ban on Hindi films and, in turn, halls became unviable business. Assam itself had 160 theatres once, of which only 40-odd are active now; Meghalaya and Mizoram have just a couple.
No wonder, quite often, Sikkimese films made in Nepali find a bigger audience out in Nepal and in Darjeeling than at home. Rasaily’s Kathaa got a couple of screenings in Australia and New Zealand and ran for three weeks in Nepal. “The only way out for filmmakers is to look for screenings at film festivals and scout for foreign sales agents, or the national awards and screenings on DD,” says Kotaky. According to Hussain, the government must partner with private distribution houses. “There’s an amazing enthusiasm among the public for mobile theatre. The 10 major ones are booked every evening for seven months a year,” says Hussain. “Why wouldn’t the audience queue up for films as well?”
The advent of digital filmmaking has opened a few windows. Now even veteran filmmakers are shifting to it. More public endorsement of a vital cinema is the need of the hour. “We need to professionalise ourselves too,” says Kotaky. “If Bengali films can be seen with subtitles in Assam, why not the other way around?” Touche.