The reel life struggle of the Northeast

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The Northeast film industry is eighty years old, but lack of patrons, multiple languages and dialects which create barriers, and the overwhelming thrall of Hindi films have eaten into its legitimate market. Utpal Borpujari bemoans this, while saluting the spirit of the extraordinary filmmakers from this region.

Far, far away from the glitzy world of Bollywood and its equally sparkling cousins in the South, there exists a filmmaking “industry” that’s 80 years old – or young if you would – and yet is largely unknown to the outside world, barring the limited eclectic world of film festivals. This “industry” lives in that part of India that is geographically called the ‘Northeast’, comprising eight states, many in the rest of India do not know much about yet. (There is a deliberate reason why the word “industry” has been put in quotation mark above – you will understand as you read on.)

An eighty-year-old industry

Cinema in the Northeast is 80 years old this year. It was in 1935 that freedom fighter-poet-playwright-lyricist-tea planter-social reformer and scion of one of Assam’s mostprominent families replete with literary and cultural giants, Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, made Joymoti, the first Assamese film after getting himself trained at the UFA Studios in Berlin. To make the film, he established a studio in his family-owned Bholagori tea estate and constructed a set of a palace using locally-available material, so that he could tell the tale of Joymoti; she was a princess in medieval Assam who sacrificed her life to protect her husband and later king of the Ahom kingdom, Gadapani’s life from political enemies.

The tragedy was that Jyotiprasad had to release his film in Raunaq 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. One would dare say that just because of the lack of screening space, Joymoti was an unmitigated financial disaster. And a bigger tragedy is that even 80 years after that, filmmakers from the region are still struggling to find adequate space to screen their films. It’s actually a travesty to call filmmaking in the Northeast an industry (which is why, as you would have understood by now, the word industry is in quotation marks at the beginning of this piece).

Challenges galore

Of course, lack of exhibition space is not the only problem for a region that is a virtual Tower of Babel, with nearly 250 ethnic communities with as many languages and dialects, most of which are not understood by communities other than that which speaks it. So, if a film is made in the Monpa dialect of Arunachal Pradesh, it cannot travel even within that state commercially because only the Monpa tribe people would understand that language, and it’s a community of less than 45,000 people (41,983 according the 2001 census). And they live in villages that are far apart in high mountains in Tawang and West Kameng districts, which makes it impossible for them to come to a hall – even if one existed in their part of the world – and watch a film. In fact, except for Assamese and Manipuri, there is no regular filmmaking “industry” in the region, though in recent years, “films” made for the home video market using cheaper digital technology has taken root in a few parts of the region, especially Meghalaya and Mizoram, as also among some ethnic communities within Assam. Even in Assam, which has the maximum number of cinema screens, an Assamese (the language with the maximum reach) film has access to a maximum of just about 40-45 screens.

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. But then, it’s not a gloomy story all the way, especially if one takes a look at the 80-year journey. Undaunted by a gamut of other interconnected problems like dearth of funding and a society almost always in turmoil, filmmakers in the region have continued to weave their dreams on the big screen, seeking to tell stories relevant to the region and its societies. From Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, states which cannot boast of even a single cinema hall, to Assam and Manipur where filmmakers have made quality films over the years, the journey is continuing, but, like everything else about the Northeast, it is largely outside ‘mainland’ India’s consciousness.

The case of the Manipuri cinema

The narrative of Manipuri cinema, and how circumstances made it the first film industry in the country to go fully digital (after all cinema halls in the state closed down making celluloid filmmaking unviable after one of the numerous militant groups active in the state enforced a ban on Hindi cinema in the 1990s – see box), is another interesting example.

Manipur is actually a great example of how one can turn an adverse situation to an advantage. Filmmakers there have devised an economic model in which they shoot their films in the digital format in 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). In Assam, which in the 1980s had more than 150 halls but now has less than 60 (out of which Assamese films get released in approximately 40-45, and other ethnic language films in virtually none), filmmaking has seen a recent upswing with the availability of cheaper digital technology.

Notable films and filmmakers

Over the years, the Northeast has seen 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 some like P. C. Barua, Danny Denzongpa, Seema Biswas, S. D. and R. D. Burman, and Salil Choudhury have made a place in ‘mainland’ cinema in different eras.

But cinema from Northeast India has remained more or less outside the cinematic narrative of India. Take for example Jyotiprasad’s Joymoti itself. It was perhaps the first Indian film to have a realistic treatment and to have a theme that drew from history, and yet had a contemporary resonance. Sadly, in studies or publications about Indian cinema, it has had barely a cursory mention.

Those who follow meaningful Indian cinema would know that in Assam, both Jahnu Barua and Saikia have made some really good films, including the former’s Halodhiya Choraye Baodhan Khai (Catastrophe) that did commendable international business. But there have been several other filmmakers who have made one or two acclaimed films before fading into oblivion, as despite winning both national and international honours for their initial films, they never got funding for their next films.

Among them the most notable one 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 Adajya in Assamese won a jury award at the International Film Festival of India). There have been a couple of notable exceptions though, such as Manju Borah (Baibhav, Laaj, Aai Ko Naai, etc., in Assamese and Ko:Yad in Mising), and Sanjib Sabhapandit (Juye Poora Xoon, Jatinga Ityady, 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 only film till date in the Monpa dialect), and so on.

A ban that stayed

It was in September 2000 that the Revolutionary People’s Front, one of the 30-odd insurgent/militant groups active in Manipur, called for a ‘ban’ on the screening of Hindi cinema as they were seen as representative of the ‘decadent’ culture of ‘mainland’ India that was ‘destroying’ Manipuri culture and language. The few cinema halls that existed in the Imphal valley, most of them in the Imphal city, closed down as a result of that as they became commercially unviable, especially since only a few Manipuri films were made every year. For some time, the local film industry also went into a stupor, but slowly it devised a way to resurrect itself – by going fully digital.

In fact, Manipur was the first state in India to go completely digital as far as filmmaking goes. It was also through the efforts of Manipuri filmmakers that the National Film Awards and Indian Panorama started accepting digital films as valid entries. Now Manipur makes nearly 60 films every year in digital format, though they mostly have unbelievably low budgets – usually slightly less or more than `10 lakh! Some cinema halls in Imphal city have even reopened as there is a glut of Manipuri films now. And yes, thanks to DTH and pirated DVDs, every Manipuri now watches Hindi films at home. They did the same also with Mary Kom, which also could not get released in Manipur as it was in Hindi, though the film was based on Manipur’s international icon and boxing legend M. C .Mary Kom. And yes, the space created by the ban was somehow taken by Korean films, but that’s another story to be told another time.

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 make films to tell stories that capture the turmoil of the present-day society, as well as folk tales and stories from literature. But the flip side is that in both Assam and Manipur, one regularly also sees films that would perhaps fit the bill of “B” grade action or romantic films inspired by 1980s Hindi cinema, and recent Telugu potboilers.

However, some remarkable young talents are emerging from states like Mizoram (from where self-taught filmmaker Mapuia Chawnghtu made the highly-stylised Khawnlung Run, or The Raid of Khawnlung, with a miniscule budget of only Rs. 12 lakh), Arunachal Pradesh (from where a young Sange Dorje Thongdok has made Crossing Bridges, the first feature film in the Sherdukpen dialect, which was acquired by Insomnia Films of France), and Meghalaya (where young filmmaker 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.

Khawnlung Run attracted much attention when it was screened at the 44th International Film Festival of India in Goa in 2013, as the opening film of the first-ever Focus section on Northeastern cinema (curated by this author). So did films like Prashant Rasailly’s sensitive Kathaa from Sikkim.

The language conundrum

These filmmakers face the dilemma of how to continue making films in their own ethnic languages, considering that they can get hardly any theatre to release their films. In Assam, the exhibitor-distributor combine often remove a local film that is having a fairly decent run as soon as even a moderately big ticket Hindi film is up for release! Filmmakers like Thongdok or Chawngthu cannot even dream of having that ‘luxury’ as their states do not have even a single screen. Chawngthu was able to recover just about half of his investment in Khawnlung Run, earned by screening the film in community halls, theatre halls and by selling DVDs. At least he has the advantage of his language Lushai being spoken all over Mizoram. Thongdok is further disadvantaged by the fact that his native tongue Sherdukpen (also the name of his tribe) is spoken by only a few thousand people spread across inaccessible mountains of Arunachal Pradesh (just like the Monpa tribe).

Similarly, in Assam, those who make films in tribal languages like Mising or Bodo have no avenues to show these films to people who speak those languages unless someone creates a system of taking the films to the people in the interiors using a ‘travelling cinema’ model, something that a few people have tried and failed till now.

In India, it’s a tragedy that we don’t get to watch our own varied cinemas outside the film festival circuit and on the big screen, except for Hindi films, because of the obvious limitation of languages from one region not being understood in another. Of late though, this trend has seen a slight change, with big budget mainstream films in various languages getting released in theatres at least in the main cities, while PVR’s ‘Director’s Rare’ programme has been giving a limited release to indie films across some of the bigger cities. A couple of Assamese films have got an exposure through this distribution process too – Jahnu Barua’s Baandhon (the opening film of Indian Panorama at the 43rd International Film Festival of India, 2012), Kenny Basumatary’s martial arts-comedy Local Kung Fu, and Rajni Basumatary’s Raag.

Northeastern cinema has and will continue to have the limitations of local marketing because of diversities of languages and sparse populations of various ethnic communities. But at a time when cinema is the most-popular art form globally, it’s important that smaller communities and languages too get the opportunity to tell their stories in this medium that connects instantly with people at an emotional level. Quite clearly, the state governments and the Centre and the eight states need to play an active role in enabling filmmakers do so, and the filmmakers need to learn to access the various sources of funding from various film funding agencies across the globe.


Utpal-Borpujari

Utpal Borpujari

The writer won the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic at the 50th National Awards, 2003, and has made the critically-acclaimed documentaries Mayong: Myth/Reality and Songs of the Blue Hills. He is currently making a documentary film on the battles of World War II that were fought in parts of Northeastern India. He is based in Delhi. He can be contacted at utpalb21@gmail.com

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