Few takers for politics


It is only recently that two prominent film personalities in northeast – both from Assam – have joined politics, even as the film industry settles down for the better to let them venture into risky politics



The author is a senior Guwahati-based journalist. He’s a Chevening scholar and has worked with the Times of India, Indian Express, The Telegraph and Times Now television. He is the author of two books on the Northeast dealing with insurgency

The story of cinema in India’s Northeast begins with Jyotiprasad Agarwalla, a cultural icon in Assam who had established a temporary film studio in a family-owned tea estate to shoot the first Assamese film. Joymoti was released in 1935 which was the beginning of the film movement of Assam and the Northeast. The movie was based on a play by Lakshminath Bezbarua, considered the father of modern Assamese literature.

Joymoti was not a financial success primarily due to the lack of screening opportunities. The film was released in Kolkata and later at a theatre hall in Guwahati, called the Kumar Bhaskar Natya Mandir. Notwithstanding the failure of his venture, Jyotiprasad made another film after a lapse of two years titled Indramalati (1939). It was his second and last film. The eminent composer and singer of Assam Dr Bhupen Hazarika, played a stellar role in the film.

After Jyotiprasad launched the initiative, films began to be produced in Assam at irregular intervals. The 1950s saw several important Assamese films being made – Phani Sharma’s Piyoli Phukan, Nip Baruah’s Smritir Parash, Maak aru Morom and Ronga Police and Prabhat Mukherjee’s Puberun. Bhupen Hazarika’s Era Bator Sur highlighted Assam’s musical culture through a fictional story, and Sarbeswar Chakraborty’s patriotic film Maniram Dewan. Among the other states in the Northeast, Manipur had its maiden tryst with films when Deba Kumar Bose released Matamgi Manipur.

In the Northeast, only Assam and Manipur are the only twin states where a regular filmmaking tradition has come into existence. And even in these states, filmmakers are compelled to work with a meager budget. In Assam only recently have producers been able to make films with budges crossing Rs 1 crore. Mission China is an apt example, produced and directed by singer-musician Zubeen Garg, which has become the costliest film of the Northeast ever.

There are bottlenecks that filmmakers in the Northeast have to come to terms with, especially the dearth of enough theatres. Another obstacle is the cultural diversity – there are as many as 275 ethnic communities with their own languages and dialects in the region. So, a film produced in one these dialects can have no commercial prospect locally. Its only chances of reaping a profit are possible only if the film travels abroad and is acquired by a foreign distributor.

Utpal Barpujari a National Film Award winning film critic from Assam and documentary filmmaker, said “In NE, cinema has an over 80-year-old history, but because of very limited commercial viability, the number of films made in all these years has been limited. The region, however, has had several significant film makers in the context of Indian cinema, such as Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Aribam Syam Sharma and Jahnu Barua. The biggest hurdle is lack of enough exhibition space, which means the commercial viability is extremely limited for cinema in the region.”

There were unsung heroes in the midst of all these hurdles. Barpujari in a recent article has cited two examples in this category Gautam Bora and Dr Santwana Bordoloi who never received funds for their next films despite being winners of national and international awards for their initial films. At the same time there were also talented film makers who produced low budget films on social themes and issues that sometimes crossed the usual physical boundaries. Manju Borah Sanjib Sabhapandit Sanjeev Hazorika, Bidyut Chakraborty and Ahsan Mujid are a few instances who made the best of the resources available to them, picked up catchy subjects and wove a meaningful reel story around them.

There were talented filmmakers emerging in the other states of the Northeast as well. From Manipur came new names like Haobam Paban Kumar, who had already made many internationally-acclaimed documentaries including his debut fiction film Loktak Lairembee. Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Sikkim had also begun to produce films that were directed by young film makers. A few films from the Northeast have got limited releases outside the region including Jahnu Barua’s Baandhon, Rajni Basumatary’s Raag and Kenny Basumatary’s Local Kung Fu. But the online platform could be the beginning of new changes in this sector. Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi (The River of Fables) was recently picked by Netflix and is said to be having a decent run on the platform.

Still, filmmaking in the Northeast attracts only a few who are driven more by passion than commercial motives. There are obstacles that have to be crossed that could be time consuming and financially unviable. But there are themes that are exclusive and revealing which offers ample scope for meaningful films.

However, while south India shows a clear propensity of film stars sweeping politics and north Indian film stars are also reluctant players, the northeast has shown a clear disconnect between films and politics. The only prominent exceptions are Jatin Bora and Angoorlata Deka.

Bora is perhaps the most popular Assamese film actors and has been acting since 1993. He joined Hengul Theatre in 1994. In the following year he got an offer from Abahon Theatre, then directed by Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia and Munin Barua, for the 1995-96 season. He continues to be actively involved in Assamese moving theatre industry. Presently he is acting in Kohinoor Theatre. He acted in their plays written for Abahon. Later, Dr Bhabedranath Saikia cast him for his first and only Hindi film Kaal Sandhya.

He was commercially successful in Munin Barua’s film Hiya Diya Niya, opposite debutante Luna Lahkar. The best known songs of the movie were “Nohole porichoy” and “Mitha Mitha Aji Xopunote” by Zubeen Garg.

After that he appeared in back to back many films of Munin Barua, like Nayak, Kanyadaan, Daag etc. In Kanyadaan (opposite Rashami Desai) he acted along with Mridula Baruah and Chetana Das. He also had performances in the films Nayak (a love triangle with co-stars Zerifa Wahid and Ravi Sharma), Suren Suror Putek, Kadambari etc. He has recently joined the BJP.

The other sizzler from Assamese films who set the political arena in the state on fire is Angoorlata Deka, who also joined BJP and defeated the Congress candidate in the last Assam state assembly polls.

There are some also-rans, such as Nipon Goswami, who has acted in 50-odd films and is keen to join the Congress, as also Brojen Bora.

However, the instability of the film industry in the region as such – poor financing, few theatres, narrow reach beyond the region, especially with seven different languages – means that film stars are not very well settled in their careers which could allow them the leeway of venturing into politics. First they need to settle their film career and wealth before entering into what many of them feel is the risky quicksand of politics.


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