The cinema of the North-East is as diverse as the region itself. Ever since the release of the first Assamese film, Jyoti Prasad Agarwal’s Joymoti, in 1935, countless movies have been made in the major regional languages Assamese and Manipuri as well as in dialects such as Karbi, Mishing, Bodo, Kokborok, Khasi, Sherdukpong, Wancho and Sadri. Digital filmmaking technologies have recently boosted the number of productions as well as enabled filmmakers to engage with different storytelling styles. Some of the more interesting work is emerging from the various dialects rather than the Assamese and Manipuri film industries.
Due to a shortage of movie theatres across the region, such films are exhibited mostly through screenings at community centres. They are also occasionally available through DVD and VCDs. The national broadcaster Doordarshan’s policy to broadcast National Film Award winners on their channels and pay the producers screening fees has created larger audiences for these films. Here are five titles made over the last decade that attest to the vibrancy of narratives and themes in the North-East.
Yarwng (2008) Joseph Pulinthanath was born in Kerala but has spent the greater part of his life in the North-East. He made the first feature in the Kokborok language in 2003, titled Matei. His second feature, Yarwng (2008) is the story of the large-scale displacement of indigenous people by a hydel project in Tripura in the 1970s. “Yarwng emerged from the numerous encounters we had with displaced people,” the director said. “All the incidents and emotional turmoil depicted in the film were based on true events and were included because we found they were all etched in the subconscious psyche of the people.”
Ko:Yad (2012) Veteran Assamese film director Manju Borah made her seventh film about the Mishing tribe and in the Mishing dialect. The film was shot on 35mm stock by renowned cinematographer Sudhir Palsane, for which he won the National Film Award. Shot over just 20 days, Ko: Yad is about the life of Pokkam, who belongs to the Mishing community and lives by the river. We see his childhood, his wedding, the birth of his children, and his later years as he is betrayed by his friends, creditors, children, and ultimately the river itself. “There is a larger philosophy my film talks about, how there is nothing permanent in life and there are no people, possessions or relationships that you can hold on to,” Borah said. Ko: Yad was screened at the International Film Festival of India in 2013, and won a special mention award at the Mumbai Film Festival the same year.
Crossing Bridges (2013) Sange Dorjee Thongdok, a graduate in direction from the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute of India, made his debut in his native tongue, Sherdukpen. Almost all the crew members were his batchmates from the film institute. Crossing Bridges is about Tashi, who returns to his village in Arunachal Pradesh after eight years. Tashi has lost his job in the city, and he rediscovers his home and a way of life that he has kept at arm’s length. The film was released across India through PVR Cinemas’ Director’s Rare label in 2014.
Orong (2014) Made in the Rabha language, Suraj Kumar Duwarah’s film is an account of a 14 year-old boy named Rasong who lives with his step-father, mother and younger brother in a small village in Assam. Rasong has to leave his school to work at a diesel pump to support his family despite his mother’s reluctance. Since the pump site is situated deep inside the forest, he is tormented by isolation and faces a few unusual situations. A graduate of Jyoti Chitraban Film and Television Institute in Guwahati, Duwarah worked as a cinematographer before becoming a filmmaker. “Although Orong has been officially certified as being in the Rabha language, its soul is in Assamese, as this film represents the life and issues of an ethnic group who are the sons of the soil of Assam,” he said.
The Head Hunter (2015) Nilanjan Dutta, a graduate in film editing from the Film & Television Institute of India, made his debut in the Wancho language. An old man from a headhunting tribe of India lives in a forest nearly as ancient as him. ”By making the film I want to show the human side of the tribe, and display their symbiotic relationship with nature as they come from a huge forest area,” Dutta said. The movie was shown at the International Film Festival of India in 2015, and won the Aravindan Puraskaram for the Best Debutant Film Maker of 2015 at the Kerala State Government film awards in 2016.