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Kenny Basumatary: Fight for freedom

Kenny Basumatary on playing Netaji in 'Raag Desh', making the 'Local Kung Fu' movies, and being unassumingly political

Kenny Basumatary in ‘Raag Desh’.
Kenny Basumatary in ‘Raag Desh’.

Even by indie standards, Kenny Basumatary’s debut feature, Local Kung Fu (2013), was a low-budget film. It was made for Rs95,000, given to Basumatary by his mother. Most of the actors in the Assamese film, which was directed, shot and edited by Basumatary, were family members and friends. His uncle, who runs a martial arts academy in Guwahati, where the film is set, supplied trained fighters. The result was like a fun, original cross between a low-budget action film like El Mariachi and a family-friendly Jackie Chan-starrer.

The sequel, Local Kung Fu 2, set in Tezpur, released in April in Assam. It was made on a budget of Rs28 lakh, with money for post-production raised through crowdsourcing (it is available for paid viewing at Basumatary, who has acted in Shanghai and Mary Kom, plays one of the protagonists in both the Local Kung Fu movies.

It is somewhat funny that a film-maker with such DIY credentials initially fell in love with the big-budget, special effects-heavy blockbusters of Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. “As a kid I wanted to make huge sci-fi films like them. All those effects were really big back in the day," says Basumatary, who is playing Subhas Chandra Bose in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Raag Desh, a film about the Indian National Army (INA) trials that releases in theatres on 27 July.

I’ve interviewed Basumatary twice over the phone—the first time was for Local Kung Fu. The only time I’ve met him was at a protest gathering in Mumbai opposing the government’s appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the chairperson of the Film and Television Institute of India, in 2015. At the time, I did not notice what Dhulia, director of Paan Singh Tomar, did—the uncanny resemblance to Bose.

In a film that revolves around three INA soldiers who were tried for treason against the British Indian army, Basumatary’s character doesn’t have a lot of screen time. But the role is of great significance, both in terms of Bose’s historical stature and his relevance today. Basumatary’s earliest memory of Bose is not from history books, but from the panels of Amar Chitra Katha comics. A year ago, when the chance came to play Bose, he devoted himself to reading books on him, listening to radio broadcasts and watching video recordings.

Has his perspective on the radical nationalist changed? Basumatary, 36, says he is non-confrontational by nature, but understands the need to consider the context of Bose’s actions. “Bose decided that independence couldn’t have been achieved in diplomatic ways but had to be taken by force. His belief was that there were 70,000 Englishmen who were controlling 380 million people. His game plan was to get 50,000 soldiers to drive the British out," says Basumatary.

Kenny Basumatary in ‘Raag Desh’.

Raag Desh, produced by Rajya Sabha TV, is a condensed version of a forthcoming miniseries on the trials. Basumatary says he was initially wary as the film was being produced by the government, given that its supporters sometimes portray Bose as a “macho idol". But he had faith in Dhulia’s world view, which matches his.

At one point in the film, for instance, Netaji is shown visiting a Chettiar temple in Burma (now Myanmar). “In the scene, the priest tells two of his Muslim officers to leave the temple. Bose says, ‘I want to pray for the country and that includes everyone.’ When Netaji and his officers come out with tilaks on their foreheads, Bose says, ‘Our religion shouldn’t show on our faces, otherwise the country will be divided even before it is united,’" says Basumatary.

Dhulia decided to cast Basumatary as Bose while they were working on his next film, Yaara, which releases in October—he plays one of the leads in the period gangster epic. Besides Basumatary’s physical resemblance to Bose, says Dhulia, “it also helped that he is a thinking artist".

Basumatary can be political in unassuming ways. In Local Kung Fu 2—an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors, involving the mix-up of two sets of twins, where one pair knows kung fu and the other doesn’t—one of the lead characters turns out to be gay. This revelation isn’t designed as a big coming out—it is instead employed as just another piece of information. Later in the film, Basumatary conveys a non-preachy message about homophobia. “That’s my way of putting things across. Like Raju Hirani’s films, which run to full houses and yet make a point in a wonderful, non-preachy way," he says. Local Kung Fu 2, which was shot simultaneously in Hindi, might be released as a web-series later this year.

Basumatary had lashed out at cinema hall owners in Assam when Baahubali 2 muscled Local Kung Fu 2 out of theatres before the latter could enter its second week. It sparked a debate on whether a policy similar to that of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu (where a certain number of shows are reserved for local language films) should be introduced by the state government. It was debated in the local media and won support from the Assamese film industry.

Basumatary doesn’t blame the hall owners alone; there aren’t enough quality Assamese films that people would go to theatres to watch, he says. But many a time, he says, the ones that do manage to get people’s attention don’t get a long-enough run to break even (Local Kung Fu 2 earned Rs22 lakh in its first week—a decent sum, according to Basumatary). Part of the problem stems from the shortage of screens. In 2003, the separatist outfit United Liberation Front of Asom organized a series of bomb blasts in cinema halls across the state to drive home its demand for a ban on Hindi films. A large number of halls shut down. “There used to be about 150 screens 15 years ago. Now there is half of that," says Basumatary.

Basumatary left Assam to study computer engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi in 1999. He quit four years later and went back home. He worked as a newsreader in Guwahati for three years while working as an actor in local TV serials. One day, speaking to one of his uncles, he realized he needed to move to Mumbai to make it big in movies. “I told him, ‘I’m comfortable.’ He said, ‘If I was your age, I wouldn’t be comfortable, I’d be fighting for my dreams.’"

And Basumatary did.

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