In recent times, emerging filmmakers from Assam are paving the way for various indigenous ethnic identities of the state to represent their dynamic cultures and narratives. This essay analyses how the cultural landscape of indigenous communities of Assam are reflected in cinema through two National Film Award winning feature films, Ko:Yad (A Silent Way, 2012) in Mising language and Haanduk (The Hidden Corner, 2016) in Moran language.
Assam is an ethnically pluralistic society, and although Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, and Hindi are the widely spoken languages in the state, other ethnic groups speak their own languages and dialects. However, when we examine the Assamese cinema industry, although, one of the oldest in India, we can observe that it is still quite difficult to make films in any of the minor ethnic languages frequently because of the low scope for commercial returns of such films. But despite such financial hurdles, the advent of such film making practices are important in the culturescape of the region. The production of these films in recent times in diverse languages represent a growing awareness of diversity in spoken languages and ethnicity of the region among film viewers, both nationally and internationally. Films have been made in ethnic languages such as Bodo, Karbi, Mising, Rabha, Moran and Tiwa over the last few years.
IMPACT OF AWARDS ON INDIGENOUS LANGUAGE FILMMAKERS
Several of these films have won National awards and have been screened at film festivals across the world. The first film in Bodo, Jwngdao Bodosa’s Alayaron (The Dawn, 1986), went on to win the National Award for Best Film in Bodo. Eight years later, after overcoming a lot of financial hurdles, Bodosa made his second feature film, Hagramayao Jinahari (Rape In A Virgin Forest, 1995). On the other hand, the first feature film in Karbi, Wosobipo (The Cuckoo’s Call, 1989) by Gautam Bora won a National Film Award and was also selected for the Berlin Film Festival, where it received international acclaim.
However, a question does arise at this point on whether winning a National Film Award or getting international acclaim help filmmakers of regional language cinema? National Award winning film critic Manoj Barpujari says , ‘In a state where a supportive infrastructure for film making, film viewing, film distribution, and film appreciation is not up to the mark, and where government patronage for film production is inconsistent along with not being given an industry status, the winning of a National Award is a great boost for the fledgling career of an aspiring filmmaker. Such an award can help in breaking the bottlenecks in the distribution of locally made films. Awards also provide impetus to filmmakers and producers to kick-start their next ventures ’.
While narrating complex subject matters, such ethnic language filmmakers are generally well aware of the socio-political scenario of the region. Thus, they are well positioned to critically engage with the challenging issues facing indigenous communities today. These films also highlight limitations of disciplinary notions of the insider-outsider distinction, ethnographic holism, and objectivity in visual anthropology. The emergence of such films since the 1980s has challenged the ethical grounding of ethnographic representations of the ‘other’. Over the last few years, many filmmakers of Assam have chosen to make their debut film in different languages of the state and not in just Assamese. Some of them are Suraj Kumar Duwarah’s Orong (Strangers In The Mist, 2014) in Rabha, Jaicheng Jai Dohutia’s Haanduk (The Hidden Corner, 2016) in Moran, and Summer Dewri’s Cholôma (Birth, 2018) in Tiwa.
Their cinema speaks of seriousness in treatment of the subjects they chose to explore and interpret in filmic language. Assam is a multi-lingual state, and I hope that more such films in various indigenous languages and dialects are made.
Films made in ethnic languages in Assam, have so far, captured the motifs and compositions of a particular community by detailing important aspects of their society such as the exploration of family dynamics, representation of their quotidian lifestyle, the strong ties between the various individuals of the community tied together by their traditional territories, etc. Such ethnographic representation has genuinely captured the ethos and rich cultural tapestry of that particular community. In the next section, I examine in detail how two feature films Ko:Yad (2012) in Mising language and Haanduk (2016) in Moran language, reflect the culturescape, anxieties and concerns of indigenous communities of Assam through the medium of cinema. The reasons why I have chosen these two films for the essay are –
- The narrative of the films have authentically captured the essence of their cultures and the highly diverse ethno-cultural space displayed within the milieu of the film. This in turn has created an engaging form of storytelling.
- Such efforts should be appreciated as they not only address the need to develop film aesthetics both in terms of content and form but also highlight an important aspect of contemporary film making practices in our country and should be considered as a part of the cinematic discourse among film enthusiasts and academics.
- These films do not cater to the conventional ‘popular cinema viewing’ audience of India, so documentation in the form of research is necessary.
STORIES BELONGING TO THE LAND
Narrating the tale of an indigenous community through the medium of cinema, unlike any other form of storytelling, helps strengthen the identity of the community by the process of visual representation of traditional and ethnographic details that reinforce people’s sense of belonging and existence as an individual and group. Ko:Yad is a Mising language film that narrates the tale of Paukam from childhood to adulthood as he encounters one hardship after the other.
Filmmaker Manju Borah describes the film as , ‘Ko:Yad not only reflects the present scenario of the Mising society where once children receive higher education, they do not want to continue their traditional lifestyle due to the poor economic conditions in the village. Hence, they leave their villages while abandoning their parents and siblings, in search of a better life and livelihood. The parents remain poor and even the siblings sacrifice their lives by not getting sufficient education and become daily wage labourers just to support the education of the better one in the family. Ko:Yad also tells the story of the universal truth that nothing is permanent in your life. Your family, your children, even the possessions that you think will always remain with you, will abandon you one day and you remain as a single and lonely entity forever. This particular truth that is revealed through the protagonist in Ko:Yad was the key reason that I chose the story to make into a film’.
Whereas, Haanduk is set within the Moran community of Assam and the narrative presents a complex structure that demands the viewers to completely immerse in the film. It is the tale of Hermoni, the mother of Mukti, who had left his village and family to join an extremist outfit. Years later, Hermoni receives a mangled and bullet-ridden dead body, which is identified as Mukti. After the last rites are performed, there is contention that the just cremated corpse may not be of Mukti’s. Thus, begins another long wait as Hermoni rekindles her hope that her son will return home in person. She is given company by Sewali, Mukti’s childhood companion with whom he dreams of sharing his life. The film shows Sewali’s love for Muki as unflinching. Another character in the film is Biplob, who had returned from the outfit to lead a normal life, but his dark past prevents him from returning to normalcy.
Director Jaicheng Dohutia explains , ‘I belong to the Moran community so I had a moral obligation to make my film in a dialect that represents my community. I grew up in my village during the turbulent phase of insurgency when the Indian army entered our villages searching for extremists. The villagers at times evacuated the villages due to the fear of the army. Young boys from the village were not able to spend nights at their home. Their parents equally suffered and had to spend sleepless nights. I had spent my youth in such dreadful fear of the army. And from those memories of fright and apprehension from the past, my debut film took shape’.
By adapting their cinematic stories in ethnic languages, the filmmakers are also able to depict stories inherent to the milieu of that particular community. The soul of these films belongs to the community as a whole and the narrative represents the lives and issues of the respective ethnic groups. Such attributes make these films edgier and respectable in the global scenario of uncompromising film making.
DYNAMICS IN THE CINEMATIC FAMILY
Family is a key feature of indigenous social life, and several of these films explicitly address the often complicated relationships within the family.
In Ko:Yad the importance of family life can hardly be overlooked within the narrative framework of the film. From the beginning of the film, the protagonist of the film, Paukam is shown as a child who loses his mother at an early age and is later neglected by his stepmother. The absence of a motherly figure plays a key role in shaping his persona. His father teaches him how to row a boat and lead an independent life on his own. Paukam leaves his father for good as he does not want to be considered a burden by his father and stepmother. He gets married and starts his own family but encounters a terrible fate. His two sons leave him to start their own families, his daughter elopes and finally, his beloved boat is swallowed by the river. However, his wife remains his constant companion throughout the film and displays the fact that mutual love and caring between a husband and wife is the central pillar holding up the experience of being human.
The depiction of the way of life of the Moran community in Haanduk is a strong comment on the emotional pursuits of life within a village and the buildup of humanity therein. Both Hermoni and Sewali wait for Mukti to return to their lives. The absence of Mukti creates a vacuum in their family. In one of her letters, Sewali mentions that for the past few years there is no one in the village to celebrate the festival of Bihu with her. So, the longing for Mukti’s return becomes an essential factor in their social lives too. The other extremist in the film, Biplob, loses his parents to the ‘secret killings’ and he subsequently surrenders. When he returns to his village he misses both his parents and the idyllic times of his past. The unhurried pace of the edit and observational use of the camera induces the details of quotidian life and the passing of time. These filmic techniques further epitomise the agonising and infinite wait that family members have to undergo as they wait for their loved ones to return.
AUTHENTICITY IN THE NARRATIVE
A film made in a particular language has to maintain a high degree of authenticity regarding its location, theme, cast, etc. Both the films Ko:Yad and Haanduk have meticulously used native themes and imagery to offer an internal gaze into the indigenous communities they are located in.
Sharing her experience Manju Borah remembers, ‘To keep the authenticity of the Mising tribe I had to visit the village several times before I started my actual shoot. Another tough step I had to take was regarding the casting of characters and I was firm I wanted actors from the Mising community only. Except for one or two of the actors, most of them were from the village and who had never faced the camera before. Another fact is that no regular actor would have been able to swim and row a boat in the river Brahmaputra during the peak of summer. My protagonist Paukam belongs to that village and community and these activities were easy for the actor and so the representation was authentic for my purpose too’.
At the same time, Dohutia reveals, ‘From character selection to location hunting, I wanted each and every aspect of my film to be realistic and wanted to capture the essence of the 1990’s so that viewers can experience and observe the theme of the film closely. As an artistic choice, I had selected the actors from the local villages. It took me almost two years to find the principal character of the film. Since there was no dialogue spoken by the character of the mother in the film, I was looking for a face that would reveal the deep sorrow within her. And finally, I found that character in the local community. In the same way, the languages of this film became Moran and Assamese’.
THE CURRENT STATE OF REGIONAL LANGUAGE CINEMA
At the 59th National Film Awards Byari (2011), a film in Beary/Byari language, the first feature film to be made in this language, shared the Swarna Kamal for Best Feature Film with the Marathi feature Deool (The Temple, 2011). In 2018, Sinjar (2018), a film in the Jasari language, the first feature film to be made in this language, won the National Film Award for the Best Feature Film in Jasari and the award for the Best Debut Director at the 65th National Film Awards. Thus, we can observe that films in various Indian languages and dialects are being made and such films are also being recognised nationally. In various parts of the Northeast, films are being made in languages such as Wancho, Sherdukpen, Khasi, Garo, Kokborok, Monpa and Pangchenpa, among others.
Speaking on this phenomenon of films being made in ethnic languages, filmmaker Gautam Bora says, ‘I think, it is important in today’s world to understand cinema, as a deeper expression of an artist’s understanding of his/her surrounding world, both near and far. Cinema is no longer an instrument of crude entertainment, it is a sophisticated art form. Indian mainstream cinema started to follow average and below-average Hollywood films. In the process, Indian mainstream cinema limited itself to bland storytelling in the form of entertainment. In north India the dominant films came to be in Hindi and in south India the dominant films were in Tamil, Telegu and Malayalam. Other language films remained confined as ‘regional’ cinema, where linguistic minorities, like tribal communities and other ethnic groups, were relegated to the margins of national platforms. This has been a fact globally and the dominance of larger nationalities continues even today. This scenario is however, changing in different parts of the world, but not so in India. The overall understanding of Indian cinema is still unable to come out of the clutches of ‘Bollywood’ entertainment. So, the reality of lives of many communities and cultures, still remain elusive in India’.
I believe that when a filmmaker makes a film in any regional or ethnic language, it provides a platform for viewers to understand the societal structures and everyday lives of individuals from that particular community. At present, the budding dialectal filmmakers from Assam need to ensure that their films do not lose the intrinsic appeal of the portrayal of the minutiae of everyday reality with depth and authenticity. Such attributes will make their films edgier, watchable, and respectable in the global discourse of realistic cinema.
1.Email interview with Manoj Barpujari conducted in March, 2018.
2.Email interview with Manju Borah conducted in January, 2021.
3.Email interview with Jaicheng Dohutia conducted in January, 2021.
4.Email interview with Goutam Bora conducted in January, 2021.
Dipankar Sarkar is an alumnus of Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, and a freelance writer on cinema. His articles have appeared on Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune (Chandigarh), Upperstall, among other publications. He has a Certificate in Film Curation: Theory and Practice from FTII and a Research Fellowship for his monograph on Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia from the National Film Archive of India, Pune (NFAI). His essay on actor Adil Hussain has been published in the book ‘Glimpses of Cinema from India’s Northeast’ (2020) by Bedakantha Books and Publication, Jorhat.