Documentary filmmaking in the North East has grappled with subjects that reflect the region’s diverse ethnicity and culture heritage. The subject matter includes biopics, insurgency, folk music and underdevelopment. These films have been produced independently or backed by government organisations such as the Films Division and the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. Here are five titles that provide a primer to the non-fiction cinema that has won acclaim, National Film Awards, and festival exposure for filmmakers from the region.
AFSPA 58 (2007) In 2004, Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year-old woman from a village in East Manipur, was arrested and reportedly raped and killed in police custody. The circumstances of her death and its subsequent cover-up sparked widespread outrage and protests against the Indian Army and the government. National Film Award-winning Haobam Paban Kumar, who was born and raised in the state, was a final-year direction student at the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute of India in Kolkata at the time. He rushed home along with his camera to record the protests. The film also focuses on the everyday brutality of life in Manipur.
Songs of Mashangva (2010) Christianity and pop culture have challenged the traditional culture of the Tangkhul Naga tribes in the hills of North East India. Oinam Doren’s film captures the efforts of folk musician Rewben Mashangva to keep local traditions alive. Mashangva, who stands out with his traditional “haokuirat” hairtsyle and boots, performs across India and Southeast Asia with his nine-year-old son Saka, spreading the message that some songs have no end.
Doren started exploring the project when he was in college in Shillong in 2000 and heard Mashangva’s first album, Tantivy. “The music of the album lacked maturity and form but the lyrics and the unique tune rooted to Tangkhul Naga folk music touched me completely,” Doren said. “It was something I had never heard before. Years have passed. Rewben has grown both in music and status, and I have become a filmmaker.”
Songs of Mashangva is the first in a three-part series. The second film is the recently completed documentary The Next Song. The third film is a proposed fictional comedy titled The Lonely Village, about a musician who is forced to take up another trade.
Rahashyar Bitchaku (2012) This unusual documentary by Altaf Mazid covers the life and times of popular pulp writer Ranju Hazarika. He has been churning out stories and novels since the 1970s, and has published nearly 700 books. The unconventional narrative style uses dramatisations of scenes and characters from Hazarika’s life and work.
Manipuri Pony (2012) Aribam Syam Sharma is one of the best-known filmmakers from the North East. Manipuri Pony traces the history of polo in India, which had its origins in Manipur. The film reveals lesser-known facts about the origins of the sport and contrasts them with the current decline in status of the Manipur pony.
Tezpur 1962 (2015) Samujjal Kashyap’s documentary revisits the situation in Tezpur at the height of the Indo-China War of 1962. It also traces the contributions of members of the community-based Youth Emergency Organisation, who held their ground to protect Tezpur from Chinese invasion. “The film is a tribute to those civil soldiers and unsung heroes who took up the mantle of vigilantes despite having no defence resources at hand and were also unsure of the consequences in the face of a massive onslaught by the Chinese who were on the verge of usurping Tezpur,” Kashyap said.