The COVID-19 crisis has impacted lives in unforeseeable ways. How are people of books and arts responding to the pandemic? In this narrative conversation series, Jyotirmoy Talukdar sets out to find an answer from poets, singers and filmmakers of Assam, and comes across stories of lost livelihoods, shelved projects and a laborious survival of dreams and hopes.
Around this time last year, Reema Borah moved back home to Biswanath Chariali in Assam after spending years in Mumbai as a filmmaker. What she did not expect was that she was about to embark on a year crammed with uncertainty.
First, it was the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA) that had brought the entire state out on the streets and everyday life to a complete standstill. Reema’s real-life trajectory is reminiscent of Raktim’s in her 2015 film Bokul where the 30-year-old protagonist comes home after years in Mumbai to attend his sister’s wedding and becomes entangled in the social and political disorder of the place.
COVID-19 came hot on the heels of the CAA. As the protests against the controversial law intensified, Reema was trying to wrap up her ongoing project for the newly-launched DD Arunprabha channel. The schedule got extended by twelve more days which caused her not only financial strain, but also deadline pressure. The worse, however, was yet to come. As soon as the director submitted her finished product, a nationwide lockdown was announced. She is yet to receive her payment.
There is little disagreement among filmmakers that the pandemic is going to radically impact the future of Assamese cinema. Kenny Basumatary, whose Local Kung Fu (2013) is no less than a cult in Assam, joked:
“Well, I don’t know how we’ll shoot fight scenes by maintaining one metre distance between fighters, or how on earth the focus puller can stand one metre away from the cameraman.”
Regardless of how the film is shot, the need for physical distancing means that cinema halls will continue to remain shut in the immediate future.
Utpal Borpujari, the two-time National Award winner (first as a critic and then as a filmmaker), feels that the smaller the size of the industry, the bigger the impact will be. He says:
“While bigger industries like Hollywood, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam or Bengali can cope with the impact better as they have OTT platforms and TV channels that have huge viewership, in places like Assam, the impact could be severe as neither do we have any exclusive OTT platform yet for content from the state nor do the TV channels pay any respectable sums for telecast rights of films or other content.”
Bobby Sarma Baruah too feels that the virus has brought with it a huge loss for the industry.
“The process of making a film requires many people like the producer, the director, the scriptwriter, the researcher, the production designer, the cameraman, people in the editing department, the sound department, makeup, costume, transportation, food, location expert, and many more. So, no production means all of us are losing our means of earning,” lamented the director widely-acclaimed for Sonar Boron Pakhi (2016), a biopic of the folk singer Pratima Barua Pandey.
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Bhaskar Hazarika, whose 2019 film Aamis premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was a rage among cinephiles in the world, keeps his hopes afloat.
“It is too early to understand how the virus will change filmmaking,” he said. “The bigger impact is going to be felt in film distribution and exhibition. The stranglehold that big theatre chains have over content may loosen, and independent films may find at their disposal a large homebound audience hungry for new content on the web.”
Even as the film created a buzz nationally and internationally, the box office performance of Aamis suffered on its home turf owing to the CAA crisis.
Both Bhaskar and Kenny are associated with Emuthi Puthi, a much-awaited road film directed by Kulanandini Mahanta. Written by Bhaskar with his co-writer Sunayana Dutta and entirely shot on iPhone, the film has had a miraculous close shave amid the two crises of CAA and COVID-19.
“But we were at that time doing pre-production for Emuthi Puthi, which kept that project away from the andolan that we were also a vocal part of,” divulged Bhaskar when asked.
Talking about projects getting stalled and shelved because of the lockdown, Kenny too said, “Fortunately, I’d just finished acting in Emuthi Puthi and the shooting wrapped up and everyone reached home before lockdown.”
But other projects he was a part of suffered.
“I was acting in Rajesh Bhuyan’s Swargarath, brilliantly scripted by Santanu Rowmoria, when we had to stop shooting with around half the shoot completed. The Local Kung Fu team was supposed to do the action scenes in Barood 2, but that couldn’t start,” said the actor-director-novelist whose latest directorial venture Local Utpaat is now in the post-production stage.
“Editing over, and I’ve started the dubbing and sound process,” Kenny said. When he is not editing, he is watching something (Watchmen, and now The Walking Dead) or exercising or cooking.
For Reema, lockdown was less work and more introspection.
“I did nothing, absolutely nothing except a lot of wondering,” Reema said when I asked her how she spent her lockdown days, “The kids are having a good time. They play Colour-Colour, Ludo and cricket which allows me more time to wonder.”
I remembered the young children under Kuntala’s tutelage in Bokul who play Colour-Colour as Raktim wanders around adjusting himself to the ambience and the energy of the space he has returned to after so long.
Bobby too feels that it is a time for self-observation rather than frustration.
“We humans are so busy all the time that we don’t have time for ourselves. Our two feet are more like a pair of wings! But this lockdown gave us many valuable insights,” felt the director whose latest film Mishing (2018) was made in the Sherdukpen dialect of Arunachal Pradesh.
The lockdown gave a sense of homecoming to Bhaskar Hazarika, too.
“When the lockdown happened, I found myself with my mother in our family home in Dergaon. This is the longest I have been in the home I grew up in since I became an adult. So I’m looking at this as an opportunity to look back at my journey through life, rediscovering the many things and memories I had left behind when I left home,” said the founder of the independent film studio Metanormal who is spending his rare days at home working on several concepts, thinking of new ideas and continuing with his commissioned work.
Both Kenny and Utpal share a feeling of frustration that comes from observing the less privileged who, like the latter said, ‘are not in a position to think beyond how to get their next meal’.
“The reflection and frustration came more from seeing the huge amounts of apathy that people have towards the lesser privileged. Like I read recently, most of us are just three bad months away from disaster. Which holds especially true for people who have to pay Bombay-level rents. But I’m still part of the privileged lot who won’t starve and has family backup. There are millions and millions of people suffering because of the idiocy of some politicians,” Kenny did not mince his words.
“Also quite frustrating is the incidents of racially-tinged attacks on people from our North Eastern region in many parts of the rest of India,” added Utpal, “Calling them ‘coronavirus’, preventing them from going into shops and so on – is something that upsets me a lot.”
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“Even if at unprecedented times like this if we don’t have empathy for others, it speaks a lot about us as a society and as human beings. The same people who are calling Northeastern people names would be the first ones to create a social media storm if China claims Arunachal Pradesh to be a part of itself – and that’s the biggest irony,” opined the Ishu (2017) director.
Reema Borah who was supposed to start shooting for two short films in April regrets that COVID-19 happened to the Assamese film world at a critical juncture.
“Assamese Cinema has just started the glorious journey and the audience has started recognising our world. The last four years have been significant years for Assamese cinema, but now there is a pause. We are not sure if the economy will grow in the immediate future. Cinema needs a lot of money. A lot (emphasis hers). We, the new generation filmmakers of Assam, are mostly independent filmmakers. We have to arrange finance for our cinema by ourselves. The directors are playing the role of producers (most of the time). There is pressure. Pressure of lack of finance,” she said.
As Utpal Borpujari’s documentary film on the mask-making art of Majuli and another short film in Assamese are stuck in post-production because of the outbreak, his discussions with potential financiers for the next feature film has also hit a roadblock. The Swarna Kamal winning film critic fears that both film and commercial theatre industries face the prospect of going bankrupt.
“Even when cinema halls and theatre pandals reopen, people might take time to visit them given the fear psychosis about the virus,” he said alluding to the loss that mobile theatre troupes in Assam also faced due to CAA unrest closely preceding the contagion.
Kenny winds up the discussion with hope.
“I believe that going to the movies is too powerful an experience to wither away. It may take time, months definitely, but cinema halls will reopen,” asserts the maker of Suspended Inspector Boro (2018).
On a second thought, Reema too is more upbeat, “…but thanks to the digital revolution, we have options for equipments. From mobile phones to high-end digital cameras. I think we need to go deeper to explore cinema, in both form and content. The real struggle begins now. Corona, our worldview, cinema, language of cinema and finance… our hands and minds are already burdened but I am optimistic.”
The aspiration to see light at the end of the tunnel is what helps poets and singers too to hang in there, as I had found out earlier in this series.
“Art will heal us, cinema will help us survive,” Reema rounds off.
Featured image (left to right): Reema Borah, Kenny Basumatary, Utpal Borpujari, Bobby Sarma Baruah, Bhaskar Hazarika.
is a Senior Writing Fellow at the Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University. He is also a freelance journalist regularly contributing to HuffPost India, The Wire and various Assamese dailies.