The Assamese film Bornodi Bhotiai (Love, By The River), which released on 3 May, recently completed a 33-day housefull run in the state’s theatres. Previously screened only at last year’s Jio MAMI Film Festival and the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival, the film evoked unprecedented public interest despite stiff competition from Avengers: Endgame and Bollywood films like Student Of The Year 2—something even veteran film-makers from the region have failed to achieve in the past decade.
Formulaic film-making (both commercial and alternative), the drive to popularize celebrity-driven films, and heavy doses of regionalism have long been barriers to creativity for low-budget cinema in Assam. But Bornodi Bhotiai charts a unique journey, dismantling multiple conventions with one stroke. Directed by Anupam Kaushik Borah—who also plays Luit, an insurance agent, alongside actors Darathie Bharadwaj, Himanshu Gogoi and Kenny D. Basumatary—this crowd-funded film was initially conceived as a play in 2013. It’s about four men with dismal professional lives who return to Majuli, the world’s largest river island, to try their luck there. They choose a government-sponsored animal husbandry loan scheme and plan to fake the death of their goats to claim insurance.
These four young men also end up falling for the same woman, without her knowledge. Moukan (played by Bharadwaj) is alleged to have “bewitching” abilities, for which she is vilified socially—her wishing the death of an old neighbour comes true in seconds, and there’s a power cut when a TV programme she doesn’t like is playing.
Borah, 34, is the first from Majuli to make it to the National School of Drama (NSD). “My actors are my greatest hope but I am just an accidental director with a flair for satires,” he says. “During my theatre days, I would often see how Majuli is visualized in binaries. There’s the death toll in floods and there’s the majestic tourist spot—they might satisfy an ‘image’ but don’t do justice to the day-to-day narratives.”
The trials of the island’s residents, told from multiple perspectives and with authentic colloquial humour, are interspersed with hardships in the face of death (timely and untimely)—people cope with vanishing roofs, professional setbacks and romance in hilariously creative ways. Bornodi Bhotiai also has unexpected nuance, such as the use of a sneeze as a cinematic device. Luit, who suffers from a perpetual cold, is told by the mystic Brahmaputra Baba that there is no cure for it—which is symbolic of the uncertainty of life in Majuli. On the other hand, a collective sneeze from the three young men symbolizes a happy departure from their unrequited (and imagined) romance.
Basumatary, who plays Kushal Kakati in the film, and recently directed the action-thriller Suspended Inspector Boro (2018), says the director’s clarity on tone held the film together. “My first scene, where I deliver a formal speech, had about 28 words that I had never used in my life before. It was a terror—but as performers, we need not be self-aware. Anupam would tell his actors to be as real as possible. And yet the performances turned out so funny. Not many are this confident in their craft and vision.”
Bharadwaj, who plays Kakati’s “ideal” wife, believes the film has shattered the Assamese film stereotype of a damsel in distress. There is no attempt to focus on her physical appearance, nor is there the sort of melodramatic spectacle of sorrow seen in commercial Assamese serials and films. “Picking up the distinct local dialect was a learning experience for me,” Bharadwaj says. “The warmth of Majuli residents gave me the confidence. I would sit with the female vegetable sellers in the market for long hours to observe how they interacted.”
Borah’s key influences are Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar-wai: He finds humorous instances even in their conventionally “tragic” films. The same is true of Bornodi Bhotiai, from the script to the music by Tarali Sarma. One such popular melody, Tumarenu Birohot, blends heartbreak and joy. It sets the atmosphere for biraha (the sorrow of parting). Even the radio, which is perceived as a transmitter of pathos (death in floods, India-Pakistan conflicts, etc), reads out funny headlines about local occurrences, such as a growing desire for red cars among villagers.
Bornodi Bhotiai seems to signal a brave new world of Assamese cinema. But given the paucity of halls and funds, it may be difficult to sustain. Middlemen control negotiations between film-makers and movie halls in the state. If a local film overlaps with the release of a Bollywood blockbuster, these middlemen prompt the cancellation of a show or a change in screen timings without informing the director. Also, the majority of the film-makers continue to use established actors, sticking to clichéd themes that have done well in the past. They seem convinced of failure if they try something different.
Bornodi Bhotiai, however, carves a new path. The crew of 110 people, of which 105 are from Majuli, ensured that the film does not passively register the beauty of the rural landscape, or worse, make poverty “beautiful” on screen.
In the director’s own words: “It’s all about effective storytelling, really. And I learnt this long ago in Majuli, where the pursuit of art still holds a very dear place. I am not consciously trying to push across a message.”