Eminent film critic and documentary filmmaker Altaf Mazid Rija died in Bangalore on April 13 after a heart attack. Mazid was a multi-faceted talent: he wrote extensively about cinema, made experimental documentaries and helped restore the first Assamese film Joymoti in 2001. His most recent documentary, The Broken Song, was screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival. In a deeply personal tribute, his neighbour, protege and filmmaker Shaheen Ahmed reveals Mazid’s love for cinema, his wide range of interests, and his ability to bring the world to her doorstep.
It’s a rather strange position I find myself in today. I have spent the last two months in Guwahati hunting down lost memories and narratives and today I find myself dusting the vaults of my memories of someone who was a very dear mentor and father figure to me, Mr Altaf Mazid.
Mr Mazid was a well-known and respected filmmaker and critic from Assam. His list of awards and achievements would fill up pages, but I am struggling here to talk about what he meant to me personally. Mr Mazid or Rija Uncle was my next-door neighbor in the Lakhtokia locality of Guwahati. Uncle was always a multi-faceted man, in an area bereft of any intellectualism, Uncle fostered a deep understanding of intellectual and local historical traditions.
He was also a voracious reader of pulp fiction. I know this because he would always visit our house and borrow the pulp fiction that my dad would read and come back for more. He loved Frederick Forsyth and Jack Higgins. In fact, just last month when I did an article on Sirat Library in Lakhtokia, he told me how he loved the Mohan Detective series and the Pa-Phu series. Growing up in Lakhtokia, Rija Uncle encouraged me always to read, watch films and foster an intellectual spirit.
My introduction to the cinematic image was through him. Though Uncle was an engineer in the Public Works Department of Assam, he breathed cinema through his life till his last breath. Uncle shifted out of Lakhtokia and went to a more spacious house in Guwahati in the early 2000s where he devoted one floor to his cinematic practice. It was his studio, his library, his viewing space and where he deliberated with many on what is cinema and what ought to be cinema.
In 2003, when I was just out of school, Rija Uncle asked me to write a ‘film treatment’ and a ‘synopsis’ of the project he was working on. I forget today what that film was, but it was the moment when I understood that the cinematic image included these intense processes of writing and thinking. During that period he shared film scripts with me so that I could learn the cinematic language of the script. He enthusiastically showed me the films he was working on at that time, which was One Night in Las Vegas and Crazy on The Rocks. As a theoretician and as a practitioner myself, I can say that my interest in the non-linear narrative was borne out of watching his films and filmic practice from a young age.
Uncle’s films were never for the faint hearted – he never took a safe route. His films always spoke of a narrative that was unsettling, that bothered the viewer. He was a doer, a stubborn man. If he made up his mind on a project, he would go ahead and make it and more often than not with his own funds. His most ambitious project was the restoration of the first Assamese film, Joymoti, from the dustbins of history and his revival of the archives of the famed and reclusive writer, Saurav Kumar Chaliha. Uncle, in fact, made two films on Chaliha, Lakhtokiat Golam and Bhaal Khobor, and started a trust to archive of the writer’s work.
Rija Uncle also was someone who was working on reviving the lost narratives of the state. All through his life, he attempted to bring out the lost and alternative narratives and historicities of Assam. He was also very keen on reviving the lost narratives of Khilonjia Muslims of Assam. When I started my research on these two narratives, the first person I called was Rija Uncle. He shared his memories on Sirat Library and was so happy to know about my endeavors. Post the publication of the article, he was contemplating reviving this library which he loved, where he read the Mahabharata.
When I wanted to do the story on Madan Kamdev, he was so enthusiastic that he told me he would take me there and if possible make a film. When we met last month, he was buzzing with ideas. He was thinking of making a docu-fiction on Nellie through the eyes of three girls. On our way to Madan Kamdev, he stopped on the way to meet a Nellie survivor who he had met almost a decade back. He took out his ten-year-old diary where he had jotted down the man’s name and number and went to meet him, to know about how the survivors are doing today.
He was not someone who believed in easy binaries, but took an intellectual and an organic argument on any issue and in his cinematic practices. Trauma was one topic we had a discussion on throughout that day, and ideas flew thick and fast between us. My first curatorial project on cinema which worked on ‘memories, trauma and India’s North East’ of course had to include his work. Rija Uncle was elated to know about my curatorial project and told me, “You have the green signal to use whatever you want to, no questions asked.”
Today when I see my works, I know that Uncle played a huge role in shaping up my interests, in digging up the hyperlocal, in understanding how lost narratives must be revived. He was keen on digging up such historicites himself and the project that he was almost completing was the Karbi version of the Ramayana, which has many feminist shades. There were many plans that he made, taking me to a forgotten historian to know about Guwahati, working on a project on the Assamese Muslims, and me returning his precious copy of the rare book Luit, Barak aru Islam by Medini Choudhury. He was into gardening these days and wanted to send over some home-grown lettuce and tomatoes since I love salad. They never came. The torn and frayed Medini Choudhury book shall remain with me now as his parting gift to me. A terrible loss for Assam, for filmmaking and for me.
A longer version of this article first appeared on raiot.in