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Assamese Cinema: Its Social Discourse

Assamese Cinema: Its Social Discourse

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  12 Nov 2018 1:06 PM GMT

Parthajit Baruah

With the growing interest in cinema as a serious art form, a large numbers of filmmakers of Assam have focused on the broad range of social, political and cultural phenomena. Their films reflect the engagement with the local and regional issues which are overtly and sometimes covertly represented in the films. For me, Assamese cinema that addresses local issues and carries socio-political, cultural and anthropological significance, can rightly be considered as social texts.

Assamese Cinema, heralded with Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s ‘Joymoti’ (1935), the first talkie in Assam, found a new language in the films of Padum Barua and Bhabendra Nath Saikia during the ‘70s and ‘80s of the last century. They pioneered New Wave Assamese cinema by shunning the conventional storylines and focusing more on social and politically oriented themes. It was Jahnu Barua who took Assamese cinema to the international map with his film ‘Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai’ (The Catastrophe, 1987) that won Silver Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival. Rima Das’ epoch-making film Village Rockstars (2017) which has been selected for India’s official entry to 91st Academy Awards, has received multiple awards at the International film festivals. It was the first Assamese film that has globally travelled for a longer period of time.

In the post-Independence era, Assam has witnessed numerous socio-political upheavals like China’s invasion in 1962, the Assam Movement, uprising of the ULFA, rise of insurgency, border conflict, et al. Although these phenomena have much historical significance, they often remain unarticulated and unacknowledged in the cultural and intellectual arena, and sometimes are distorted in the national narratives.

Jahnu Barua’s film ‘Papori’ (1986) is set at the backdrop of the Assam Movement. In early 1979, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) launched an agitation against this illegal entry of foreigners to the State. The President’s rule was imposed in Assam to control the situation at that time. Thousands of innocents lost their lives in this tumultuous situation. Set in a remote village of Madhupur, the film ‘Papori’ narrates the story of a simple family comprising – Papori, her school teacher husband Binod and their daughter Deepa. The film shows how Binod is falsely accused of a murder and later, his wife Papori is raped by a smuggler. The film’s reference to the President’s rule, correction of voters’ list, illegal settlements are suggestive of the muddled atmosphere of Assam during the Assam Movement.

On the other hand, Hem Bora’s ‘Sankalpa’ (Vow, 1986) addresses the social disruption happening in the peak time of the Assam Movement. The 1983 election scene, CRPs and Army Personnel posted at strategic points to keep vigil; when Assam is seen with frequent violent outbursts, riots and street fights are portrayed at the backdrop of the film. In the film, Ramen Dutta, a student leader, organizes anti-government agitations demanding the identification and deporting of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. But the government spreads a rumour among the Muslims, that it is only they who were being targeted while the Hindu foreigners were not to be sent back. Afzal, a student leader says: “The Assam Movement will go on until the last foreigner is left. A foreigner is a foreigner. There is no religious sentiment.” The last frame of the film freezes with the lines, “Can the country be built by ignoring youth? Is it possible to hold back time by bullets? This is only the beginning of such questions.”

Bidyut Kotoky’s, ‘Xhoixobote Dhemalite’ (Rainbow Fields, 2017) and Bidyut Chakarvarty’s ‘Dwaar:The Voyage Out’ (2013) have portrayed the violence and social disturbances in the backdrop of the Assam Agitation in the 1980s.

The rise of ULFA in Assam has brought a revolutionary change in the economic and socio-political spheres of Assam. This insurgent group was formed with the aim of establishing a sovereign Assam through armed struggle against deprivation and economic exploitation by mainland India. Dinesh Gogoi’s film ‘Surya Tejor Anya Naam’ (The Blood Red Sun, 1991), is the first one to address explicitly the complexity and predicament, born out of the insurgency. The protagonist of the film Bijoy, a cadre of People’s Court who believes in the ideology of Che Guevara, targets corrupt engineers, businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats for ransom. While Gopal Borthakur’s ‘Sesh Upohar’ (Final Gift,2001) is set in the 1990s and depicts the political turmoil created by insurgency and questions the ambiguous ideology of the surrendered ULFA leaders. In the film, Nanak Baruah, chief commander of militant group, desists from exploding a bomb in a train when he sees his wife and daughter boarding it, and thus saves many a life.

China’s invasion to Assam in 1962 is another significant historical phenomenon. Jahnu Barua’s ‘Firingoti’ (Spark) is set in the backdrop of Indo-China war of 1962 and narrates the story of a teacher named Ritu Baruah whose husband dies in an accident. This film is about a woman who fights hard to establish a school, and at the same time, it highlights the socio-political and educational environment in the immediate post-Independence era. The reference to Sino-Indo war of 1962 is given through the radio, “This is All India Radio… after heavy fighting against China, the Indian Army lost Bomdila, and the enemy is still advancing. Heavy fighting is on in Susul near Ladak border.. China’s 3 point agreement…”

Manju Borah’s film ‘Aai Kot Nai’ (Ma, 2008) deals with the border conflict in the provinces of Assam and Nagaland. The film zooms in a village located in the Nagaland-Assam border area and begins with a bhauna enacting a fighting scene from the epic Mahabharata. The filmmaker wants to establish through this scene the frequent conflict that takes place between the Assamese and the Nagas. One character in the film says: “Can you see the plight of clash between brothers? While watching the battle scene in the drama, I was reflecting right from Kurukshetra to the Naga-Assamese discord, the root is always land and border.”

Insurgency problem in Bodoland is the thematic concern of Manju Borah’s Bodo film ‘Dau Huduni Methai’ (Song of The Horned Owl, 2015). The film unfolds the complexity and conflicts at the Bodoland. Set at the Bodoland of Assam, the film narrates the socio-political disturbances among the Bodo. The protagonist Raimali when she goes to the village shop, hears the news in the radio: “This is All India Radio. We have received report that five militants were killed in an encounter with the security forces at Dwimuguri near Serfangguri in Kokrajhar district early this morning. A Jawan too was injured in the incident. A few militants managed to escape. Three AK 56 rifles, three detonators and several live cartridges were recorded from the spot...” In a flashback technique, the filmmaker shows through her eyes, how insurgency in Bodoland has changed her life, her lover and their families. She is raped and left alone in a deserted house. Her lover dies in an encounter, and later, she dies by drowning in the river.

These filmmakers have dealt with the local and regional issues transforming them to powerful historical narratives, and hence, the Assamese cinema should rightly be regarded as a social text to a considerable extent.

(Parthajit Baruah is a film scholar and author of the book ‘Face to Face: The Cinema of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’. He is presently doing research project at NFAI, Pune.)

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