Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Jwngdao Bodosa’s Hagramayao Jinahari is a rare window into Bodo life

Hagrayamao Jinahari is a priceless record of the Bodo reality.

Anna MM Vetticad October 27, 2020 16:16:18 IST
Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Jwngdao Bodosa’s Hagramayao Jinahari is a rare window into Bodo life

(Editor’s Note: This is Part 7 of a series by film critic and consulting editor, Anna M.M. Vetticad)

It took a while for producer-writer-director-cinematographer-editor Jwngdao Bodosa to recover the Rs 3.5 lakh he spent on making his 1995 Bodo film Hagramayao Jinahari (Rape In A Virgin Forest). He had raised Rs 1.5 lakh of his investment by doing a few documentaries for a government programme, and the rest from a cousin. But even that small sum was not easy to make back from theatrical collections.

“For public screenings it was a very serious type of film, no?” he told me in a telephone interview earlier this week from the outskirts of Kokrajhar town where he lives. “People wanted big entertainment – they are used to song and dance which Hagramayao Jinahari did not have. It was technically very poor. It was very short – the common people are not used to a film of just 70-plus minutes – and it was not entertaining. Of course serious people appreciated it, but common people did not like it so I could not screen it too much.”

Bodosa’s (startlingly frank) assessment of his work is accurate on multiple counts: Hagramayao Jinahari was indeed technically deficient, it was not entertaining, yet its worth was recognised by committed cinephiles at the time, and its significance – as one of the earliest Bodo films ever made – continues to be cited by chroniclers of cinema from the North East and marginalised communities at large.

Indian films that sparked the critic in me Jwngdao Bodosas Hagramayao Jinahari is a rare window into Bodo life

Onjali Basumatary (now Onjali Bodosa) as Mithingga in a still from Hagramayao Jinahari (Rape In A Virgin Forest).

These factors, in fact, explain how it came about that despite minuscule box-office earnings, Bodosa finally managed to recover his Rs 3.5 lakh: the prize money he received when Hagramayao Jinahari won the National Award for Best Film on Environment/Conservation/Preservation, the fee for its mandated telecast on Doordarshan following this award, and other sources ultimately added up.

I first watched Hagramayao Jinahari sometime in the mid-1990s at a festival of cinema from the North East hosted by India International Centre, Delhi. Although I was far from being a specialist back then, I was acutely aware of its flaws: the quality of production, sound issues and so on. Yet I was equally acutely aware of its importance. The film put me in touch with a culture of which I knew nothing until then, through a story that was universally Indian. It made me painfully conscious of how ignorant I was about the India beyond what the news media brings to us. And I realised, on seeing it, that honest cinema could give me the exposure I craved as long as my bank balance limited my travels.

If Hagramayao Jinahari were to be assessed in a vacuum without taking all these points into consideration, it is unlikely to find a place beside the other films I have covered so far in this series: Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen, Jahnu Barua’s Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Namak Haraam, Rituparno Ghosh’s Dahan and Fazil’s Manjil Virinja Pookkal. But the theme of this series is Indian Films That Sparked The Critic In Me, and when I look back on my journey as a journalist, there is no question in my mind that, like these high-profile ventures, Bodosa’s film too played a role in steering me towards writing on cinema.

Hagramayao Jinahari is set in Kokrajhar district, in forests close to West Bengal and the Bhutan border. It revolves around an impoverished man called Budang (Tikendrajit Narzary) who makes a living by illegally felling trees and supplying wood to a nearby town. Budang’s desperation for money peaks when he receives a marriage proposal from a well-off family for his daughter Mithingga (Onjali Basumatary, who later married the director and became Onjali Bodosa). He needs cash for the wedding, so he buys a bicycle to help him transport more timber to buyers instead of his present mode of walking with small quantities in hand. On the very first day, he and his associates are caught by Forest Department officials and his vehicle is confiscated. Next, they start pushing large logs down a river, but here too they are stopped by the authorities. Finally, Budang switches from petty timber theft to the big league when he hooks up with a well-connected gang of smugglers who have the resources to bribe their way out of any tight spot. In the closing scene, as Budang works deep in the forest, these men spot Mithingga fishing in the nearby river and rape her.

Indian films that sparked the critic in me Jwngdao Bodosas Hagramayao Jinahari is a rare window into Bodo life

A still from Hagramayao Jinahari.

Its good intentions notwithstanding, Hagrayamao Jinahari’s use of the female body as a metaphor is problematic at many levels. Mithingga I am told means “Nature” in Bodo, so the rape of a woman here is being equated with the destruction of natural resources and in particular, forests. This equivalence amounts to  troubling messaging in a country where rape is widely seen as the end of life and all meaning for a woman and as a fate worse than death, rather than as a violation of her dignity and consent.

Bodosa’s inspiration for Hagrayamao Jinahari came from actual events he witnessed in Assam. In the eight years between the release of his first film Alayaron (The Dawn, 1986) and work starting on Hagramayao Jinahari, he saw the forest-covered lands from Kokrajhar to Bhutan being drastically denuded – “within less than 10 years by 1994, half the forest was totally destroyed, exploited by humans,” he explains, adding, “Like you a journalist report some event, like that in Hagrayamao Jinahari I just report what happened.”

Whatever arguments may be had with Hagrayamao Jinahari, it is a priceless record of the Bodo reality. Journalist-turned-filmmaker Utpal Borpujari underlined its  archival value when discussing a segment on cinema from the North East – including Hagramayao Jinahari – that he curated for the International Film Festival of India in 2013. “Most of the movies made in the region reflect its social concern and form part of cultural documentation,” said Borpujari, who is himself now a National Award winner with his Assamese film Ishu.

This cinematic “documentation” is particularly crucial in the context of marginalised peoples virtually ignored by mainstream news and entertainment media. In a half-hour segment of Bodosa’s incomplete 2005 film Three Girls and the Golden Cocoon available on Youtube, a foreigner watching a performance of the Bodo folk dance Bagurumba strikes up a conversation with a local folk musician who explains to her that his flute has five holes because of the centrality of the number and the five elements in Bodo philosophy. Thence comes the name of the original Bodo religion, Bathouism, “ba” being “five” in Bodo, and “thou” being “deep”, he adds. For a mainlander (which is how most denizens of the North East refer to fellow Indians outside the region) this is a vital revelation, considering the widespread prevalent assumption – arising from carefully strategised, decades-long propaganda – that India’s tribal communities are all originally Hindu, thus sweeping traditional tribal religious practices under the carpet. Three Girls and the Golden Cocoon is tacky in appearance, but if this small clip could be so educational, it is not hard to imagine the power of quality cinema made by filmmakers with decent budgets and technical prowess.

As a country, India is the largest producer of films in the world, churning out anywhere from 1,600 to 2,500 films per year. A bulk of these are made in Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi and Bhojpuri, with Gujarati, Punjabi, Odia, Assamese and other languages accounting for smaller numbers. Bodo – the language of the Bodo tribe in Assam – is barely a blip on this radar. In fact, Bodosa’s Alayaron was the first Bodo feature film, coming 73 years after India’s first full-length feature was released in 1913. Bodosa began work on it while he was still a student at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, and completed it two years later in 1986. At the time, Bodo was not included in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution and therefore there was no category at the National Awards specifically for it – the film still earned a National Award for Best Bodo Film in a category intermittently set up for films outside the 8th Schedule.

Indian films that sparked the critic in me Jwngdao Bodosas Hagramayao Jinahari is a rare window into Bodo life

Tikendrajit Narzary as Budang in a still from Hagramayao Jinahari.

Now 61, Bodosa has not worked on a film for 15 years. He says raising funds for Three Girls and the Golden Cocoon drained him financially and he has been sustaining himself with small businesses ever since. “I have not given up my film career,” he insists. “I am like lava lying underground.”

He recalls with a hint of unmistakable pride in his voice the waves he created as a pioneer. Alayaron, he says, was screened in about 10-15 cinema halls and was taken from village to village for screenings using a mobile projector. “It was a hit among Bodos,” he says. “In Kokrajhar it was running for one month and sometimes more shows were added to the regular matinee, evening and night shows because there was so much demand – people were coming in buses, it was crazy.”

Both Alayaron and Hagramayao Jinahari would be of interest to students of cinema, but neither is available online, not even on Youtube. Bodosa was kind enough to create a special screener for my benefit so that I could rewatch Hagramayao Jinahari to refresh my memory for this essay. Easy access to these films is essential for public awareness that would, hopefully, inspire newer generations of creative people to explore languages and cultures rarely heard and seen in Indian films.

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