Cinema of the Northeast: From early Assamese films to star Manipuri directors, all you need to know

Utpal Borpujari

October 07, 2017 11:31:39 IST

The positive reviews that Rima Das’ totally-independent Assamese film Village Rockstars received (she has directed, written, produced, photographed, edited the film, while Amrit Pritam Dutta has done the sound design and Nilotpal Bora has composed the score) at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was almost overshadowed back home as headlines were captured by actor Priyanka Chopra’s misconstrued comments on Sikkim being an "insurgency-hit state" and "not having" a filmmaking history till she produced the children’s film Pahuna, also screened at TIFF.

Thankfully, the comments by Chopra got only a limited space in the media, as the controversy died down, following her acknowledgement of the mistake and subsequent apology to the Sikkim government. 'Thankfully', because, the spotlight needs to be on the exciting cinema that is being made by talents like Das, Haobam Paban Kumar and Pradip Kurbah in Northeast India rather than on ill-informed comments made by some on the geo-politically, ethnically and culturally-complex region.

What Chopra said is the not the first time that anyone has made a wrong observation on the Northeast, but it got more traction simply because of her celebrity status. In fact, even within the media, knowledge about the region is rarely more than perfunctory, and this writer can vouch for that, having worked in the media space in Delhi for over two decades. What made Chopra’s comments more newsy was the fact that it contrasted with her connection with the region as a brand ambassador for Assam Tourism and also as a producer who is looking at it seriously (after Pahuna, she is producing an Assamese film that will be directed by master filmmaker Jahnu Barua).

That Pahuna is not the first film out of Sikkim is a fact. And that gives us an opportunity here to take a look at cinemas of Northeast India. You may call it a primer, or a checklist, but here it is, a basic guide on cinemas from what perhaps still remains India’s least understood region.

Still from Rima Das' Village Rockstars

Still from Rima Das' Village Rockstars

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The journey of cinema in what is now called Northeast India, started in Bholaguri tea estate, located on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra — not very far from the historically-rich town of Tezpur, which is also called the cultural capital of Assam. Why a tea estate? The numerous histories of Indian cinema would not tell you that, because in most of them, the genesis of cinema in the region is either completely absent or is just about a footnote. The fact is, that Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, an icon in Assam and the scion of a business family that had migrated from faraway Rajasthan several generations before he was born, had set up a temporary film studio in this family-owned tea estate to shoot the first Assamese film. Titled Joymoti, this film was released in 1935, initiating the film movement of Assam and also the whole region. (In a state where “Marwaris”, as the business community with origins in Rajasthan are broadly called, are still viewed as profiteers who make money at the cost of locals, the Agarwalla family is an exception and is credited with being a leading contributor to Assam’s cultural space, thanks to several poets and writers among Jyotiprasad’s predecessors).

Jyotiprasad collaborated with his contemporaries and giants of the Assamese cultural space such as Bishnu Prasad Rabha and Phani Sarma, to make Joymoti. It was based on a play by Lakshminath Bezbarua, often considered the father of modern Assamese literature. But it was not the whim of a man from a rich tea planter community that led Jyotiprasad to make a film. He was already an established writer, playwright, lyricist, poet, composer, in addition to being a prominent freedom fighter (it’s perhaps not a coincidence that he gave a break to a teenager in his second and last film — Indramalati — who later emerged as another cultural giant of Assam and India; the teen went by the name of Bhupen Hazarika).

Screengrab from Jyotiprasad Agarwalla's Joymoti, 1937

Screengrab from Jyotiprasad Agarwalla's Joymoti, 1935

It was just four years ago, in 1931, that India’s first “talkie” film Alam Ara had been released, and films were regularly being made in Mumbai and Bengal by then, but in Assam, it was still an unknown realm. But Jyotiprasad did not want to do an amateurish job, and went to the famed UFA Studios in Germany where he learnt the basics of filmmaking, and also got impressed by the realistic approach of cinema taken by the Germans and the Soviets. So, while much of the filmmaking in rest of India was focusing on religious and mythological cinema, he picked a historical subject, about an Ahom princess Joymoti, who had sacrificed her life for the sake of the Ahom-ruled Assam in the 17th century,

Being a nationalist, Jyotiprasad picked a theme that had much resonance in those days, with the anti-British sentiment building up across the country. And he used the inspiring tale of Joymoti to subtly lend cinematic support to the freedom struggle. While doing so, he took a realistic approach, and eschewed the melodramatic route, thus laying the foundation of realism in Assam’s cinema. It’s another matter that it took more than four decades after that for Assamese cinema to actually strongly pick up the realistic approach to cinema.

The tragedy was that Jyotiprasad had to release his film in Raunak cinema in Calcutta (now Kolkata) because there was no cinema hall in Assam. He of course released the film later in Assam, starting with a theatre hall in Guwahati, called the Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir. The lack of screening space meant Joymoti was an unmitigated financial disaster.

After Jyotiprasad showed the way, films started getting made in Assam quite regularly, though not many in number. Quite a few of them were notable in the local context, and some are now considered as films that need a fresh re-evaluation of their cinematic value, such as Bhupen Hazarika’s first film Era Bator Sur (The Song of the Deserted Path), in which he documented must of Assam’s musical culture through a fictional story, and Sarbeswar Chakraborty’s patriotic Maniram Dewan, which has several immortal songs by Hazarika, including the stirring “Buku Hom Hom Kore”, which was later transliterated by him into “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare” in Kalpana Lajmi’s Rudali.

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As Northeast India, as we now know it, took shape over the years — with the states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram carved out of Assam, and Sikkim getting incorporated first into India and then made a part of the “North East” region as an administrative decision — filmmaking efforts also kicked off gradually in the other states.

Manipur had its first film in Deba Kumar Bose's (a Bengali filmmaker from Kolkata) Matamgi Manipur (Today’s Manipur; 1972). It has the most well-developed film industry in the region, along with Assam, with both content-driven and mainstream masala stuff being made concurrently over the years. In other states, filmmaking is a more recent phenomena, with only Meghalaya having a sporadic filmmaking journey since 1981, when the first Khasi language film, Ka Synjuk Ri ki Laiphew Syiem (The Alliance of 30 Kings), directed by Hamlet Bareh Ngapkynta, was released.

Screengrab of Jyotiprasad Agarwalla's Indramalati, which introduced a then teenaged Bhupen Hazarika to audiences

Screengrab of Jyotiprasad Agarwalla's Indramalati, which also introduced a then teenaged Bhupen Hazarika to audiences

In a region where the usage of the term “film industry” is for the want of a more appropriate term, the reality is that only Assam and Manipur have a regular filmmaking tradition. Video films in local languages for local consumption have been made in other states quite regularly in recent years, though cinematically, they have hardly any merit simply because while easy availability of digital cameras has enabled lot of young filmmakers from the region to make interesting short films and documentaries, it has also enabled some film illiterate but glamour-struck people to make what can be described at best as poor imitations of B or C-grade films in Hindi, Bengali or Telugu films. And even in these two filmmaking states, Manipuri filmmakers work with a budget in the range of Rs 10-15 lakh, while in Assam, a film with a budget of over Rs 50 lakh is considered a big project. In fact, in Assam, only in recent years have a couple of films crossed a Rs 1 crore budget: a case in point is the recent Mission China, produced and directed by singer-musician Zubeen Garg, which with its reported Rs 2 crore-plus budget, has become the costliest film of the Northeast ever.

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The major problem for filmmakers in the region is lack of enough theatres, with quite a few states not even having a permanent cinema hall. Except Assam, all other states that do have cinema halls have less than 10 screens each. Another problem is that Northeast India is a virtual Tower of Babel with nearly 275 ethnic communities with as many languages and dialects — most of which are not understood by communities other than that which speaks it. So, when a film is made in, say Monpa, Sherdukpen or Wancho dialects of Arunachal Pradesh (for example Sonam by Ahsan Mujid, Crossing Bridges by Sange Dorjee Thongdok and The Head Hunter by Nilanjan Datta respectively), their local target audience comprises small tribes of a few thousand people (in most cases fewer than 50,000), who are spread across difficult mountain terrain in small villages — all places which have no access to cinema halls. So, a film made in such a dialect can have no commercial prospect locally, and can hope to earn back its investment back only if the film travels outside India and is acquired by a foreign distributor. Even local distribution efforts, through “travelling” or “tent” cinema models, are not easy to achieve in a region that has a difficult geographic terrain. And, of course, outside their specific local regions, in the rest of India, such films stand no chance commercially as even films made in languages with a wider reach hardly travel outside their respective states. (The scenario is now changing with multiplexes in major cities releasing films in various languages, although in a limited manner.)

Quite clearly, films are not made in this part of the world for only commercial reasons, though there was a time when Assamese films had quite a sizeable market, glimpses of which were seen with the recent stupendous box office success of Mission China, with Assamese crowds thronging the theatres in such a way after over two decades, the last being in 1995, when the gargantuan hit Joubone Amoni Kore (My Youth Troubles Me) had come along.

Undaunted by inter-connected problems like dearth of funding, lack of enough cinema halls and a society that has been almost always in turmoil, filmmakers in the region have continued to weave their dreams, seeking to tell stories relevant to the region and its societies, over the years, and more so in recent times. While funding for feature films is often hard to come by, talented youngsters are making a gamut of interesting short films and documentaries, picking up themes that are relevant and current. But, like everything else about the Northeast, this had remained largely outside consciousness of so-called ‘mainland’ India.

Zubeen Garg's Mission China (Assamese) has turned out to be a stupendous hit. Made at a cost of rs 2 crore, it is also the Northeastern film with the highest budget ever.

Zubeen Garg's Mission China (Assamese) has turned out to be a stupendous hit. Made at a cost of Rs 2 crore, it is also the Northeastern film with the highest budget ever.

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Over the years, the region has produced several filmmakers who have earned high praise nationally and internationally through their socially-responsible cinema. They include Jahnu Barua and the late Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia of Assam, and Aribam Syam Sharma of Manipur, as also the multifaceted genius Dr Bhupen Hazarika. This, even as those like PC Barua, Danny Denzongpa, Seema Biswas, SD and RD Burman and Salil Choudhury have made a place in ‘mainland’ cinema of different eras, including Adil Hussain and Reema Kagti in more recent times.

Manipur is actually a great example of how one can turn an adverse situation into an advantage: Hindi films were ‘banned’ by Revolutionary People’s Front , one of the numerous militant groups in the state, in September 2000, leading to the closure of most of the cinema halls in the Imphal Valley (the hill districts of Manipur did not have a single cinema hall then, and do not have one even now). This led the local filmmakers to devise an economic model in which they shoot their films in the digital format at ultra low budgets and hold ticketed shows in various available halls (theatre halls, community halls, etc, though a few cinema halls in Imphal city have reopened in recent times), thus recovering their investment and even making a profit.

Those who follow meaningful Indian cinema would know that in Assam, both Jahnu Barua and Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia have contributed immensely through some really good films. Barua’s Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai (Catastrophe) did commendable international business. There have been several other filmmakers who have made one or two acclaimed films before fading into oblivion — despite winning both national and international honours for their initial films — as they never got funding for their next films. The most notable among these names is Gautam Bora (whose only film, Wosobipo, in the Karbi tribal language, was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, apart from winning the Indira Gandhi Award for the Best First Film of a Director at the National Film Awards), and Dr Santwana Bordoloi (whose only film till recently was Adajya in Assamese, which had won a jury award at the International Film Festival of India in 1996; she recently made another film titled Maj Rati Keteki).

There have been a few exceptions though, such as Manju Borah (Baibhav, Laaj, Aai Ko Naai, etc., in Assamese, Ko:Yad in Mising, and Dai Huduni Methai in Bodo languages) and Sanjib Sabhapandit (Juye Poora Xoon, Jatinga Ityady, Dikchow Banat Palaax, etc.), who have managed to make socially-relevant films with small budgets. There have been several other serious filmmakers who have shone through their films, such as Sanjeev Hazorika (Haladhar, Meemagxa), Bidyut Chakraborty (Raag Birag), Ahsan Mujid (who made Sonam, the first film in the Monpa dialect of Arunachal Pradesh), etc. And before all of them, it was Padum Barua who in 1976 gave rebirth to Jyotiprasad’s vision of realistic cinema through his unheralded master piece Ganga Chilanir Pakhi in Assamese, which remained his only film.

Still from Jahnu Barua's Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai

Still from Jahnu Barua's Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai

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In Manipur, where Aribam Sharma made outstanding films like Imagi Ningthem and Ishanou (screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1991 Cannes Film Festival), younger filmmakers are making an effort to tell stories that capture the turmoil of present-day society as well as folk tales and stories from literature. The most prominent among them, and perhaps the most important young cinematic voice in the entire Northeast now, is Haobam Paban Kumar, who, after a string of internationally-acclaimed documentaries, recently made his debut fiction film Loktak Leirembee (Lady of the Lake) which has been celebrated on the festival circuit, from Busan to Berlin.

Poster of Aribam Sharma's Ishanou

Poster of Aribam Sharma's Ishanou

Some remarkable young talents are emerging from states like Mizoram (such as self-taught filmmaker Mapuia Chawnghtu, who made the highly-stylised Khawnlung Run, or The Raid of Khawnlung, on a minuscule budget of only Rs 12 lakh) and Arunachal Pradesh (where a young Sange Dorje Thongdok made Crossing Bridges, the first feature film in the Sherdukpen dialect, which was acquired by Insomnia Films of France). In Meghalaya, Pradip Kurbah made the dramatic Khasi language film Ri, which sought to create a debate around the sense of alienation among the youth of the region and how some of them get sucked into a world of violence. Kurbah followed it up with the much-appreciated drama Onataah, whose Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam remake rights have been sold — a feat for Northeastern cinema that has only once been achieved previously (by Abdul Majid’s Assamese film Chameli Memsaab, that was remade in Bengali and Hindi). In Sikkim, the smallest of the Northeastern states, several young filmmakers have emerged, such as Karma Takapa whose Ralang Road got its world premiere at this year’s Karlovy Vary, and Prashant Rasaily, whose Acharya and Katha got good reviews in several festivals. In Tripura, Joseph Pulinthanath, a Keralite priest settled in the state, has made a couple of acclaimed films in the tribal Kokborok language, most notably Yarwng.

A few films from the Northeast have got limited releases outside the region, such as Jahnu Barua’s Baandhon, Rajni Basumatary’s Raag and Kenny Basumatary’s laugh riot of a martial arts comedy Local Kung Fu (all Assamese), via the now-defunct PVR Director’s Rare initiative. The second installment of Local Kung Fu got a commercial release in a few metro cities earlier this year, while Zubeen Garg’s Mission China also got a good few days’ run in the metros, thanks to the increasing Assamese population in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Pune. With the emergence of popular video-on-demand platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which are picking up good content for a global audience, a window of opportunity sure exists for the filmmakers from the region who want to tell their own stories. Bhaskar Hazarika’s Assamese film Kothanodi (The River of Fables), some time ago, became the first Northeastern film to be picked up by Netflix and is said to be having a decent run on the platform. Still, filmmaking in the Northeast remains more of a passion project than a commercial venture.

Then again, only passion can lead to the birth of a film like Village Rockstars.

Read parts two and three of this series as well.

The writer is a National Award-winning film critic turned filmmaker. He has made several well-acclaimed documentaries, and recently completed his maiden feature film titled 'Ishu' in Assamese, produced by Children’s Film Society, India.

Updated Date: Oct 21, 2017 16:49 PM