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Cinema from the Northeast has mostly remained on the margins of Indian cinema, just like this most misunderstood region of India has been in the country’s consciousness. This, despite the fact that it has had a 77-year history of cinema, produced internationally feted filmmakers like Jahnu Barua and Aribam Syam Sharma, and given to the nation’s cinema personalities like Pramathesh Chandra Barua, S.D. Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Bhupen Hazarika, Danny Denzongpa and Seema Biswas.
Home to hundreds of ethnic communities speaking hundreds of dialects, this geographical swathe is like a tower of Babel. However, Assamese and Manipuri filmmakers have dominated the landscape for obvious reasons of having a slightly respectable viewer base. It is also here that cinema has acted as a platform—at least in the last three decades or so—to showcase ethno-cultural aspirations, no matter if such endeavours have been sure-shot recipes for financial disaster. How can one hope to recover the investment, let alone make profits, if a film is made in languages like Kokborok or Monpa, spoken by small tribes who inhabit areas where there are no cinema halls? But despite that, films have been made in these languages (spoken in parts of Tripura and Arunachal) as there has been cinema in languages like Bodo, Karbi, Mishing, Khasi and even Sadri, the lingua franca of the tea garden labourers of Jharkhand origin.
The history of cinema in northeastern India remains an unwritten one outside the region, barring one or two passing reference books on Indian cinema. Beyond film festival regulars, how many have seen films like Barua’s Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai (The Catastrophe), one of the most-travelled Indian films internationally, and a winner of the National award for Best Feature Film? It was made with a paltry budget of Rs 7 lakh but earned over Rs 1 crore in domestic and international sales (you will fall off the chair if you calculate the profits in percentage terms). Or heard about Sharma’s Ishanou, whose actress won a jury’s special mention at the Cannes Film Festival and whose selection to the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section of that festival in 1991 had elicited a headline to this effect in a ‘national’ English daily: ‘No Indian films in Cannes this year, but a Manipuri film makes the cut’!
The roots of cinema in Northeast India were implanted way, way back, on March 10, 1935. On that date the first Assamese film, indeed the first film from Northeast India, was released in the Raunaq cinema hall in Calcutta. The film was Joymoti, made by Assam’s freedom fighter-poet-playwright-lyricist-litterateur-and-composer Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, who learnt the basics of filmmaking in Berlin’s UFA Studios under Franz Ozten and Himanshu Rai. From a family that had its roots in faraway Rajasthan but had adapted the Assamese culture several generations before him, Jyotiprasad chose the nationalistic tale of Joymoti, a 16th century princess of Assam’s Ahom dynasty who was tortured to death for not revealing the whereabouts of her husband Gadapani, the rightful heir to the throne. It was probably India’s first go at realistic filmmaking, and thanks mainly to lack of venues to screen his film in Assam, the film was an unmitigated financial disaster. Jyotiprasad, in the absence of local talent, had hired Lahore’s Bhopal Chandra Mehta as his cinematographer, and had to carry the responsibilities of being the scriptwriter, producer, director, choreographer, editor, set designer, lyricist and music director of Joymoti.
Jyotiprasad’s film was based on the play Joymoti Kunwari by Sahityarathi Lakshminath Bezbaruah, one of Assam’s all-time literary giants, thereby starting a tradition of close links between cinema and literature, something that continues till date. Joymoti was also the maker’s tribute to Gandhiji’s passive resistance movement—a freedom fighter, he was an ardent follower of the Father of the nation. It also had a strong feminist viewpoint, unlike the male-dominated films being made in other parts of the country at that time.
Another Assamese who shone around the same time was Pramathesh Barua, the scion of the royal family of Gauripur, a quaint little town in Dhubri district of lower Assam. His exploits in the Indian cinema world are too well-known to be recounted here, but unfortunately, he never made a film in Assamese. The mid-1950s saw the emergence of composer-singer Bhupen Hazarika as a filmmaker too, with his directorial debut Era Bator Sur (Tunes from the Deserted Path) showcasing the musical genius in him. He went on to make films like Pratidhwani, Lotighoti and Chikmik Bijuli, each different in genre and thus reflecting Hazarika’s versatility.
It was in 1976 that the Northeast got its first film since Joymoti that followed a realistic style of storytelling. The film was Ganga Chilanir Pakhi, directed by Padum Barua. Based on a novel by Lakshmi Nandan Bora, the film showcased Barua’s remarkable grasp of the medium, presenting a realistic picture of rural Assam. Unfortunately, it failed at the box office. In 1977, Assamese cinema really caught the attention of the outside world through Sandhyarag of Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia, a physics professor, novelist and playwright who went on to make seven more films, including Agnisnaan, a powerful women’s rights story fixed in a feudal setting. But it was Jahnu Barua, who debuted in 1982 with the gentle love story Aparupa, starring Suhasini Mulay, who took Assamese cinema to great heights through Halodhiya... and Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (It’s a Long Way to the Sea).
Meanwhile, tiny Manipur, known more for its sports-crazy people, theatre legend Ratan Thiyam and, unfortunately, its innumerable insurgent groups was also making a mark in the reel world. The state saw its first film, Matamgee Manipur, in 1972 but carved its name on the world cinema map with A.S. Sharma’s Imagi Ningthem and Ishanou, both universal tales in ethnic settings. A state brimming with young cinematic talent, it is, however, yet to produce another filmmaker of the calibre of Sharma. But the young brigade has done the unthinkable by converting their film industry completely into a digital one to meet the challenge of closure of cinema halls. This followed a ban in the mid-1990s on Hindi films by an insurgent group, making celluloid filmmaking unviable. The state now produces around 60-70 digital feature films every year, all extremely low budget of course. And it is this bunch that, through a petition in the Gauhati High Court, got the I&B ministry to change the rules to make digital films eligible for the national film awards and Indian Panorama, opening the doors for low-budget films made in unheard-of languages to compete with others.
Unfortunately, despite filmmakers like Gautam Bora (who made the first Karbi-language film Wosobipo), Manju Borah, Bidyut Chakraborty, Sanjeev Hazarika, Jwngdao Bodosa (who has made several acclaimed Bodo films), Sanjib Sabhapandit and Joseph Pulinthanath (a Malayali settled in Tripura who has made two feature films in Kokborok) continuing to make realistic cinema, the Northeast is yet to have its ‘This is it’ moment, its own path-breaking Pather Panchali that will be counted among the world’s classics. But there’s hope, and despite the heavy odds it’s what the region’s filmmakers thrive on.
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(The author, a national award-winning film critic from Northeast India, is based in Delhi)