The Rise and Fall of Assamese Film
1 November 2017
Assamese film swings between adherence to Bollywood tropes, and a rejection of Hindi cinema’s dominance.
Inside an ill-decorated, palatial bungalow two people stand facing away from each other, one by will and the other by force. It’s roughly ten minutes into the movie. A few scenes earlier, a child is born amid anxiety and expectancy. The mother dies giving birth, and the child is subsequently abandoned by her father for being her mother’s ‘murderer’. It is this child, now grown, who is forced to avert her gaze from her father.
Assamese film director Ramesh Modi’s 2006 hit Deuta Diya Bidai works on premises familiar to those who grew up watching Bollywood movies in the 1980s or later. A disastrous time for admirers of ‘sensible’ commercial cinema, films of the 1980s and early 1990s swung between the chest-thumping machismo of Loha and the weepy sentimentality of Ghar Ek Mandir. Modi’s film falls into the second genre of sentimentality, predominant in contemporary Assamese cinema.
In another scene in Deuta Diya Bidai, we see one of the leads lecturing a girl at his college. Having returned from abroad she is apparently devoid of knowledge and moral values because of ‘Western influence’, and finds Assamese people stupid and beneath her. In a dramatic shift of mood, the hero resorts to singing and dancing to explain to her the importance of Kaziranga National Park, Assam tea, and the Assamese hero Lachit Borphukan. The song, curiously reminiscent of Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, with an ensemble cast of small-time Bollywood actors, superimposes regional patriotism onto the errant girl’s head. The plot and scenes might have been directly lifted from a series of similar-looking Bollywood movies, but there’s an honest acceptance of imitation, and it comes from the mouths of two petty goons who, in order to provoke the leads, say to each other: “Villains in Hindi cinema at least get to molest the heroines.”
Assamese cinema cannot be Bollywood: a film industry with audiences scattered far beyond India, second in popularity only to Hollywood, producing many hundreds of movies a year, and adorning actors with costumes worth a million dollars.
A sense of insecurity runs deep in the minds of Assamese filmmakers. Even when they try hard to hide this insecurity under a patriotic garb, Bollywood or its symbols – Mumbai, the big city, money – assume an image of evil in their narratives. Another case in point is Jibon Bator Logori, released in 2009. This deals with the loss of traditional values in contemporary Assam. The kids of a village school teacher abandon their parents in search of greater goals in Guwahati, later moving on to Mumbai and the United States. It is significant that the son marries a Marathi girl. In the end the father survives on the support of the villagers, who are earnest, independent, and rooted to the earth, unlike his own children.
The feeling of difference from other parts of India leads Assam in two starkly different directions. While groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) reject Hindi in an attempt to prevent what they view as the destruction of the state’s culture, to the makers of commercial cinema in Assam moviemaking means regurgitating formulaic Bollywood scenarios.
The birth of Assamese cinema
Assamese cinema cannot be Bollywood: a film industry with audiences scattered far beyond India, second in popularity only to Hollywood, producing many hundreds of movies a year, and adorning actors with costumes worth a million dollars (such as Shahrukh Khan’s in Ra. One). In Assam we now make an average of six films per year, an improvement from the earlier figure of 3.5. But there is a very small audience in urban areas, we don’t have the means to reach rural audiences, and movies are made on shoestring budgets of INR 40-50 lakhs. The critically acclaimed films of Jahnu Barua, Manju Bora and Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia rarely achieve their financial goals and are unknown to the majority of the state’s population, whose allegiance to them doesn’t go beyond newspaper articles published a day after the National Awards.
A state, or a bunch of states, if we consider the whole of the Northeast region, has been continuously running away from its past.
The situation seems ironic if one looks back to the beginning of cinema in Assam. The industry began in 1935 with Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s Joymoti, a period drama revolving around the titular character, a valiant Ahom princess of the late 1600s who died saving her husband, Prince Gadapani, by refusing to reveal his whereabouts to the opposing forces. This film was the implementation of a radical idea, and even with its apparent technical frailties, challenged the prevalent tradition in Indian filmmaking. Adapted from ‘Joymoti Kunwari’, a play by Assamese writer Lakshminath Bezbaroa, the film charted a course hitherto untravelled by Indian cinema. As filmmaker and critic Altaf Mazid points out: “Till then no other film had portrayed a woman as a valiant humanitarian as Joymoti. There were portrayals of stoical womenfolk more concerned with the edification of mythological goddesses than social responsibilities, illustrious instances of the past round divine love or undaunted leadership against antagonism.”
Perhaps the biggest achievement of Jyoti Prasad’s Joymoti is that the main character is a woman, unlike her counterparts in contemporary films, where feminism gets easily confused with deity worship, and a woman of power is synonymous with a goddess. The movie was also a deviation from the then theatrical school of acting, where the line between theatre and cinema was almost non-existent. Joymoti’s characters were easy to relate to even though they were living in a different time. It could be said that Jyoti Prasad’s vision failed to bear fruit, however. Following the film, the social ostracising of Aideu Handique, the lead actress of Joymoti, for addressing the prince’s character as ‘husband’, is an ugly but striking metaphor for the decline. As a 16-year-old, Handique was duped by her uncle into auditioning for the film. She paid a high price for acting in the movie at a time when women were not allowed even to watch theatre. Banished from community life by the villagers, who wouldn’t drink from the pond from which she fetched water, she spent the rest of her life in a cowshed. It wasn’t until 1985 that she got to see herself on screen in a few clips of a documentary made on Joymoti.
Rabindranath Tagore holds pride of place in our household. To my young mind it was difficult to figure out why only his picture deserved a place amid the pictures of a few close relatives and deities. Tagore acts as the common denominator of Bengali-ness across Bengalis from different caste, regional and linguistic backgrounds. To ‘other’ Bengalis, the non-dwellers of West Bengal, his cultural importance is overshadowed by identity politics. While our love for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne may not extend beyond our childhood, and we may secretly prefer a movie starring Proshenjit-Chiranjeet over Pather Panchali, we will cry out our Rabindra Sangeet as if that’s all we have left from where we came from.
Growing up as a non-Assamese in Guwahati meant that I was spared the burden of having to comply with any particular cultural norms – the Bengali language, at a rudimentary level, was part of the school curriculum, but beyond that, nothing related to Bengali-ness was given much importance. Partly, I should bear the blame; partly, the times should. Identifying myself as Assamese outside Assam has been much easier than doing so within. The immediate history of violence that preceded us meant that Bengali-ness felt like something shoved down my throat, something to rebel against. So I chose to be an Indian. As vague as that might sound now, the idea was romantic then. My language used fillers like gayab and ‘unnecessary’; my slang was mostly Assamese. The first movie I saw in a theatre, at a very young age, must have been Khuda Gawah or Kishen Kanhaiya. The first songs I sung must have been ‘Papa kehte hai bada naam karega’ and ‘Jumma chumma de de’. To be an Indian, perhaps you should grow up on a strictly slapstick Bollywood diet.
Those were the days when Doordarshan was sullenly but swiftly falling behind the curtains. With the liberalisation following 1991, private broadcasters hijacked the Keltron TV in our drawing room. Doordarshan’s avuncular efforts to spread regional awareness had come to nix. The green grasses, bicycles, gamocha and poverty of Assamese cinema felt unreal against the world of Celeste, Small Wonder and even the bottle which held captive Barbara Eden (in I Dream of Jeannie). Standing in the middle, in comparatively progressive Guwahati, the unattainable held more significance than the grave prospect of travelling back in time. The difficulty has always been in the past. A state, or a bunch of states, if we consider the whole of the Northeast region, has been continuously running away from its past. History, at least the immediate, contains a dreadful period of violence, neglect and impoverishment. The future holds hope, or something we haven’t seen.
To understand the failure of cinema as a commercial venture in Assam, one must take into account much larger factors than those common to the decline of regional cinema in other parts of the country. “Assam has 45 languages, 23 tribes who add up to a population of 12.5 percent of the total. Assamese-speaking people only account for [around] 48.81 percent of the total population,” film critic Kuloda Bhattacharya informs me, “whereas, in states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal there are roughly 89 and 85 percent people speaking one common language. An industry cannot survive on a handful of movie-goers.” While the argument threatens cinema’s position as a universal language, it also reemphasises Charlie Chaplin’s initial fear of talkies diminishing the universality of films. The 48.81 percent of Assamese speakers in Assam are further divided based on their choice of cinema, geographical location and economic background. The average Assamese constantly fighting for survival is more likely to look at cinema as a mode of entertainment after a hard day’s work. The human issues which the art filmmakers of Assam deal with aren’t attractive to the ‘average’ viewer, and Assamese commercial cinema, essentially ersatz Bollywood packaged in cheaper containers, does nothing to quench the thirst.
India, rather than being the one nation that it is touted to be, often seems like a group of islands, each separated from the other by apparently large voids.
Language, along with religion, has been responsible for drawing the borders of the nation and the mind. Sometime in September 1979, during the Assam Movement (1979-1985) it led to a brilliant spectacle which is a part of family lore. In the midst of simmering discontent, houses in flames and the stench of blood, my father, faced with the dilemma of having to choose between land and identity, life and compassion, chose to mingle with the revolting Assamese and, inactively, went forward with them as they moved towards further destruction. My father’s ability to mimic the ‘indigenous’ saved his life; his habit of speaking Bengali like a ‘migrant’ would have led him to die as a Bangladeshi. For mothers of my dad’s generation, who had migrated from the Barak Valley, that part of Assam where Bengali is the official language, Assamese could be nothing else but the language of fear. It is a pity that our film industry was never deft at handling genres of horror and action.
While the Bengali-Assamese discord for us, fortunately, was part of history, the Karbis, the Bodos and Dimasas keep reminding us that Assamese even in the state of Assam is not a unifier. So are Assamese cinema and Cinema of Assam synonymous terms? This leads to further questions: how many Assamese, Bengali and Bodo are going to watch a movie in Karbi? And what is its reach beyond the secluded shrines of intellectual cinema?
Cinema inspires cinema just as literature evolves from literature, and when the inflow is stopped, intellectual growth stagnates.
India, rather than being the one nation that it is touted to be, often seems like a group of islands, each separated from the other by apparently large voids. But even when, as in Assam’s case, one searches for semblance, one sets out towards an endless darkness where the first matchstick held out starts a bushfire. In a place like this it is only natural that Bollywood, especially the slapstick cinema which doesn’t usually come with a sense of place and identity, or where the emphasis is so vague that it fails to deliver any message, becomes the dependable audience-puller.
The impact of Bollywood on Assam’s movie culture can be gauged by the events that followed the ULFA’s ban on Hindi movies in 2002-03, which led to the closure of many theatres. The ‘do-gooders’, in order to protect their culture from the purported agents of the ‘Indian colonial machinery’, issued a diktat that Bollywood wouldn’t be allowed to enter Assam’s theatres. That ban was followed by a series of bomb blasts in theatres refusing to obey the orders. Rumours circulated that ‘bad’ people in the cinema halls injected the AIDS virus into the bodies of hapless viewers when the room got dark. The plan backfired and after the initial scares, Hindi movies were back in theatres and the life of the moviegoers returned to normal. At the receiving end were the Assamese filmmakers who, because of the dearth of screening spaces, resorted to releasing their movies on Video CDs. This trend still continues.
Assamese cinema has seen a steady decline from the almost mythical heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. Since there isn’t much literature on Assamese cinema available in other languages, the sole preserve is word-of-mouth. In an unnamed documentary made in Assamese – someone has uploaded it on YouTube as ‘Altaf Mazid at Rupasree Cinema Hall of Guwahati Part 1 and Part 2’ – Mazid speaks about the movie jaunts of his younger days. Movie names like Gone with the Wind, Doctor Zhivago and Anna Karenina spill out of his mouth in a breathless string of words. He paints an image of a theatre full of twelve hundred people watching films in English, their understanding of the language being of no consequence. Mazid recollects watching the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, “understanding nothing, watching those people play tennis without a ball.” In my years of growing up (and I am much younger than the critic), I could watch only popular English films like the Spider-man series, X-Men, Jurassic Park and 2012, and those too were dubbed into Hindi.
The last major Bengali film Mazid recollects watching in Guwahati is Satyajit Ray’s Ashani Sanket, released in 1973, when the revolt was silently gaining pace. I keep remembering the laughably mediocre Indo-Bangladesh venture Beder Meye Jyosta (1991) directed by Motiur Rahman Panu. A remake of a Bangladeshi movie of the same name, it revolved around the love story of a snake charmer’s daughter (played by Anju Ghose) and a prince (who else but Chiranjeet?) who gets bitten by a snake. The film, although exemplary among critics citing the worst movies of all time, went on to become very popular among the working classes. The news travelled to the upper classes who, though maybe reluctant to admit it now, flocked to the theatres.
Cinema inspires cinema just as literature evolves from literature, and when the inflow is stopped, intellectual growth stagnates. The turbulent times are over and even the rowdiest militant groups don’t have the same impact now that they did a decade ago. But how have we progressed in the past few years? We have opened up malls with multiplexes, yes. We have made it mandatory for cinema halls to show the five Assamese movies we make for at least 100 days a year, yes. But are these long-term plans aimed at reviving a lost culture? What have we done for the people from the nearby towns and villages, who till the mid-1970s, before terror bent their knees, travelled for hours in buses to theatres in Guwahati, just for their dose of entertainment? Did we ever sit back to analyse why mobile theatre (Bhramyaman) is considered a better alternative by rural Assamese than cinema? What have we done to reach the larger audience?
Assam’s literati continues to draw a tired sketch of the Hindi film industry as a vulgarity-spewing monster, and this is amazing considering there’s so much to fix in our own outlook. Perhaps the way forward would be to go back to basics and begin from where it all started. If the ostracising of Aideu Handique represents Assamese cinema’s decline, then the revival should come through inclusiveness – of language, people, and the medium.
~Debojit Dutta is a freelance writer and journalist based in Delhi. He has previously written for Motherland, The Sunday Guardian and Kindle.
~This essay was first published in September 2013.