When filmmaker Shankar Borua was first introduced to Assamese rap by an acquaintance, he was surprised by what he described as its “non-political” nature. “Rap music, as I knew it, talks about things like police brutality and racism,” Borua told Scroll.in. “But Assamese rap had pretty much turned the genre on its head.”

Borua, who holds a PhD in mass communication from the Texas Tech University in the United States, decided to fix that – by making a “political musical” set in rural Assam, from where most of the region’s rap originates.

The result is Rongeen, a drama about a rap artist who helps a school teacher-turned-politician take on a powerful local leader. The film features Kussum Koilash, one of Assam’s most popular rappers and a YouTube sensation.

Kusum plays a character loosely based on himself – a musician in from a small town in Upper Assam – but with lyrical sensibilities vastly different from his own. His critics call Koilash’s writing tone-deaf and sexist but in Rongeen, he steers clear of that territory. “The idea was to tweak his [Koilash’s] stuff a little and make it more like what rap music is all about – political songs of protest,” Borua said.

Rongeen’s soundtrack, comprising nine songs, emerged out of a “huge collaborative exercise” between Koilash and Borua, the director said. Koilash agreed. “He [Borua] wrote a skeletal version of the songs, and I did my thing after that – turned the lyrics into rap songs,” said Koilash.

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Rongeen (2019).

Rongeen, which will be released on March 15, is rooted in Assam’s turbulent history marked by militancy. In the 1990s, Domboru Borbora’s family is torn apart as the state is ravaged by a bloody insurgency and an equally oppressive state crackdown marked by extra-judicial killings. More than two decades later, Borbora (played by Shankar Borua) sets out to exact revenge by bringing down a politician, Puna Saikia, whom he blames for his family’s troubles. He grooms a middle-school teacher, Digombor Rajkhowa, to compete against Saikia in an upcoming bye-election.

Borbora and Rakhjowa have neither the muscle power nor the money to challenge Saikia. Enter rapper Pobitro Sonowal (Kussum Koilash) who allies with the duo and drives Rajkhowa’s election campaign with his catchy rap numbers. “Anyone who believes in democracy will like this film,” said Borua. “Here is a guy who took to the ballot box and not to guns to get his revenge.”

Shankar Borua’s Rongeen.
Shankar Borua’s Rongeen.

Rongeen comes out a time when the India’s indie rap music scene has entered the mainstream thanks to Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, starring Ranveer Singh as a rapper from a poor family.

The fortuitous timing, Boruah said, was “a good coincidence”, but he insisted that two films were “like apples and oranges”. He added, “The templates are very different – Gully Boy is personal and aspirational, Rongeen is intensely political. Also it is much much darker.”

Then, there is the massive difference in both films’ budgets, Kussum Koilash said. “The Assamese film industry just doesn’t have that kind of money,” the rapper added. “We make our movies on a pittance braving great hardships.”

Though Borua did not reveal budget details, the film’s end credits point to the significant financial constraints that Rongeen faced – 25 people are credited as producers. “Even if someone gave Rs 2,500, the person has been named as one of the producers,” Borua explained. “I made Rongeen begging and borrowing.”

Where money fell short, the makers tapped into Koilash’s popularity in rural Assam, where the film was shot. For the film’s crucial election rally sequences, Borua lured extras to the set with the incentive of a performance by Koilash at the end of the shoot. “They would happily stick around for four songs by him,” said Borua.

Koilash is hopeful that the film’s novelty factor, its rap soundtrack, will help bring in the audiences. “This is the first ever film from Assam set around rap music,” he said. “If nothing else, the audience will get to see and listen to something rather unique.”

Shankar Borua.
Shankar Borua.