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Dodging bullets and memories in documentary on Assam in the 1990s

Mukul Haloi’s ‘Tales from our childhood’ rewinds to the years when the United Liberation Front of Assam insurgency was at its peak.

What was it like to grow up in Assam in the 1990s and be squeezed between an insurgency and the Army? Mukul Haloi’s Tales from our childhood sets out to find out.

Haloi’s debut documentary is being screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival (January 28-February 3). Made between 2016 and 2017, the documentary comprises shards of real and imagined memories of the battle between United Liberation Front of Assam militants and the Indian Army for the state’s soul. Apart from interviews with Haloi’s family members and friends, the 69-minute film includes staged sequences in which the director’s friend wears an ULFA uniform and poses as a rebel soldier.

The documentary has been produced by the School of Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. Haloi, who trained in direction at the Film and Television Institute of India, has previously made a few short films on the subject of memory. “I have always been fascinated by the myriad strands of memory, especially personal,” the director said.

In Tales from our childhood, which Haloi has also shot and edited, two concerns merge: the hold that the past exercises on the present, and the draw of Nalbari, where he grew up. “This film was more about my growing up years rather than a political history of Assam,” he said. “How do we enter into a societal history of a time? It took me lot of years to realise this medium of entry, and I finally realised that it is memory and longing which can give me and the film a point of beginning.”

Road to home.

In Tales from our childhood, the longing for home is balanced with the knowledge of the brutality that abounded amidst the emerald fields. The war between ULFA rebels and the Army was played out at dangerously close quarters, and involved midnight knocks, blackouts, reports of young men being snatched away or killed, and families caught between the struggle for independence and the government’s hard response.

“Nalbari was the hotbed of insurgency,” Haloi recalled. “Almost everyone above 20 was somehow involved in ULFA. Our relatives and neighbours were all participating in that movement – as active members or as underground supporters. Our village experienced two major bomb blasts, numerous ambushes on the Army, kidnappings, and fringe encounters. The mornings used to begin with Army soldiers knocking on doors and searching houses. The days were filled with extreme fear and trauma.”

Local support for ULFA rebels was strong despite the crackdown, Haloi remembered. “People supported the ULFA members as they were their ‘own boys’. People risked their lives to provide them safety.” The fact that the militants were seen as locals resulted in a “personalised understanding” for Haloi’s generation. “These known faces were the models for us, to know about the movement, to be empathetic towards it.”

Tales from our childhood.
Tales from our childhood.

Staging became a handy tool for Haloi to revisit the violence of the decade, which has since abated but not disappeared. “There were hundreds of photographs, old notebooks and poems about those dead ULFA boys,” he said. “But I was not fully convinced that these mediums could transmit the feelings I was trying to express. Anjan, my childhood friend, borrowed an ULFA guerrilla uniform from a family of a dead ULFA rebel. He wore it and posed for a photograph in the backyard of my house. This was the image of ULFA for us in those times – a known face in a guerrilla uniform, walking through hills and fields, as part of the struggle for Assam’s independence.”

The act of remembering a bloodied past can often be extremely traumatic – it is with good reason that such memories tend to get repressed. For Haloi, time travel led to mixed reactions. “Sometimes, it ended up being a family reunion,” he recalled. A relative’s sister accidentally discovered a trunk full of letters and photographs of her dead brother, who was an ULFA member. Some family members and relatives recounted the deaths and disappearances without emotion. “When these tragic incidents happened almost every day, it became a part of their lives,” Haloi explained. “They don’t shock anymore, but they are definitely remembered with a tone of lament.”

Mukul Haloi.
Mukul Haloi.
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