Last winter, hundreds of houses on a hillock on the eastern fringes of Guwahati were demolished as part of an eviction drive to apparently clear a wildlife sanctuary of alleged illegal construction. Most families rendered homeless by the drive had lost their houses earlier too – to floods and erosion that ravage Assam every monsoon. Chased by the rampaging Brahmaputra river, which had swallowed up their farming land, these families had arrived in the big metropolis for survival. Cheap cartel-controlled real estate on the city’s periphery was what most could afford.

Deep Choudhury’s National Film Award-winning Alifa, which was released this month, could well be the story of one such family, told through the eyes of a pre-teen girl. The movie’s cast includes Baharul Islam, Jaya Seal Ghosh, Victor Banerjee and Prasun Gain.

Alifa lives with her daily-wage labourer parents, Ali and Fatima, and younger brother Faizal in a one-room house on a hill overlooking Guwahati. Like many displaced people, Ali has come to the city from Lower Assam’s low-lying Barpeta, fleeing the wrath of the river. The hill where he now stays with his family is part of a protected forest area. The family pays a monthly protection fee to the local forest guard to turn a blind eye to their existence.

Alifa (2018).

Choudhury confirms that his film was almost journalistic. While trekking up a hill on the outskirts of Guwahati many years ago, he had met a person named Ali. “The city looked beautiful from up there, but when I spoke to the people who lived there, they told me that their life was full of hardships,” he recalled.

Choudhury then wrote a story based on his conversations with the people living in the area. “Later I developed it into a screenplay, and I thought it turned out rather well, so I decided to make a film,” he said. Alifa is the self-taught Choudhury’s debut venture.

Alifa and her family have to contend with much more than poverty-induced suffering. They are Bengali Muslims – the most vilified community in Assam and routinely branded as “Bangladeshis” in a state haunted by the spectre of the illegal migrant. Each time Ali is late for work or fails to pay the forest guard on time, he has to undergo the ignominy of being called “Miya” – a popular pejorative alluding to his supposed dubious nationality. Even a well-meaning employer while making small talk asks if he was born on the “other side”.

Deep Choudhury.

However, Choudhury insists that he didn’t make to set out a political film that reflects on the controversial subjects of nationality and migration in Assam. “Ali just happened to be a Bengali Muslim,” he said. “It wasn’t a conscious decision. I regard cinema as a pure art form and there was no attempt to politicise.” The lack of an apparent effort to “politicise” may have actually worked for Alifa. The film does not fall into the trap of masquerading as a preachy social justice treatise.

Yet, there are no attempts to sugarcoat the problem. The film subtly but incisively points out the double standards of urban environmentalism in Assam. Even as Ali’s employer talks about urban migrants taking over protected forests areas on Guwahati’s edges, we are shown that the man himself lives in a palatial house in one of the plushest neighborhoods in the city developed by cutting the mountainside. The juxtaposition was deliberate. “When the poor do it, they are encroachers, but when the rich do it, they are given land titles,” Choudhury said.

Baharul Islam in Alifa. Image credit: Arman Productions.

Although set entirely in Assam and in ways more than one a reflection of Assam’s several complex socio-economic questions, Alifa is officially listed as a Bengali film. Choudhury employs the Mymensinghia dialect of Bengali peppered with Assamese loanwords – typically spoken by people in the state who trace their origins to erstwhile East Bengal. When asked how he felt about his movie being classified as Bengali, Choudhury said he had no choice. The Central Board of Film Certification apparently refused to recognise the production as Assamese because of the language used. “They said it was closest to Bengali, so we decided to go with Bengali,” he said. “But I’d say it is neither an Assamese film nor a Bengali film.”

Was he worried that the language often associated with illegal migrants in Assam would alienate sections of viewers in the state? “We used the language to keep the authenticity of the story,” Choudhury explained. “It is a dialect spoken in Lower Assam. And I was sure there were enough people who would watch it.”

Beyond the politics of language and identity, Alifa is at its heart a story about a young girl wanting to go to school and spread her wings when everything from nature to her parents’ troubled marriage are conspiring against her. Although this makes the movie sound like a hackneyed tale of class struggle, Choudhury’s deft touches ensure that Alifa is anything but cliched. In fact, Alifa could well be one of the bravest films to have come out of Assam in recent times.