Guns and Guitars: Bidyut Kotoky's documentary unlocks the Northeast through its music
Five years ago, Bidyut Kotoky returned home to Assam from Mumbai, with the intention of documenting and telling the story of a people shrouded in the mist of war, rage and rebellion, through a musical travelogue called Guns and Guitars.
The title of the film is a bit of a giveaway. The history of almost all the seven states has been associated (and in some cases continues to be so) with violence of some kind of the other. Even greater is the sense of alienation — of trying to find and hold on to one’s roots. The question of identity, therefore, becomes central to any story coming out of the states. To account for that identity, Bidyut chose music.
“I didn’t really choose the stories of my film — the stories chose me, to be honest. It is very important for me to be inspired to attempt a film on a subject. Guess that encounter with Lou triggered something within me,” he says, referring to a meeting with Lou Majaw, a legend from the region, who for more than 40 years has been celebrating Bob Dylan’s birthday with an annual concert in Shillong.
In 2016, seven bands from each of the seven states performed at the concert. Through their lives and music, Bidyut weaves a narrative born out of love and compassion.
Guns and Guitars begins in Bidyut’s home, Assam. Aside from the bands that he talks to in the film, a great amount of time is devoted to the problems that plague the states. For Assam it is the insurgency, for Tripura it is the migration of people from Bangladesh, for Arunachal it is its uneasy relationship with China and so on. As Bidyut travels from state to state, attempting to tell what is crucial, and what is often overlooked, he manages to mix together both history, politics and art to some extent.
“With no mention or focus on the positive energies in the region, the default focus has been on the negative energies, although nothing could be further away from the truth. For years, I have been troubled by this and have tried to bring out various, lesser known aspects of the region through my films,” he says.
There are some genuine Oppenheimer-ish moments in the film where people talk about violence and conflict with ease. But in general, there is an underlying despondence, a sense of farce in the way people interact, both with Bidyut and his camera. People, including the likes of artist Zubeen Garg and Adil Hussain (most recently seen in Mukti Bhawan) talk with calm that seems out of place. And herein lies the obtrusive nature of narratives we are most familiar with in regard to the region; narratives that send us into the viewing room with guns and bodies on our mind. While that is a significant peg, is it any different from where we live?
The importance of music, both to Bidyut’s film and the region in general cannot be underlined enough. So much so that the government of Nagaland has a Ministry for Music, Meghalaya’s chief minister can take to the stage with aplomb, and a number of local languages are built around the idea of sound and music.
But none of these unique stories are easy to tell, or understand. “Like visiting the village in the midst of nowhere in Meghalaya that practices a wonderful custom of dedicating an individual ‘tune’ to every child instead of giving them a pet name… Yes, certain things in life can’t be described adequately in words — you need to experience it,” Bidyut says. His film could merely be a call for the need to uncover and experience these stories. Not remain forebodingly hinged to the media’s tribunal that more often than not, tilts its lens based on the politics it wants the people to identify with.
Bidyut travels to each state, meets its people, the bands. It is safe to say, his hand is guided out of love rather than objectivity. He narrates his own personal experiences of having lived in places. In a couple of scenes, he almost steps out of the documentary, and mingles as he would in real life. Perhaps, that is what the people, and their mystified existences need. A loving inquiry. Bidyut’s film may fail to be objective or cinematic in places, but there is something deeply moving and charming about the heartfelt letter of love that converges, in the end, in a sort of cathartic musical soiree. “I am a die-hard optimist and like to look at the glass as half full. I guess now the ball is in the court of people from mainland India to rise to the challenge and educate themselves about Northeast,” he says. As for all the wrongs mainland India has done to them, Bidyut, in the film says ‘An apology would be a nice way to have the last say’.
For now, though, let there be music.