Even as the trend of documentary making in the Northeast is on the rise, the focal point still remains the myriad disturbing issues occurring in the region. Manoj Barpujari delves into some of these films critically assessing them
“The function of the documentary is to clarify choices, interpret history and promote human understanding. They [documentary filmmakers] believe film should provide a revelation of human dignity.”
The Documentary Conscience: A Casebook in Film Making
The documentary film scene in Assam is blessed with some of most vibrant and creative minds that the genre has seen over the years. Their works direct the viewer’s mind to certain choices, which often interpret contemporary history but not without going to the root. Moreover, their subliminal themes are orchestrated to promote human understanding against the backdrop of contradictions the society is undergoing. Judging these creations while keeping in mind what Alan Rosenthal, the American professor and writer told us, I am tempted to write about a few excellent documentaries.
A Measure of Impunity
Unrest is a recurring theme in short documentaries from Northeast India. Mauleenath Senapatis documentary, A Measure of Impunity, is a journey back to an unspeakably terrible time of great moral and human challenge. This film walked the road with a keen eye for truth. The 43-minute-long documentary, made in digital format, is produced and scripted by well-known author-journalist Sanjoy Hazarika, who is considered an authority on Northeast affairs. A veteran of 10 documentaries, mostly made in the Northeast, Hazarika also collaborated with the director of Children of the River: The Xihus of Assam, a critically acclaimed documentary on the endangered Gangetic river dolphins. Their newest venture portrays women who are victims of armed conflict in Assam and Nagaland, and it was noted by this correspondent that a sincere and unbiased depiction of objective facts was followed.
The filmmaker, an alumnus of FTII Pune, is sincere to the point of making it clear that A Measure of Impunity is not about the history of armed conflict between the secessionist forces and the Indian state in the Northeastern region. Rather it selected a few cases of excesses made by the Indian military and terrorist attacks on innocent civilians. The victims and those who analysed the situation on camera condoned the violence which resulted in irreparable losses and trauma; and they were equally aggrieved that no one brought anyone to book for all these misdeeds. Here lies the tragedy of the situation — hapless victims had to live with the trauma all their lives while the violators of human rights go scot free. The way these true stories are narrated in the film — the visual construction, carefully handled camerawork by the director, sensible camera angles, depth in field and control over use of lights have resulted in a powerful essay of human document.
The first shot has an octogenarian woman weeping over losing her husband long back in her subdued voice. Her family failed to find his body; her sorrow was shared by all the other people who could not give proper burials or cremations to the lost ones. The natural light in the native kitchen with a close up of her aged hand keeping her face covered from intrusive listeners makes the scene real. The closing sequence of the film has a younger lady shedding tears for losing three of her family members at the hands of armed intruders. Both women represent pain from the 60 yearlong conflict in Nagaland — the only difference was their age. In addition, the film deals with the effect on the lives of people due to ethnic clashes (the Gosaigaon Adivasi shelter camp for instance), fratricidal killings (Kokrajhar village), secret killings at the behest of the government as related by litterateur-academician Arupa Patangia Kalita, sabotages by militant outfits (Dhemaji blast by Ulfa), atrocities committed by the security forces (Sibsagar village) and other cases — all themes chronicled masterfully on the visual canvas. The outline makes a point to expose abuse and misuse of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (Afspa) relying mainly on comments by an ex-director general of police in Nagaland and shots of protests against the Act in Manipur.
The most important observation made in the film is that the stories related largely remained unnoticed or undocumented. Visually it portrays the basics of life and palpable resilience of common people. The opening shot has elements of both light and darkness; it is followed by a shot of an old man carrying a thick bundle of paddy straws on his back climbing a hilly road, gasping heavily. An Ahom family is shown performing a traditional ceremony to protect their surviving son, after the loss of another son in clashes between the army and the guerrillas — the scene is aesthetically haunting. Two elderly women reminisce about their experience running away from the advancing army when their kith and kin are shot. The scene with wounded is gripping, and the viewers could feel the tension, with a low, natural light setting the mood. Here the local ambiance is transformed to a universal one.
However, there is something left desired in this otherwise beautifully made documentary. A few short sequences of enactment regarding stories confessed by victims were not up to the mark; they left little for imagination, excluding a scene where a young lady runs through a paddy field screaming for help. From an objective point of view, the film is apolitical, it refuses to take sides. But subjectively its bid to be politically correct is futile, as some analytical remarks made by the individuals in the film are very selective; and in spite of some original comments by social activist Niketu Iralu, they showed only one side of the coin. Neo-colonialism, migration and birth of Ulfa are issues that need better examination, even in a documentary like this one. The film is part of a research project termed Bearing Witness, which consists of study report, photography and documentary film. Kudos to Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (CNES) and the Heinrich Foundation of Germany, the organisations that made it possible
The Divided Soul
Sometimes we hear never-before-heard testimony. This is exactly what we experienced when Rita Chowdhury came up with a new novel Makam. It was written on the plight of those Chinese-origin people residing in Upper Assam, forcefully deported at the time of Indo-China war of 1962. The Sahitya Akademi Award winning novelist has thrown her lot with film makers and produced The Divided Soul on the same subject. Eventually it becomes the first in-depth look at an unexplored episode in Indian political history. To a certain extent, it is a brave and profoundly important work as it exposes the ill-treatment meted out to Assamese-Chinese people who settled down in Makum back in the 1830s. Makum is India’s easternmost railway junction, which had become a commercial hub with the British indenturing labours from China for the tea industry.
The word Makum is of Chinese origin, which literally means ‘meeting point’. But from the last day of the war on November 19, 1962, they were put through undue harassment. Many of them were deported and with no time to pack up. Some even had to board a lorry without their kith and kin. Those who were assimilated into the greater Assamese society by inter-community marriage and other means were not spared either. In the documentary, C K Wong told of how his elder brother who passed from Cotton College and was studying in Assam Agricultural University was deported — first to a jail in Assam, then to a detention camp in Rajasthan and from there to China. Promila Das Linchee spoke of her parents who used to write letters to her in flawless Assamese from their present residence in China. These so-called Chinese spoke Assamese — they lost contact with the mainland China way back, forgetting the language spoken by their forefathers. Whether they are in India or China, they spoke in pure Assamese or in broken Hindi. It is as if they are caught between two identities, their soul divided. “Assam is our birthplace, our motherland”, said one of them, loud and clear. Another said, “When India prospers, we feel good.”
Another man confessed, “We are neither this side, nor that side.” It is a familiar dilemma migrants elsewhere have to negotiate. Shots taken from Chinapatty in Makum town, after those events 50 years back show deserted houses in dilapidated conditions, somehow standing, their structure resembling Chinese architecture. Some among those houses were occupied, others auctioned out. A Chinese-looking school was converted to a Hindi school. The last sequence of the film shows many of the Assamese-Chinese community being given warm reception and felicitated in a public function. The novel Makam was also released by one of them, who became part of the greater Assamese milieu. As far as execution goes, the documentary and its director Deep Bhuyan, deserve applause. Their story develops during the first part of the documentary while the visually different second part dwells on the deportees in Hong Kong. There is no doubt this non-fiction film deserves attention.
The voice-over by Jitendra Ramprakash is superb. Nevertheless, there are some drawbacks too as far as the structure of the documentary is concerned. It relied heavily on a static camera, devoid of imagination, while depending on jump cuts towards the later part, which did not help much. The vital part, which is believed to be shot in Hong Kong, is all but wobbly and novice in outlook. The 55minute-long film, shown in the just-concluded Mumbai International Film (Short & Documentary) Festival, has won a Certificate of Merit in non-fiction editing at the Indian Documentary Producers Association (IDPA) Awards. It is noteworthy that Bhuyan’s previous film Sesh Asha also won two IDPA Certificates of Merit as Best Environment and Best TV film, besides being shown in the Indian Panorama section of IFFI, Goa last year.
The Horizon of Rongmilir Hahi
To find analysis of any modern society one has to go through its ancient and original cultural heritage. Modern man’s tragedy arises out of his alienation from nature and nativity. This belief is voiced by Rongbong Terang, one of the apostles of modern Assamese literature, when he was interviewed in a documentary film titled The Horizon of Rongmilir Hahi. The 26-minute video documentary is made on the works of the renowned writer, also an erstwhile President of Asam Sahitya Sabha, the highest
literary body of the state. As the film is loosely based on the life and struggle of indigenous people of Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, the lifestyle of the people becomes an underlying motif. On the other hand, while the director of the film Sher Chowdhury dwells on various traits of the acclaimed writer, portraying him as a catalyst for peace, the focus shifts to the writer’s concern about the “identity crisis” of the people around. This crisis is a new disease, according to the writer.
There is a fear that all will get lost, be it individual or social; but Terang asserts that the indigenous tribes will not vanish till the Brahmaputra continues to flow, till Kopilli, Kolong and other rivers do not disappear. The poignant tale of the writer influenced by his surroundings has a unifying visual of water and rivers, the very basic ingredient of life in the enchanting Karbi hills. We find him disclosing the meaning of the Longhit river. “Long” means stone, “lit” means slippery in Karbi language, hence it directs to the slippery stones of the river, the name Longhit arising out of “long-lit”. Terang’s grandpa used to narrate stories associated with the river and a nearby hill called Arthema Abi (the God’s abode) whereupon the fairies danced. His childhood was rooted in this surrounding, where he started going to a school made of thatched house, devoid of any desks or benches for pupils. The students used to write on banana leaves, the roads around were muddy. His world view is sustained on similar simplicity, as Terang is a firm believer in the ideals of Buddha and Gandhi, in non-violence.
It is not surprising that he read Jataka tales and Gandhiji’s autobiography in his childhood and the beliefs against killing of man got nurtured over time. “If you ever use a bullet, let me get the first bullet”, he exclaimed against the backdrop of mass killings in Karbi Anglong. His outstanding novel Jak Heruwa Pokhi reflects his anguish over the ethnic clashes. An enactment of a burning house enlivens the heat of enmity; but a pair of young lovers crossing over ethnic divides between Karbis and Kukis eloquently signifies the writer’s outlook here. Terang is critical of the ill effects of the Assam Movement, when Jawaharlal Nehru’s statue was blown away in a blast. Those times are dealt with in his novel Krantikalor Asru. His most famous novel Rongmilir Hahi deals with religious conflict due to clashes over land. Though the novel has the setting in some places of the hill district, it reflects a major contradiction crippling the whole of Assam. The significance of The Horizon of Rongmilir Hahi would have been further enhanced had it examined Terang’s literary contribution in the light of comparative literature. The voice-over told us that his writings wore a stamp of genuineness and authenticity; however, it remained unexplored through the lenses as the interviewees appeared to be random selections. The director of the documentary, known for his unparalleled rendering of Karbi music in the film Wosobipo in 1989, which fetched him the national award for the best music director, has done justice to the background score; while his expertise in this genre (a few award-winning documentaries in his coffer including The Sound of the Dying Colours shot in the locations in Dima Hasao, another hill district) has justified its simple narrative stretched along a straight line. This style has made the film outwardly one of the simplest documentaries ever made; and needless to say, the power of the film’s expression lies in its simplicity.
The film is produced by the Films Division, Government of India, and is a part of its series made on contemporary Indian litterateurs. It soothes the wounded feelings of many filmmakers of yore who lament that the government wing fails to live up to expectations. Once a celebrated documentary filmmaker like B D Garga complained that wrong policies of the FD were responsible for why they could not produce a Satyajit Ray of Indian documentaries while observing that the filmmaker was made to work under dictation, a deterrent for the creative people. However the series made recently has allayed this kind of lament to a certain extent and Sher Chowdhury’s creation can be cited as evidence in this light.