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Manoj Barpujari
Date of Publish: 2015-07-29

The film fraternity of the north-eastern part of India is not homogeneous unlike the political entity called the 'North East'. Many in the film festival circuit would recall the angry outbursts from four gifted filmmakers from Assam and Manipur – Aribam Syam Sharma, Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Jahnu Barua, and Jwngdao Bodosa – at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in the mid-1990s when they were asked to address the media together. Not surprisingly, their anger made the authority cancel the press meet. Those who believe that arts cannot be judged on the basis of a coterie consider the classification of the 'North East' a non-entity, a misnomer; their logical positivism underscores the view that every state belonging to the North East is culturally as unique as any state in other parts of the country. The small states in the region do not really have a significant filmmaking tradition, but they have their own experience, however trivial it might appear, and the creative expressions of each filmmaker merit respect.

The people's mindset, strongly influenced by the so-called mainstream Hindi cinema, is a clear indicator of why local films, even if they earn accolades on national or international stages, are not getting the expected response. Though the advent of digital cinema has made filmmaking cheaper, and exhibition and distribution of films easier than ever before, films made outside the Indian mainstream continue to be neglected. Satellite-based digital cinema system has made it possible too for a film to be released simultaneously in hundreds of theatres with no extra cost of prints, but the dearth of suitable cinema-viewing spaces and an indifferent attitude on the part of the authorities concerned are stunting the growth of regional cinemas in the north-eastern states. Frustration is understandable; eleven-time national award winner Jahnu Barua once announced that he would never make a film in Assam but ended his sabbatical after eight years.

Given this backdrop, should there be a separate film policy for the region to safeguard the interests of local filmmakers? If linguistic and ethno-cultural barriers were not enough, the film fraternity in each of the north-eastern states lacks interaction. The ground realities require policymakers and filmmakers to sit together from time to time for formulation of a feasible film exchange project so that regional films grow and prosper. The moot point is: if there could be a North East Council, a North East Zonal Cultural Centre, a North East Industrial Policy, a DONER (Development of North Eastern Region) ministry, and a North East Section at international film festivals, there could very well be a North East Film Policy. This categorisation, objective not subjective, could enhance a regional filmmaking tradition and overcome constraints in its way.

Cinema in the North East began on a serious note when Jyotiprasad Agarwala, the pioneer of filmmaking in the region, made the first Assamese film Joymoti (1935). It was a phenomenal film if analysed in the overall context of contemporary Indian cinemas, but the audience failed to appreciate its off-beat merits and followers of the visionary failed to tread similar path of filmmaking. They made films largely with historical or mythological fervour without much commercial success. Even the legendary music maestro and the region’s sole Dada Saheb Phalke Award winner, Dr Bhupen Hazarika made films mainly to satisfy the viewer's larger demand. The so-called golden ages of Assamese cinema – the 1970s and the 1990s – failed to last long.

The picture of pathetic struggle for survival of the region’s cinemas is not complete without discussing Manipur. Manipuri cinema was the first to put the region on the global celluloid map with Aribam Syam Sharma’s epoch-making Imagi Ningthem (1981). But all the theatres in Manipur were converted to video halls following threats by secessionist outfits against screening of mainstream Indian (Hindi) films in 2000. Local filmmakers later went digital to resurrect the industry that has also come to earn the nickname Imphalwood, invariably following militants’ diktats to shun anything not akin to Meitei culture. Today, Manipur produces some 50 digital films on budgets ranging from Rs 6 to 15 lakh. It took 12 years for a Manipuri film to be made in celluloid again; producer-director couple Chandam Shyamcharan and Manorama Devi had their film Japan Landa Imphal (2012) released at a new auditorium of the Manipur Film Development Corporation.

The region can boast of many other new generation filmmakers. In Mizoram, Mapuia Chawngthu produced, directed and shot Khawnlung Run (2012) for only Rs 11 lakh. It was the first ‘big-budget’ film in Dulian dialect, the lingua franca of the Mizos. In Tripura, a film proved cinema can play an important role in raising issues of concern for the region. Yarwng (2008), made in Kokborok language and directed by Joseph Pulinthanath, tells the story of large-scale displacement of tribal people by a hydroelectric power project in Tripura in the late 1970s. When it was screened at the IFFI Goa, the director's speech made the Central minister assure relief for the 60,000 displaced people! In Arunachal Pradesh, Crossing Bridges (2012), the first film made in the Sherdukpen dialect by Sange Dorjee, earned accolades for showing maturity in handling the subject.

Making films on a shoestring budget may seem easy in this hilly region, but making even marginal profits out of them is a Herculean task. Without a single big screen around, filmmakers like Mapuia Chawngthu or Sange Dorjee are not in a position to release their films in their own backyard. Cinema halls in Assam too have come down to less than 65 from 150 plus owing to exhibition and distribution bottlenecks and threats from militant outfits besides fall in viewership. Cultural departments or film corporations in the region are yet to wake up to the industry’s needs though they partly finance, albeit irregularly, film projects without attaining expected results. The situation calls for deep introspection from where a groundbreaking rule for a suggestible 'North East Cinema' cannot, perhaps, be overturned.

(Manoj Barpujari is a senior journalist, poet and critic based in Guwahati. He also won national award for best film critic in 2012 and Munin Borkataki award for literature in 2003.)

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