Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Jahnu Barua’s Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door is an indictment of cold-hearted development
Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door remains one of the most loved Assamese works ever made. Barua was already a multiple National Award winner by the time this film was theatrically released in October 1995 in Assam.
(Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of a series by film critic and consulting editor, Anna M.M. Vetticad)
I was a little girl when I first watched Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar and Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen that I covered in Part 1&2 respectively of this series on Indian films that sparked the critic in me. Back in the 1980s, for a child growing up in Delhi, the only regular access to Indian cinema other than Bollywood/Hindi came via Doordarshan, that too through a single weekly slot for the umbrella category “praadeshik cinema” (regional cinema – a marginalising term, the implications of which I did not fully understand then) while Hindi had its own weekly slot. Considering the number of languages in which India makes films, this meant limited exposure to the cinema of all Indian languages other than Hindi. That grouse notwithstanding, DD along with my father’s vast book collection gave me my earliest window to worlds beyond my own. Mahanagar, for one, was set in urban Bengal, Chemmeen on the Kerala coast.
After a while, for me cinema became a means of travel to hitherto unexplored lands, and once I began working, I was not reliant on DD alone for those journeys. Though theatres in Delhi remained focused on Hindi and English films, there were festivals and other cultural hubs to choose from. That’s how it came about that around the mid-1990s, at a festival of films from the North East at Delhi’s India International Centre, writer-director Jahnu Barua’s Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (It’s A Long Way To The Sea) gave me my maiden glimpse of rural Assam.
At the time, I was not acquainted with Barua’s position on India’s filmmaking firmament or the trophies already crowding his career. I do remember though that my heart broke but was immediately filled with optimism for Puwal, and I was smitten by that firecracker of a boy called Hkhuman.
Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door is the story of an elderly boatman who earns a living by ferrying locals across the river that runs by their village. Puwal (Bishnu Kharghoria) has an indifferent son and daughter-in-law residing in Guwahati with their two children. He is devoted to his orphaned grandson Hkhuman (Sushanta Barooah) who stays with him.
Puwal is determined to be the last boatman in their family. “You have to study and be a respectable man one day,” he tells Hkhuman, unaware that circumstances will soon force him to hang up his own oars. When news comes that a bridge is being built across the river, the villagers are excited and no one concerns themselves with how Puwal will survive his consequent redundancy.
The beauty of Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door lies in the apparent simplicity with which it makes a complex and crucial statement. In a conversation I had with Barua this week, I was surprised to discover that when he travelled with the film across the world, he was often asked if he was anti-development. The tone of Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door does not at all suggest that the filmmaker is opposed to progress, nor does Puwal take such a stand. Puwal is practical enough to seek alternative employment as soon as he becomes mindful of his impending joblessness, and his breakdown towards the end comes from utter despair because not a soul seems to care.
Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door’s aversion is to apathy, not advancement.
As it happens, this interpretation echoes Barua’s intent. “Any process of development is not complete unless the problems of the victim are not accommodated and solved within the system,” he says over the phone from Guwahati, explaining the premise of the film as he has patiently repeated it for a quarter of a century.
Clearly, the theme resonated with a majority of audiences, and now in its silver jubilee year, Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door endures as one of the most loved Assamese works ever made. Barua was already a multiple National Award winner by the time this film was theatrically released in October 1995 in Assam – and sadly, the exhibition sector being what it was in the 1990s, in Assam alone. It won the National Award for Best Assamese Film and Best Director along with a Special Mention for Kharghoria and several accolades across the globe.
Like many of Barua’s films, the seed of this one too was planted in his close scrutiny of life during his childhood. His father was a factory manager at a tea estate in Assam, and Barua as a boy was in the habit of fishing at the river nearby. During these outings, he would watch factory workers cross the river by boat. Decades later when he became a filmmaker, he dipped into his memory bank for a scene that never left him: the struggles of the boatman when a bridge came up across that river. “I could feel his pain back then,” Barua recalls.
While the most overt messaging in Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door is about cold-hearted development that does not take into account the human beings replaced by machines and bridges, Barua’s narrative also paints a portrait of the urban-rural divide and the tranquillity of the village where stormy waters churn beneath the idyllic surface.
The number of English language writings on Barua available online is disappointingly sparse. This month after I rewatched Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door on Youtube, Assam-based academic Parthajit Baruah – who is currently writing a book on the filmmaker – shared with me a yellowed clipping of an interview by journalist Maithili Rao that was published in The Times of India in June 1995. In this extract, Barua dwelt on Puwal’s son and family in Guwahati:
Q: You are blaming the city for the son’s corruption. You also show his two kids glued to MTV, ignorant of the fact that the old man is their grandfather. Isn’t that a bit unrealistic?
A: To take the last accusation first, the boy who played the city brat didn’t know who his paternal grandfather was. As in the case of the selfish son, it is the city that is to blame. People like Hemanta, the city-based son, originally came with the idea of bringing their parents and other family members to the city some day. But materialism takes over and families break up.
Contrary to Rao’s view that the depiction of Puwal’s grandchildren in Guwahati is unrealistic, it is quite commonplace for people who shift out of their places of origin to not familiarise their offspring with their roots. However, while I did not – and still do not – see Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door as “blaming the city” for Hemanta’s self-centredness, in this interview Barua agrees with Rao.
When I ask the director about this, he says he has been misinterpreted. His contention is that “circumstances” in cities change people who then become “victims” of the situations they are in and behave in ways they do not even realise are wrong or criminal, which is how their actions might be viewed in “an innocent situation like the village”.
But doesn’t this belief shield city-based individuals from accountability for their own actions while also unwittingly romanticising villages? The association of innocence with village life and cities as corrupting forces is not uncommon, although rural India – despite its prettiness – is a boiling pot of caste, class, patriarchy and misogyny from which it is, in some senses, harder for the oppressed to escape since legal structures and processes are by and large slower away from cities.
Barua says he is not tarring everyone with the same brush and that in cities too “within the system there are people who are very human and living honestly”.
This conversation requires more time, but it does already illustrate a curious situation for a cinephile to find themselves in: when a filmmaker agrees with a reading of his film that you find problematic and might have defended him against if you did not know his stance.
One of the most engaging aspects of Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door is P Rajan's unpretentious camerawork framing the scenic location. While noting the importance of water bodies in Barua’s films in an article published in The Hindu, Parthajit Baruah had this to say: “…the river, an image of lifeline and a means of survival, is strongly used in his films like “Halodhiya Choriya Bau Dhan Khai”, “Firingati” and “Pokhi”. The river Diroi in “Firingati”, the river Dihing in “Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door” and “Pokhi” are used as the recurring images which suggest the life force of the village people.”
Certainly this is one possible analysis, but the river to my mind plays the role of the sole constant in Puwal’s universe – a giver of sustenance and a taker of life, the source of Puwal’s daily bread at the start of this tale but a force of nature that had also once swallowed Hkhuman’s parents, the ever-flowing mass of water that persists even when the bridge comes and Puwal’s boat appears to be rendered useless.
It goes without saying that the most endearing – and the foremost – element in Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door is the relationship between Puwal and Hkhuman. In a defining passage, when Puwal crumbles, it is Hkhuman who is the voice of his conscience, steering him away from actions he will regret, standing rock-like in opposition to a grandfather he loves and is entirely dependent on.
This episode between the boy and the old man harks back to scenes from Barua’s own 1987 film, Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai a.k.a. The Catastrophe – winner of the National Award for Best Feature Film and several top honours at the Locarno Film Festival. In The Catastrophe, the protagonist Rakheshwar’s tiny daughter physically resists him when he is violent with her mother, while later, his son holds him back when he vandalises the poster of a politician whose greed has almost destroyed their family – Rakheshwar has been hired to paste those posters across the village, and the boy in his wisdom knows that, despicable though the neta is, at that moment they stand to lose one of their only sources of income if the father’s rage does not subside.
Children are significant in Barua’s filmography. In fact, Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door is the first of a trilogy with two other films – Pokhi a.k.a. And The River Flows and Konikar Ramdhenu (Ride on the Rainbow) – in which children are the leads.
When I ask the auteur about this, he says, “Child is a huge metaphor for me for human growth.” He rewinds to his own early years in Japihkojia village in Upper Assam when a stammer caused him to be introverted, the silver lining being that this turned him into a keen observer of life
Does he see himself in these children of immense maturity that he brings alive on screen?
“Almost all the time,” is the reply. “In a way, it’s a part of my mission while making films to introduce the child to the world in a different way, to understand a child. Society has a tendency to ignore a child and look down at a child. But I try to show that even a child can be a teacher.”
When a baby is born, Barua adds, “that is a huge opportunity for the parents to look at the world afresh through the eyes of the child – usually, parents never do that.”
In Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door, when an agitated Puwal calms down after being reprimanded by Hkhuman, it is then that he resolves to piece his shattered life back together, the torrential rain abates and hope returns.
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