North-East by North-East
How directors from the North-East are bringing local flavour to everythingfrom musical documentaries to vigilante films
Last year, Manipuri director Haobam Paban Kumar’s Lady Of The Lake won the Golden Gateway award, the top prize in the Indian competition section, at the Mumbai Film Festival. With an Assamese film, Aicheng Jai Dohutia’s The Hidden Corner, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the same festival, it helped focus the cinephile community’s attention on the diverse and often impressive cinema that’s been emerging from north-east India in the last couple of years. And it’s not just arthouse film: Assam’s Kenny Basumatary released the sequel to his cult favourite Local Kung Fu in April. A one-off screening of the film in Mumbai in June nearly brought the house down.
The North-East makes for a great setting, but as Rock On 2 showed earlier this year, borrowing the scenery while simplifying the politics has predictably dispiriting results. We have collected, instead, four new features by film-makers who belong to the region and have an authentic perspective on local culture, politics and daily life.
Karma Takapa is part of a small but concerted wave of arthouse cinema from the North-East. Ralang Road, selected for the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, will now screen at the Mumbai Film Festival next month (12-18 October).
Takapa’s film is an experimental feature set in southern Sikkim, in and around Rabong and Takapa’s native village of Borong. All the actors, barring two, were locals with no acting experience. The narrative weaves together a handful of interconnected stories, with the ever-present fog almost a character in itself . “I was aware of the overwhelming presence of the fog," Takapa says over email. “The crew was prepared for it—everyone embraced the cold and the perennial fog."
Takapa says that “the idea wasn’t to narrate as much—it was more to resonate an atmosphere and create evocative moments through that". There is, indeed, little explanation as to why the few dramatic events in the film take place. Simply but fetchingly shot, and often very funny, Ralang Road goes from Kaurismäkian comedy to Lynchian psychodrama even as it gives us a feel for everyday life in this corner of Sikkim, with scenes in restaurants, barber shops and amphitheatres.
Rima Das is not only the director of Village Rockstars, she’s also the screenwriter, executive producer, editor, production designer and cinematographer. Das, who was born and raised in Assam, dove headfirst into the world of film-making several years ago. “I bought a digital camera, a Canon 5D, and just began making short films, began experimenting," she says. This led to her first short film, Pratha (2009), which was selected for several short film festivals.
Village Rockstars is set in Chaygaon, the village Das grew up in. It’s a story about a young girl with a big dream—to buy a guitar and form a rock band. Das weaves in multiple layers to paint a realistic picture of life in a small village. “I was very influenced by Satyajit Ray’s films," she says. “It was when I saw Pather Panchali that I realized I should make films that concentrate on my village—the place where I know the people and the tradition so well."
Snippets of life in the village made it to the screen; for example, calamitous floods play a big role in the film, but none of it is manufactured or exaggerated. “I would be in waist-high water or up in a tree, and trying to balance and shoot with my camera," she says. “It was tough. Managing a boat during the floods was also difficult. Especially because, during an actual flood, there aren’t really any boats to spare. Plus, there was the added responsibility of the children. There were a lot of risks, but it worked."
Scratches On Stone
Through remembrances and material objects (photographs, carvings, graffiti), Scratches On Stone tracks the troubled history of Nagaland. The film, produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) and directed by Amit Mahanti—who was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, and lives in Delhi—has a quiet, elegant surface, but with undercurrents of anger and sorrow.
The spectre of the army and its mostly antagonistic relationship with the state’s citizens hangs over the film. We’re told that the groups fighting for Naga sovereignty celebrate Independence Day on 14 August, a day before the rest of the country. One man, from Longkhum, relates how his people lost their belongings when their houses were destroyed in the 1940s; they escaped to the forest and watched as their granaries were burnt.
Nyago Ete shot Orunasol Man in his hometown of Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh. “It’s a superhero film but set in a realistic world," Ete, 21, says over the phone. In the trailer, a vigilante crimefighter, Orunasol Man (a joke-y nod to the local pronunciation of “Arunachal"), punches and kicks his way through the Itanagar underworld. It opens with a quote from Kick-Ass, but Ete says over the phone that his film isn’t as tongue-in-cheek. The trailer suggests a fondness for lean action films like The Raid but, considering the slender budget of Rs5 lakh, it might end up looking like a serious cousin of Local Kung Fu with its do-it-yourself aesthetic.
This is Ete’s first feature; he’s made five shorts before this, including a dry run for Orunasol Man. Most of his shorts are inspired by Iranian cinema, he says. “French New Wave, Iranian film—these are my inspirations. But growing up, superhero films were my favourite thing." He shot Orunasol Man with his classmates from the Symbiosis Institute of Media & Communication, Pune, where he was studying mass communication until earlier this year. The film is mostly in Hindi, with a smattering of English, Assamese and other languages. “Out here, every other district speaks a different language," he says. “There are more than 30 (dialects)." Ete says the film is set to release in theatres across the North-East in October.
Up Down & Sideways
In February, a four-and-a-half-minute fund-raising trailer for Kho Ki Pa Lü (Up Down & Sideways) surfaced. If this trailer is anything to go by, this documentary could be one of the highlights among the Indian titles screening at the Mumbai Film Festival.
The film, set in a village near the India-Myanmar border, is described as a “musical portrait of a community of rice cultivators from Nagaland". In the trailer, workers sing in the field, choirs practise in a church, and nature chips in with its own harmonies. The effect, even in this brief glimpse, is mesmerizing. The film, by Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar, is partly crowd-funded, and partly funded through a grant from India Foundation for the Arts.
Pahuna: The Little Visitors
Paakhi A. Tyrewala’s film is about two Nepalese children (and a baby) struggling to survive as refugees in India. It was shot in Sikkim with a local cast of unknown actors, written and performed entirely in Nepali, and directed by a first-time film-maker. The film, which premiered this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, was produced by Priyanka Chopra’s Purple Pebble Pictures. “The film talks about issues such as the refugee crisis, such as the displacement of children," Chopra said at the premiere. “Sikkim is a very small state in India," Tyrewala said at the screening. “Even in India, it doesn’t find a voice. So for me it’s such a great honour that its voice will be heard here, on a global stage."