Anupam Kaushik Borah’s voice quivers with excitement when he talks about Majuli, the place he grew up in and still calls home. “I have a huge amount to things to tell people about Majuli,” the National School of Drama alumnus told Scroll.in. “All my stories are from Majuli.”

So it comes as little surprise that Borah’s directorial debut, Bornodi Bhotiai, is set on the river island on the Bramhaputra River in Assam. Majuli is what drives Bornodi Boithai, which had its world premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival’s India Story section.

Borah said he wanted to make a film about the place’s “community life”, something that went beyond the typical representation of the river island in popular culture. “The story of Majuli told by outsiders is about extremes: Majuli as this island of doom eaten away by floods and erosion or Majuli as this colourful world heritage centre,” he said. “But there is space for the moderate too.”

Considered the world’s largest river island, Majuli is a biodiversity hub and home to a unique form of Vaishavism in Assam. But large-scale soil erosion is chipping away at the district, the land area of which has decreased from 1,256 sq km in 1951 to about 500 sq km. In recent years, frequent flooding has made the problem worse.

Anupam Kaushik Borah.
Anupam Kaushik Borah.

It is difficult to slot Bornodi Bhotiai into a genre. The film has many sub-plots and liberally employs magic realism – which, Borah said, was a common storytelling tool in rural Assam. “One gets to hear about some incredible stories here,” he said. “The real incident may have been simple, but with time and distance there is exaggeration, and then finally it becomes a chamatakar [magic]. So, the magic is often in the narration, not the story itself.”

At its core, Bornodi Bhotiai is about four friends and their aspirations. After disappointing stints in the big cities, the young men return to the island and together open a goat-rearing farm. But a business interest isn’t all they have in common – the four of them are also in love with the same woman, whom they claim was the reason for their return to Majuli. “She can get anyone back to Majuli,” one of them dreamily says to another.

Bornodi Bhotiai. Courtesy Anupam Kaushik Borah.
Bornodi Bhotiai. Courtesy Anupam Kaushik Borah.

The shared love interest, however, causes little awkwardness or tension in their friendship, partly perhaps because none of them makes a serious attempt to woo her. “All of them are very much in love with the woman, and dream of a beautiful future with her, but they have no plan at all to get the girl,” Borah said.

This lack of practical application, Borah claimed, was also a feature of Majuli. “It’s not just in case of love but otherwise also – young men think of so many things, but they have no specific plans to achieve any of those dreams,” he said. “I have experienced it myself. There’s some sort of disconnect. It’s probably the river, that you still have to take a ferry to reach there [Majuli, from Assam’s mainland].”

Bornodi Bhotiai does mention that floods that ravage the island every monsoon, like clockwork. “I could not have completely ignored [it],” said Borah.

But most of the references are subtle and open to the viewer’s interpretation. For instance, one of the boys is named Luit, which is what the Brahmaputra is called in many parts of Assam. Luit, played by Borah himself, develops a peculiar chronic cold. This character, the filmmaker said, alludes to the state’s tackling of the frequent deluges. “Even a cold can become fatal if not treated in time,” the director explained. “The intensity of floods increased in Assam after the earthquake of 1950, but we never bothered to deal with it then, now it’s become untreatable.”

There are many such discreet metaphors in Bornodi Bhotiai, though the film works even if you miss them. The title too, which translates to “The River Flows” (although the film’s official English title is In Love, By The River) is metaphorical “for life itself,” said Borah. “People in Majuli have accepted floods and erosion as a part of living there; life moves on.”

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Bornodi Bhotiai (2018).