Assamese cinema has an eight decade old history but those involved with it seem to harbour little hopes of its future prospects. Diehard film fans are not willing to lap up anything beyond Bollywood fare, while general entertainment seekers have migrated to mobile theatre for giving better value for their money. The gently paced, sensitive storytelling on celluloid that was once the hallmark of Assamese films, courtesy cerebral filmmakers like Bhabendra th Saikia, Jahnu Baruah and Santa Bordoloi, has long receded from public memory. The situation is so bad now that the film fraternity has taken the State government to court, in the backdrop of ongoing tussle between film producers and directors on one side and cinema hall owners on the other. Last week, the film fraternity filed a petition in the Gauhati High Court against the State government for amendments it made on March 29, 2007 to the Assam Amusement and Betting Tax (Amendment) Act, 2007. With one stroke, service charges were raised steeply from Rs 4.50 to Rs 40 per cinema ticket. Of this, Rs 10 was for cinema halls providing ‘Dolby’ digital sound, Rs 8 for pushback seats and Rs 17 for air-conditioning with back-up generator. Considering that the service charge is only around Rs 14 in States like Maharashtra and Gujarat boasting state-of-the-art cinema halls, many filmmakers in Assam believe it to be a big disincentive for viewers here. They have also alleged that cinema hall owners, despite benefiting from higher service taxes shelled out by viewers in the State, are pushing films from outside while giving short shrift to Assamese films. With their profit share sharply dwindling, filmmakers in the State have voiced suspicion that the government amended the law to favour a lobby of big cinema hall owners. After Cultural Affairs minister Bismita Gogoi constituted a committee last year to go into the issue, it recommended among other things that entertainment tax be returned 100 percent to producers, service charge of air-conditioned halls be reduced to Rs 14 and non air-conditioned halls to Rs 5, and declaring industry status for Assamese film. But with the State government continuing to sit over the recommendations, exasperated filmmakers, backed by cine artistes, have now moved the court.
The association of cinema hall owners (AACHOA) have meanwhile hit back at the film fraternity, pointing out that only 14 out of 77 cinema halls in the State are charging Rs 40 service tax, with the rest still charging Rs 5 per ticket. Asserting that this is part of the government’s policy to encourage reopening of cinema halls and upgrading the existing ones, the AACHOA has in turn blamed film producers for ‘lacking professiolism and failing to promote their films’. Cinema hall owners have also claimed that cine viewers do not know about new releases due to lack of publicity, so their absence means that Assamese films have to be taken off the prime times of 2 pm and 5 pm after a week. As cinema hall owners and filmmakers continue to lay the blame at each other’s door, it is a sad fact that though there have been around 35 releases in the last couple of years, only a few have had any impact at the box office. The downward spiral of Assamese films continues, lurching from an ineffectual search for its own identity to aping Bollywood fare. The bread and butter of most cine artistes and technicians have been coming from mobile theatre and the DVD scene. Militant threats, changing viewers’ tastes and erratic power supply have been major reasons for large scale closure of single cinema halls across the State. The film fraternity has been pushing for mini cinema halls employing the latest digital technology to bring back viewers and ensure good returns for exhibitors, but the idea has failed to take off while the State government remains apathetic. Given high production costs and viewers demanding Bollywood-Hollywood standard fares, filmmakers have an uphill struggle to get hold of finces. Cinematic technology continues to lag behind. Speaking of scripts, when was the last time an Assamese film really made an impact with a good, origil script? The fact that mobile theatre is still getting viewers even in interior and rural areas — points to an untapped demand for good stories, staged or screened, which the age of DVDs and DTH television still have not drowned out. There has also been much experimentation in the field of documentary filmmaking, albeit concerns with fincing. Filmmakers, exhibitors, cine artistes and technicians as well as the media need a platform to brainstorm how to meet this demand. And the State government needs to shake itself from its torpor and rise above vested interests to prepare a blueprint and implement it, by ecting or changing laws if need be, to encourage Assamese cinema as an industry and an art form.