Until 15 years ago, independent filmmakers in Assam had very few platforms to showcase their work. Locals rarely watched their short and feature length films, and there were almost no opportunities to discuss and share their experiences and build networks.

That changed in 2004 with the inauguration of Adda, an open-air film festival organised by film school graduates at a clearing near a railway crossing in Guwahati. On December 3, the Adda Short Film Festival marked the end of its 14th edition with a prize distribution ceremony, which had immense resonance for filmmakers who have cherished the opportunities made possible by the annual event.

Among them is Joyseng Joy Dohutia, a National Film Award winner who had screened his work for the first time at Adda.

Dohutia, who in 2016 made the award-winning feature-length documentary Haanduk, about an insurgency-ravaged Motok village in Upper Assam, said that Adda validated his decision to become a filmmaker. “It used to feel really good those days to be selected for Adda,” said Dohutia, who is a graduate of Dr Bhupen Hazarika Regional Government Film and Television Institute. “It was like an annual acknowledgment of your work.”

Most of Guwahati’s film festivals are of recent vintage. In September, the city witnessed the fifth edition of the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival, a glitzy event headlined by several big names and well-feted productions. The well-funded and state-backed Guwahati International Film Festival took place for the first time this year in the last week of October.

A film school spawns a film festival

In the case of Adda, its fortunes are linked to the Dr Bhupen Hazarika Regional Government Film and Television Institute, which was set up in Guwahati in 1999. “Suddenly there were so many of us who had made films or worked in them in some capacity,” said Amar Deep Gogoi, who has been on the festival’s organising committee since its inception. “But we didn’t know how to actually show them to people. Most of us came from small towns, we didn’t have the connections or the social capital to sell our creations.”

Adda began on a whim in 2004. Gogoi and his friends, filmmaker Suraj Duwarah and photographer Mohammad Sadullah, were hanging out at their usual spot at a flyover overlooking a railway crossing in Guwahati, discussing life and cinema. “Suddenly someone suggested that we start a film festival of our own and showcase our films,” Gogoi recalled. “Sadullah had hundred rupees in his pocket, which he took out and gave it to me and said, ‘This is my contribution, let’s just do it.’ Then, Suraj also gave some money, and I also put in whatever I had. That is how Adda began.”

Soon, other young filmmakers and technicians pitched in with voluntary cash contributions. Yet others donated equipment and provided logistical support. “Someone gave us the generator, someone else the projector,” Saikia said. “It was essentially a lot of goodwill and collaborative work.”

The first edition in November 2004 screened 58 short films, and attracted a fair number of curious onlookers. “Some 2000-3000 people showed up,” Gogoi said. “Since then Adda has only become bigger.”

Since 2007, the festival has been a two-day affair. Over the years, the organisers have also become more selective about the selection. This year, only 28 short films were screened, including non-fiction and animation.

Apart from professional filmmakers looking for a larger audience, the festival has been home to film enthusiasts who do day jobs that have very little do with cinema. For instance, a regular contributor to the festival, Jiten Das, is a sub-inspector with the Assam police. Das’s film this year was an animated fictionalised take on conservation titled Teteli Gos (Tamarind Tree).

Das was inspired by an animated short film called Expressions that he had watched at the 2005 edition of Adda. “I used to fiddle around at home trying to make some animations, so I decided why not submit it to Adda and let people decide what they think,” he said. The following year, his animated short film, Bholu’s Train, was screened at Adda. Since then, he has made and submitted a new film to the festival every year.

Teteli Gos by Jiten Das.

Apart from film school graduates and cinephiles, the festival attracts lapsed filmmakers who have given up their careers in cinema for mundane but stable sources of livelihood. “It’s that time of the year when all of us get together and relive our journeys,” said Rajib Phukan, a graduate of the Dr Bhupen Hazarika Regional Government Film and Television Institute. Phukan now works as a publicity officer at a private university in Guwahati.

Among Assam’s most acclaimed filmmakers and technicians who started their journey at Adda is Debojit Changmai, who won the National Film Award in 2011 for the sound design of Ishqiya. Changmai, a founding member of Adda, is a sound engineer of considerable repute in Mumbai, and has worked in several big-ticket productions, including the second installment of Baahubali. Then there is Amrit Pritam, another long-time member of the collective, who is part of the the Oscar selection committee. Pritam won the national film award for best sound designing for the Malayalam film Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja in 2010.

While Pritam and Changmai moved to Mumbai after a few years of association with the collective, there are many others who stayed back. Suraj Duwarah continues to be an integral part of the organising committee. Duwarah’s short film Encounter – his first ever – was selected as the inaugural film at the first Adda edition in 2004.

Duwarah has since made five more short films, three documentaries and one-feature length film. The feature film, Orong, won a national award in 2014. “Adda has a great significance in my career in cinema,” Duwarah said.

The festival also has its fair share of dedicated patrons, who have ensured that it runs smoothly every year. National Film Award-winning producer Rajib Kalita has been instrumental in scaling up the festival. Kalita’s production and event management company, Aucto Creation, has supported the event since the beginning.

“I earn my money though my other projects,” Kalita said. “My investment in Adda is to sustain the tradition of film-making in the region and promote up and coming filmmakers.”