As northeastern cinema gains visibility at international film festivals, a look at what's driving the change
A crop of young northeastern filmmakers and actors have moved back home; their creative vision has begun to find takers at international film festivals.
Cinema in the North East is undergoing a curious, and productive transition. As new age films with experimental narratives pick up pace with a crop of young filmmakers and actors moving back home, their creative vision has begun to find takers at international film festivals, finding a route into alternate cinema viewership globally. Word of mouth publicity from film festivals serve these low cost, high content films well. As recently as May this year, four northeastern films were screened at the New York Indian Film Festival - Jahnu Barua’s Bhoghaa Khirikee, co-produced by Priyanka Chopra’s Purple Pebble Pictures, Rima Das’ Bulbul Can Sing, Aamis by Bhaskar Hazarika and Roopa Barua’s documentary, based in Manipur, Daughters of the Polo God. At Cannes, Dominic Sangma presented his Garo film, Rapture, in La Fabrique Cinema, a section where Mira Nair mentors young filmmakers along side leading names from global filmmaking; and Hazarika premiered his unpredictable, gluttonous feature (Aamis) at Tribeca. Bidyut Kotoky’s Xhoixobote Dhemalite had also been screened at smaller film festivals in the United States in 2018, generating sufficient buzz for it to get a profitable re-release across Assam.
Studying this spurt in acceptance in international film festivals throws up a historical narrative of absence. For over six decades, the North East has remained alienated from mainstream Indian popular consciousness. One is hard pressed to find a character from the North East that is not ridiculed or caricatured in a Hindi film yet. Shoojit Sircar’s Pink is the only exception to this rule. Yet, right from the halcyon days of Jahnu Barua and Bhavendra Nath Saikia, the 1980s and 1990s, films from Assam have been toasted at festivals like Locarno, Karlovy Vary and Venice. In fact, Manipuri filmmaker Aribam Syam Sharma, who also composes the music of his films, was the toast of global film festivals. Sharma’s Ishanou (The Chosen One) was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 1991; his film Imagi Ningthem won the top honour at the Festival of Three Continents, Nantes in 1982. A legacy has been built over time, and this current crop of inspired filmmakers, trained and exposed to Hindi and regional cinema as well as Indian film festivals like MAMI, has focused on parsing out authentic stories native to the region. These are unseen and unusual stories, thus becoming relatively new content from standardised Indian cinematic content.
Another factor is the sheer need of viewership. Rima Das’ Village Rockstars became India’s official entry to the Oscars in 2018; perhaps the only reason that her film got wide screenings in theatres in Assam and limited multiplex screens in Delhi and Mumbai. Otherwise, cinema from the North East has long suffered due to a lack of opportunity to access audiences. Manju Borah, a National Award-winning director makes films in local dialects of Assam like Mishing. In her own words, had it not been for funding and showcases of Doordarshan, most of her films would have never released. Borah showcases her films in small, mofussil theatres and community screening halls. So did Reema Borah, awarded and applauded filmmaker from FTII who has screened her film, Bokul, across small community halls and amongst the Assamese diaspora in Navi Mumbai and Delhi. The lack of opportunity has pushed filmmakers from the region to seek alternative options beyond the theatre space to show their work.
Manipur presents a case in point. Young director Sanad Aribam released his first Manipuri film, Laman Ama (A Vengeance Story) recently. Manipur lives under AFSPA and has an unofficial ban on screening Hindi films, thus limiting the reach of movie theatres amongst the young in the state. He has broken away from mass produced local films and has succeeded in making impact slowly with his debut feature. “I am influenced to a certain degree by Neo-noir and that's why many elements of Neo-noir can be seen in Laman Ama, like the low key lighting, the cliffhangers, etc. It won't be wrong to claim that this is the first Manipuri Neo-noir film,” he says. “I've also used a minimalistic approach in the whole film. The whole film is live sound and there is no background music at all, the reason being my desire to let the audience feel the noise-polluted ambience of Imphal city, the capital of Manipur. And there are no song and dance sequences, all these to stay away from the shadows of Bollywood which always looms large over our head."
In the absence of Hindi films from theatres in Manipur, a unique situation arises. The quality of local films suffers, making them mass-produced copies in the style and form of Hindi cinema. Manipur’s legacy of world-class original films has dwindled. “One particular reason behind Manipuri films getting lesser audiences in theatres, I believe, is due to the huge number of films that are churned out on a regular basis and most of these films are low-budget and low-quality ones, mostly to be widely circulated as DVDs and never to be released in theatres,” says Sanad. Film festivals help in bringing interest and specific audiences to such films. While both Rima Das and Reema Borah have gained from exposure at MAMI, the Guwahati International Film Festival, on a smaller scale but with adequate regional reach and focus on cinema from the North East, aids filmmakers like Sanad. In his own words, showing his film here and interacting with Dominic Sangma, the filmmaker from Meghalaya who has broken new ground helped Sanad extensively.
Sangma’s Ma.Ama earned solid reviews for its uncompromising and lush, slow-paced story telling at IFFI and MAMI. A film in the Garo dialect is rare, and one with non actors more so. It competed in the international competition section, thanks to it being an Indo-Chinese production. Sangma had found common interest in a Chinese producer Xu Jiangshang at Busan International Film Festival where he had shown his student film, Rong Kuchek. Their collaboration reflects a cultural resonance with Sino influences, a link often missing with the North Indian and Punjabi culture dominant in Hindi cinema. "I really don’t think it matters to them that films comes from the North East, because for these festivals are only looking for good films. It’s true that films from the North East are not represented well in Indian cinema…having said that, it’s a good time for northeastern filmmakers because there are so many ways of reaching out to audiences now; we don’t have to depend on the mainstream industry."
There are multiple stories, memories and chronicles in the North East that can work on film, if there is proper, organised support for filmmakers from the government.
Bhaskar Hazarika, a favourite of film festivals like IFFI, Busan and now Tribeca, echoes this sentiment. “Whatever be the reason, (for growing interest in films from North East), it is definitely not due to the local government's support. If state governments in the North East were even 10 percent as far-sighted as their counterparts in Maharashtra and Kerala, the trickle of international films you see from the region could turn into a flood. Unfortunately, indie filmmakers do not have any money for lobbying, so no government takes our cause seriously. Some of the obvious factors leading to a surge of international cinema from the North East are lower costs of production due to digital technology, access to global co-production opportunities, and digital distribution of films, which helps in recovering costs to a large extent,” he concludes.
Additionally, diaspora from the North East live and grow across the world, especially in cities like New York, London, Berlin, the UAE and Singapore. Given the fact that popular Hindi cinema rarely shows them a slice of life from their homes, accessing regional films on streaming platforms and at festivals is a growing trend.
A good case in point of the apathy from the central governmental bodies and negligence is a walk down Assam’s premier film institute and studio, Jyoti Chitraban. Sprawling and serene, it lacks updated editing and post production facilities. The Guwahati International Film Festival features an online brochure that exhausts you with its hangover of pre-liberalised India, with tons of self applause for officials and ministers. If one is patient enough to scrawl through, there is a very interesting line-up of films and retrospectives from Croatia and Turkey as well.
Manipuri and Assamese films on Netflix are very popular amongst people from the region. There is potential to make money, build interest and more importantly, preserve and nurture the unique identity of the North East through its cinema.