It’s a great year for regional cinema from the northeast, as Assamese director Rima Das’ Village Rockstars has demonstrated. After being selected as the official entry for the Foreign Language Film category of the Oscars, the film has also seen a pan-India release through VKAAO, a collaboration between PVR Cinemas and Bookmyshow. However, Village Rockstars is just the tip of the iceberg. From an exceptional tale involving a small tribe in Arunachal Pradesh to a Garo film that employs hyperrealism in its narrative, to a big-budget film that has carved a niche when it comes to multilingualism (much to the befuddlement of the Censor Board)—VICE brings to you a guide for the usual, and unusual, suspects that you can't afford to miss:
Bulbul Can Sing
After creating a buzz with Village Rockstars with a story on a 10-year-old girl who dreams of starting a band, Rima Das is back with another title, Bulbul Can Sing, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year. Employing a guerilla-style filmmaking process, Das finished the film in a little over two months. “Village Rockstars, despite being such a shot in the dark, was so well-received. It gave me confidence that things can be done differently,” she told a media outlet. Bulbul Can Sing takes you back to Das’ village, Chaygaon (Assam), and has tapped into the local talent of the area, much like in Village Rockstars, to play the parts.
Assamese director Bhaskar Hazarika—the maker of Kothanodi (The River of Fables) that went on to win the 63rd National Film Awards for Best Feature Film in Assamese in 2016—is back with a contemporary love story set in Guwahati “that goes tragically wrong and ends in utter darkness,” Hazarika tells me. After Aamis secured funds from a private equity at Busan’s Asian Project market (his debut Kothanodi had also received a post-production grant from the Busan Asian Cinema Fund), it has taken a formidable shape led by two first-time actors, Lima Das and Arghadeep Barua.
Hazarika credits his writing to the music he was listening to at the time. “At the writing stage, I mostly take the support of reference music to immerse into the world of the film being written. I heard a lot of Assamese death metal by Shades of Retribution while writing Kothanodi. While writing Aamis, I tripped on the music of post-classical musicians like Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm,” he says. The work that is “crafted with a lot of passion, grit and love by our cast and crew” is set to release early next year.
Lorni: The Flaneur
Shillong-based Wanphrang K Diengdoh, who has been making documentaries for about a decade, presents his first feature-length fiction, wherein the viewer goes through the “shady” streets and alleys of Shillong with Shem (played by actor Adil Hussain), an unemployed shipiah (of Khasi and non-Khasi parentage) as he investigates the disappearance of cultural artefacts. On the way, he finds a mysterious girl, Esther, who complicates matters even more. But the main question is: are there any secrets in this small town?
Diengdoh’s tryst with Hussain, additionally, makes for a compelling story, wherein the director admits to have shared an electric dynamics with the well-known actor. “As cheesy as this may sound, I felt I had known him in some other lifetime. I think it was also because we both came from small towns,” he says. From Shillong to Cherrapunji, where they watched the clouds part to reveal the plains of Bangladesh, Lorni is also felt through the pulsating communal tensions in the region (which also formed the undertones in his debut film 19/87 in 2011, which set off the ‘Khasi New Wave’). In fact, Hussain ventured into the streets of Shillong late at night during curfews to “imbibe the fear” and “play the character of Shem truthfully”. “In the course of filming, one evening we found ourselves in the troubled areas. We finished the shoot and returned to base. Later, when we sat down to eat, he said, "Wan, earlier today, that area felt like a place where I could have gotten knocked off on the head." I said, "Yes Adil, that was the Mazhabi colony; we could have actually.' "Oh, that’s all right," he said, "we got the shots we needed".” Lorni will, hopefully, release by the end of the year and Diengdoh wants to screen it at a local public space in Shillong “to address the haphazard ticketing and revenue system of the local halls in Shillong".
After serenading the viewers with his second feature film Rong’kuchak in 2015—which went on to win a Special Mention at the Ca’Foscari Short Film Festival in Venice—Garo filmmaker Dominic Sangma is back with his next, Ma’ama. Cinema is beyond Hindi films, believes Sangma, and presents to us a narrative absolutely unique to his roots, while drawing in influences from literature, music and art (Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and Palestinian poet Mohammed Darwish were credited in the making of Rong’kuchak). Additionally, his village plays a major part in forming his narratives. “My stories come from the place I was born in, and I am going to make a trilogy on the stories of my village,” he says.
The first of this trilogy is Ma’ama, which has been based on the real-life experiences of Sangma’s father and took him five years to get down to writing the script, “which involved intimate conversation with my father about his past". The film is seen through the eyes of Philip (85), who has been waiting to be reunited with his wife in the afterlife. However, as he ages, his memories fade further, and adding to the torment is a dream in which he can’t recognise his wife’s face. “The film germinated from the very fact of my quest to know who my mother was and what really happened to her, which none of my siblings are ready to open up for me,” says Sangma, “Though my father remarried, he missed my mother very much and the void that she left behind couldn’t be filled. The film is the quest of both the father and son to fill that gap.” The film also sees every real-life character play their own parts, including Sangma’s family members. “In fact, the whole village came together to help me during the shoot,” says Sangma.
Monjul Barua says it's sheer luck that he happened to be born in the family of the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Jahnu Barua, especially at a time when Assamese cinema has crossed borders to find international acclaim. After completing his studies and working with filmmakers in Guwahati, he set off to Mumbai to work as an assistant director with his uncle Jahnu Barua for four of his feature films. Today, he is ready with his second film (after Antareen in 2014) called Kaaneen (A Secret Search), about “the internal and external journey of motherhood", in which a teenage pregnancy leads to the protagonist abandoning the infant after birth, and then launching a frantic search for the boy 24 years later. With Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi as his inspiration, Barua credits the “golden history of filmmaking in Assam” for setting a precedent for his work. “My approach to filmmaking is simple and I try my best to be audience-friendly so that they can relate to and receive my films well. One persistent element of my film is a query I put to my audience; the query that I have about the society we live in and are responsible for,” he says.
After graduating from Hindu College (Delhi University) with honours in Sociology, Sange Dorjee Thongdok was sure of one thing: that he didn’t want to land up in a nine-to-five job. He could see the changes in his Sherdukpen tribe in Arunachal Pradesh because of modernity, especially over the last 20 years. And so, he took time off after college and started recording songs and stories of his tribe. After a stint at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (Kolkata), and finding inspiration from filmmakers such as Kiarostami and Jia Zhangke “who had started their careers working in their own environment with locals as actors”, Thongdok is the first filmmaker to bring the Sherdukpen language to the celluloid. River Song is his second deliverance, about a boy who stubbornly refuses to leave his home as his town is getting submerged in water from a dam being built nearby.
“The germ of the film was with me for quite a number of years, ever since I had read a report that the government was planning to commission about a hundred dams across my state of Arunachal Pradesh. This was a frightening thought for me and I decided that this is something that the people ought to know more about, to discuss and debate on. Making a film on the subject was a natural next step,” says Thongdok, whose first film Crossing Bridges became the first ever film in his mother tongue and went on to win the National Award in 2014. “I started off making films wanting to tell stories about my people to the outside world. It was my primary motivation for choosing filmmaking as a career. There are so many stories to tell about the region and not enough filmmakers to tell them in a proper manner. My films will always have a flavour of my region and its people,” he says.
III Smoking Barrels
Perhaps the biggest of the lot (in terms of production, budget and star cast), Mumbai-based filmmaker Sanjib Dey's III Smoking Barrels brings together the efforts of the film industry in Mumbai and a cast and crew from the Northeast. With over a decade-long experience in the film and television industry in Mumbai, Dey credits his "homecoming" to a meeting with a childhood friend a few years ago. "I remember sitting at a chaiwala and he came up with an idea of making a film on the Northeast. The moment he said that, I got goosebumps because I belong here and never worked here before. I always wanted to make a film here and it was all just so overwhelming," Dey tells VICE. The film is playing in the theatres currently.
And so, three stories came together, based on real people Dey had encountered in his life. "One girl is a victim of the armed conflict. One guy is into drugs, which is based on my own nephew who was into drug addiction and has recovered now. And the third character is a poacher," says Dey, who roped in his cast from Mumbai, Kolkata and Guwahati. However, it's the presence of six languages—English, Hindi, Bengali, Nagamese and Manipuri—that's the most striking feature of the film. "The censors don't have a terminology called multilingual films. We really need to change that. India is a country of multiple languages and this film should set the trend. We have used the languages in equal proportions," says Dey. "For now, my film has been certified as an English-language film. Can you believe that?" he laughs. Born in Golaghat (Assam), Dey is happy that his film doesn't show the murky world of bureaucracy and police and crime, that it comes straight from the ground. "The 'chicken's neck' has kept the Northeast away from India. Time has come that the rest of India embraces the region as its own," he says.