A real-life hero rescued from the footnotes of history can be a difficult personage to bring alive on celluloid. Especially if virtually no documented information is available on the man. In his new film, Kuhkhal, Jahnu Barua meets the challenge head-on and comes up trumps. He employs gentle, often deliberately hazy, strokes to etch out a truly memorable screen character whose story mixes the precision of history and the romance of folklore. A wonderfully low-key but profoundly moving tribute to Kushal Konwar, an Assamese freedom fighter who, in an appalling miscarriage of justice, was hanged in 1943 for an act of sabotage he hadn't committed—the derailment of a train carrying British troops and ammunition in the wake of Mahatma Gandhi's door-die call during the Quit India movement—Kuhkhal is indeed an impressive cinematic achievement.
Barua's tale of heroism—it is crafted out of the conflicting memories of the people of Sarupathar, Jorhat district, some of whom knew Kushal Konwar in person—has a refreshingly novel spin. Kuhkhal presents the political hero
as a victim of history, as an ordinary man who cannot turn his back on his Gandhian principles even as the hangman's noose dangles over his head. He was vehemently opposed to any form of force—Barua hints at Kushal Konwar's disillusionment with Gandhi's do-or-die call because it contained the seeds of violence—but, as the president of the local Congress unit, he had the courage to accept moral responsibility for a 'crime' his men had committed against his wishes. Never before has a film about an episode of the independence movement seemed so real, so believable, so much at ease with its narrative simplicity.
Says Barua: "I consciously avoided making a larger-than-life hero out of Kushal Konwar. In fact, he is not the hero of my film, his ideology is." Hence Kuhkhal eschews the dramatic sweep that characterised Barua's last film, the critically acclaimed Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (It's a Long Way to the Sea), which was screened at 42 festivals around the world, scooping up as many as 15 prestigious international awards. "I needed a special style of presentation for Kuhkhal," says Barua, who nursed the project for 14 years, diligently researching the subject, conducting interviews and resolutely negotiating government hurdles.
Kuhkhal, produced by the Assam government's department of cultural affairs, was commissioned in 1984 by the then state chief minister, Hiteshwar Saikia. Barua, an FTII graduate, had just made his first film, Aparoopa. Before Kuhkhal could get off the ground, the Asom Gana Parishad ousted the Congress from power and the project was all but abandoned. It was in the early '90s that the Rs 60-lakh project was revived once again. "Actual work on the film took me six years. Five years were devoted to research and one to the shoot," recalls Barua.
Barua's perseverance has paid off. He has come up with a film that tells its epic tale of sacrifice and courage without losing sight of its thematic core—the clash between an alien power structure which is on the way out and a people clamouring for freedom. And Kushal Konwar (first-time actor Sanjib Sabhapandit), a member of Assam's most powerful royal clan, has to pay the price of freedom as Humphrey (played by Bombay-based American actor Gary Richardson) delivers a desperate final blow on behalf of the Empire by signing the former's death warrant. "In a sense, even Humphrey is a victim of circumstances, of deep-seated prejudices," explains Barua.
There is no visual flamboyance in Kuhkhal—even the derailment sequence is dismissed with an apology of a stock shot—but there is unmistakable flair in the way Barua creates a subtle, multi-layered freeze-shot of a crucial but little-known moment in Assamese history.