Assamese cinema is as old as the Hindi film industry, but where are the halls and the audiences?
For many in Assam, the fact that Rima Das’s Village Rockstars won the National Award for Best Feature Film earlier this month is just sinking in. It has, after all been nearly 30 years since an Assamese film has won in this category.
But there was another Assamese film that stood out at the National Awards — Utpal Borpujari’s Ishu . Based on the Assamese author Manikuntala Bhattacharya’s eponymous novel, it won Best Feature Film in Assamese language.
Set in a remote village in Assam, the film explores the prevalent practice of witch-hunting, from the point-of-view of a child. “It feels great that Ishu has won an award along with Village Rockstars , a perfect example of how low-budget, quality films can win the world,” says Borpujari.
Joymoti (1935), the first-ever Assamese film, directed by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, was made just four years after the first Indian talkie Alam Ara . And yet, Assamese cinema has not arrived in a big way on the national stage. Borpujari says that prospects for local cinema are not particularly bright even within Assam. “I feel the reason for this is that there aren’t enough cinema halls in rural and semi-urban areas, which is where the traditional audience for Assamese films is.”
There are hardly 50 screens for Assamese films, and even if a movie were to run to packed houses every day for two months, with two shows per day, “No film can recover its investments. Only when we have at least 200 halls will our cinema become commercially viable locally,” says Borpujari.
Assamese cinema has undergone a qualitative transformation over the past few years, with filmmakers taking on unconventional and interesting subjects. Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi (2015), which won the National Award for best feature film in Assamese in 2016, was taken up by video streaming platform Netflix. “I think low budget, sensible cinema can get their investment back through such platforms and by tapping into the overseas market through festivals.
But ultimately, the cinema of a region must be accessible to its people, and that is why we must have more cinema halls in Assam,” says Borpujari.
Talking of the inspiration behind Ishu , he says, “Assam has been facing this big social problem for years, and so have several other States. When I read Bhattacharya’s novel, I was drawn by the way it looked at this gruesome practice through the eyes of a child.”
Incidentally, in the villages around Agia in Goalpara, where the film was shot, several incidents of witch-hunting had taken place, Borpujari says. It is also the area where noted anti-witch hunting activist Birubala Rabha lives. She herself was once branded a witch but fought against it, and thereafter set up Mission Birubala to rescue women .
Ishu has been produced by Children’s Film Society, India. Says Borpujari, children’s films in the country should be marketed and sold the way it’s done in Europe. “We need dedicated producers in this genre and also a dedicated marketing and distribution network. TV channels too must showcase quality Indian children’s cinema in various languages.”
Borpujari also stresses on the need for more stories from the Northeast. “We need to tell stories that reflect our region, its issues, culture, politics, literature and folk traditions.”
The writer is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Assam.
Joymoti,the first-ever Assamese film was made just four years after the first Indian talkieAlam Ara