Cinema of the North East: From Joymoti to Era Bator Sur, 13 must-watch films from the region
Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on cinema from the North East. To get up to speed, read part one — 'From early Assamese films to star Manipuri directors, all you need to know' — here.
Altogether, fewer than 1,000 films have been made in the entire North East since 1935. And only a handful among them would stand the test of time. These are among the most memorable —
The film’s only surviving print was lost when it got burnt during a fire at the family home of the Agarwallas' in Tezpur, and just about an hour of it survived through a documentary film titled Rupkonwar Jyotiprasad Aru Joymoti by Dr Bhupen Hazarika, that retold how Jyotiprasad Agarwalla had made the film. These portions show the meticulousness with which Jyotiprasad worked on the film, and how despite financial constraints, he recreated a historical incident with a touch of realism. The songs of the film still remain evergreen hits in Assam. Incidentally, Aideu Handique, who played Joymoti, was socially boycotted for much of her life for acting in a film “despite being a woman”, and her engagement had been called off because she addressed her screen husband, Ahom Prince Gadapani, as “Bongohor Deu” (dearest husband). She remained a spinster throughout her life. In the mid-2000s, a biopic on her life, titled Aideu, was made. Here's a look at the surviving 56 minutes of Joymoti, with English subtitles:
Ganga Chilanir Pakhi (1976)
Based on an eponymous novel by Sahita Akademi-winning author Dr Lakshmi Nandan Bora (Assam and Manipur have a strong tradition of adapting literary work into cinema, and that tradition continues even now), this Padum Barua-directed Assamese film is considered a classic in Assamese cinema, and perhaps it would have been so in the context of Indian cinema too — had it travelled the festival circuit. A realistic portrayal of life in rural Assam, its protagonist Basanti (Beena Baruwati) longs for her former lover after her husband’s death, but is left in the lurch. The film did poorly at the box office, and Barua never recovered enough to make another film, though he had a script ready.
Directed by Aribam Syam Sharma, this remains the only film from North East India till date to be shown as an official section at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was screened as part of the Un Certain Regard segment in 1991. Based on famed writer M K Binodini Devi’s script, the powerful film draws on the traditions and beliefs of the Meitei community to weave a powerful story about relationships. It would not be wrong to call this the best Manipuri film till date. Watch a scene from the film here:
Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai (1987)
A benchmark film, this Jahnu Barua masterpiece, based on the novel of the same name by renowned writer Homen Borgohain, is the only film till date from North East India to win the Best Feature Film award at the National Film Awards. A powerful political film set in rural Assam, it poignantly depicted how the common man gets exploited at the hands of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. The power of this Assamese film lies in its hopeful ending. Indra Bania, who played the protagonist, won a special prize at the Locarno Film Festival for his acting in the film, and Barua himself won the coveted Silver Leopard. Watch the full movie with English subtitles here:
This powerful Assamese film that skillfully, subtly yet powerfully depicts a woman’s right to her body and also her equal position in a relationship is perhaps the best film made by Physics professor-cum-playwright-novelist-story writer-editor Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia. “If I have to be a Sita, then you too have to behave like Ram”: This dialogue by the protagonist, spoken to her husband, remains one of the most-talked about sentences ever spoken in an Assamese film. Assamese cinema’s romantic superstar Biju Phukan gave a searing performance as a philandering, rich zamindar, while Malaya Goswami scorched the screen in the role of his wife Menaka. Like all of Saikia’s films, this too was based on his own literary work, in this case the highly-popular novel Antarip. The film went to several prestigious film festivals, including the Festival of Three Continents, Nantes in France. Incidentally, all of Saikia’s seven films had got selected to the Indian Panorama.
Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (It’s a Long Way to the Sea; 1995)
Another masterpiece by Jahnu Barua, this Assamese film got him the Best Director Award at the National Film Awards. Using subtle humour and irony, Barua weaves a fine tale of the development-versus-common man theme here. Bishnu Kharghoria, who has acted in every Assamese film made by Barua since then, gave an outstanding performance in the film, which got him a special jury mention at the National Film Awards. Watch the complete film with English subtitles here:
The first film by Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia, it drew from the filmmaker’s keen observational power of human relationships, which reflects in all his writings and films. It was a sensitive tale of a young girl through whose eyes the viewer could see the urban-rural, rich-poor divide, even while the protagonist’s aspirations formed the core of the narrative. Coming soon after Ganga Chilanir Pakhi, it set the ball rolling in Assam as far as realistic and sensitive filmmaking is concerned.
Imagi Ningthem (My Son, My Precious; 1981)
This first directorial venture of Aribam Syam Sharma brought the world’s attention towards Manipuri cinema. A beautifully-woven story of a young boy and his grandfather, whose daughter died during child birth after getting impregnated out of wedlock, the film won the top award at the prestigious Festival of Three Continents at Nantes, France.
The only feature film made by Gautam Bora, who was trained in filmmaking in the then East Germany, Wosobipo (Cuckoo’s Call) is a subtle tale of the relationship between a child living in the remote Karbi hills of Assam, with his grandfather. The film was selected for the Berlin Film Festival apart from winning Bora the Indira Gandhi Award for the Best First Film of a Director at the National Film Awards. Bora, strangely, never made another feature film though he made several acclaimed documentaries since then. Two portions of the film may be viewed online:
Era Bator Sur (1956)
That Dr Bhupen Hazarika is a cultural giant of North East India does not need any reiteration. The multifaceted genius made several feature films, starting with this one. Its cast had luminaries like Bishnu Prasad Rabha as also Balraj Sahni, who along with Hazarika and many other stalwarts of Indian cinema who were part of the Indian People’s Theatre (IPTA) movement. While one can debate the cinematic qualities of the film, it is a great document of Assam’s folk art forms and as always is the case with anything made by Hazarika, has some great music. Here's a song sung by Lata Mangeshkar in the film, and another by Bhupen Hazarika:
This Assamese film, directed by Prabhat Mukherjee of Bengal and starring Rebecca Achaw, Radha Govinda Baruah (founder of the Assam Tribune group of newspapers, and credited with having brought the predominantly-rural festival of Rongali Bihu, the Assamese New Year festival held in mid-April, to the stage and thus to the urban areas), Jnanada Kakati and Tasadduq Yusuf, was the first from the North East to be showcased at an international film festival — and it was the Berlin Film Festival in 1960, no less.
Paediatrician Dr Santwana Bardoloi, also an acclaimed theatre actress, made her debut as a filmmaker with this adaptation of Dr Mamoni Raisom (Indira) Goswami’s classic novel Dontal Haatir Uwe Khowa Haodah (The Moth Eaten Howdah of the Tusker). Picking up one particular episode from the novel, Bardoloi made a powerful film about the revolt of a young widow in a conservative Brahmin family in rural Assam of early 1940s. The film won a Special Jury Prize at the 1996 IFFI and got selected to a large number of festivals. Tom Alter played an important character in the film. Bardoloi took another 20 years to make her second film, Maj Rati Keteki (2016). Some portions of the film, without subtitles, may be viewed here:
Raag Birag (1996)
Bidyut Chakravorty, theatre and film actor, made this sensitively-handled film about desire and denunciation with a deep philosophical undertone. It was selected as the opening film of Indian Panorama at International Film Festival of India that year, and also won Chakravorty the Indira Gandhi Award for the Best First Feature Film at the National Film Awards.
Other must watches —
2. All of Bhabendra Nath Saikia's films — Anirban, Kolahal, Sarothi, Itihaas (all Assamese) and Kalsandhya (Hindi) — apart from those mentioned above
3. Sanjeev Hazorika’s Haladhar and Meemangxa (both Assamese)
4. Jwngdao Bodosa’s Alayaran and Hagramayo Jinahari (both Bodo)
5. Joseph Pulinthanath’s Yarwng (made in the Kokborok language of Tripura)
6. Manju Borah’s Baibhav (Assamese)
7. Ahsan Mujid’s Sonam (made in the Monpa dialect of Arunachal Pradesh)
Read part three of this series here.
The writer is a National Award-winning film critic and filmmaker. After making several acclaimed documentaries, he recently completed his debut feature film, Ishu (Assamese), produced by Children’s Film Society, India.