Witch-hunting’ in Assam may make for a grisly sight and involve complicated narratives, but Assamese filmmaker Utpal Borpujari wants to add something childlike and earnest to the issue, and look for solutions, such as making a children’s film on the subject.
Borpujari’s script for Ishu was the only non-European entry for the co-production market of Cinekid, the world’s largest film, television and cross-media festival for children, held at Amsterdam on October 26.
The script, presented by the film’s producer Nila Madhab Panda (who also directed I Am Kalam in 2010), was one of the 15 film scripts presented before a panel of international co-producers, distributors and sales agents.
Besides these, 15 television and 10 cross-media projects, all European, were presented at the festival. “Cinekid is one the best platforms a filmmaker can hope to introduce his film to; you never know where it can take you — international distribution rights, sales abroad — the possibilities are endless,” he says.
Ishu is set in Goalpara, among the Rabha tribals in Assam, where ‘witch- hunting’ is rampant. Ishu is an adaptation of the novel by the same name, written by Assamese writer Manikuntala Bhattacharjya. “More often than not, ‘witch hunting’ in many parts of Assam and Jharkhand have a property or sexual harassment angle and involves quacks. Ishu is about a seven year-old boy who witnesses and gets involved in a case where a local is branded a witch because she has knowledge of medicine, which threatens the local quack.
The film, however, will be devoid of violence. “The book is quite violent, just like the process of ‘witch-hunting’, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate in a children’s film,” says Borpujari.
Ishu will star members of the Badungduppa Natya Kendra, a theatre group of the Rabha community. “I don’t think actors from any other community will be able to have the tribals’ body language or get into their skin — which is vital for a story as sensitive as this. This is also the reason why I decided to make the film in Assamese. I know making a children’s film in Hindi or English would have been a better commercial decision, but what if that compromises the authenticity of the film itself? There are some difficult stories which need to be told, and their ethos can be maintained only if they are told in their original language,” says Borpujari.
Ishu, adds Borpujari, is dedicated to Birobala Rabha, an Assamese crusader who was once branded a witch but escaped death. “I plan to meet her when I begin shooting the film next year. It was difficult getting any sort of information on this practice because the Rabhas are a tight-lipped community — they barely interact with outsiders, and did not divulge much when I conducted a few recces in their area before writing Ishu’s script. Often, I stood outside homes of women who were either branded witches and killed, or men who were serving time in jail for the womens’ murders. And not one soul divulged any detail.”
Borpujari says he will ensure that the tribals can watch the film, too. “The Rabha community is seeing a surge in efforts to abolish ‘witch-hunting’ with the intervention of social campaigns and activists, but many still feel it is the right thing to do. That is why I plan to organise mobile theatre screenings for them. They are ones who, I hope, take the strongest message home.”