Mizoram is perhaps best known for its sweeping stretches of bamboo and an upcoming, no-holds-barred rock scene. What no one really talks about is its cinema, because, well, there has been nothing quintessentially 'Mizo' about the films produced in the state yet. Poor imitations of Hollywood and Bollywood films starring enthusiastic but untrained locals abounded in Mizoram. That was until Mapuia Chawngthu entered the scene.
In August 2012, 39-year-old Chawngthu released what is how being hailed as the first Mizo film. Khawnlung Run, a historical film, will also be the first Mizo film to be screened at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) at Goa between November 20-30. With what most critics would call a rather late realisation, for the first time since the festival's inception 44 years ago, IFFI will host a special segment on the cinema of the Northeast. The segment, 'Focus Northeast' will screen 23 films from the region, made over the past 80 years.
Over the telephone from Mizoram, in impeccable, almost lyrical Hindi, Chawngthu expresses gladness, but says he isn't "overjoyed or anything". He says Northeastern cinema is so used to snags and disappointment, that he prefers to wait and watch how this opportunity plays out.
Khawnlung Run is a true story based on the first and last attack on the village, Khawnlung, in 1859, which wiped the settlement off the map. Unlike other parts of Mizoram which saw frequent inter-tribe wars, Khawnlung was considered a sound area until it was attacked then. Homes were burnt and women and children were mercilessly killed or abducted for slavery. Khawnlung Run is Chawngthu's first feature film after directing more than 200 local music videos in his career.
"Bas lat lag gayi thi (I was just obsessed)." That is Chawngthu's reply when asked why he chose to make a feature film in and on state which has no filmmaking culture to speak of yet. Chawngthu made Khawnlung Run on a budget of Rs 10 lakh, which he garnered himself over five years. Chawngthu was born in Mizoram but grew up in Ghaziabad. As he returned to Mizoram in 2002, he carried a second-hand handycam sold to him by a Burmese and a faint ambition to shoot a film. Between 2002 and 2012, he shot documentaries for various government departments and Doordarshan. "What I really wanted to do is tell a story which was Mizo at heart. Mizoram doesn't have a filmmaking culture. You'd probably smirk at the kind of films that are made here - blingy and garish in the name of glamour, and they all look like their predecessors."
Almost a year after it released on DVD in Mizoram, the film has earned Chawngthy Rs six lakh, a number he considers beyond imagination. "On the up side, I think being part of IFFI will obviously direct more attention on Mizoram's first film. My film was a part of the CineASA Guwahati International Film Festival this year, too, and I got an offer to be cinematographer on an Assamese film. But the move didn't translate into more funds being pumped into Mizoram's films. I hope being part of IFFI translates into funding and attention on Mizoram."
A dedicated space for Northeastern cinema at IFFI definitely seems to have attracted its share of pats and expectation - more attention to the states' filmmaking ethos, limelight on newer and younger filmmakers' efforts and, hopefully, emergence of a more nuanced and authentic narrative of an otherwise neglected region.
However, not everyone is abroad the heady, celebratory bandwagon. Bitopan Borborah, senior film critic from Assam, and director CineASA Guwahati International Film Festival, does not feel that the inclusion of these films will hugely impact northeastern cinema. "As a unit and an entity, most people in the country find the Northeast bizarre - not many viewers know the difference between, say, the cultures of Assam and Nagaland. In addition to this, ethnic societies in these mountains themselves are parochial - I think it is too ambitious to find sensitivity at an international festival when the regions themselves are struggling with the necessary tools for understanding their own cinema. Assam, for instance, has less than 50 cinema halls today. Half of them become dysfunctional during strikes. Mizoram, which had produced its first film now, has no cinema halls at all! Arunachal Pradesh has two or three functioning theatres."
Borborah believes that the government has not accomplished much when it comes to laying a strong cinematic foundation in the Northeastern states yet. Lip service of Northeastern cinema at IFFI, then, can do little to change much for filmmaking in the states, he adds. "During the CineASA Guwahati International Film Festival, I see how international embassies, the Swiss for instance, are involved with the smallest detail before and after the screenings of their films. They look for opportunities which go beyond the screening - they look for ways to promote tourism, boost Swiss culture through their films, and so on. We, too, need the government to take a more holistic approach. Northeastern societies have seen brutal clashes, unimaginable disasters and seemingly impossible stories of survival - where is all of that being played up at IFFI?"
Simply put, films needs money, and Northeastern films even more. "The Directorate of Film Festivals refuses to finance the international festival in Assam. The first two years of the festival, which began in 2005, were defeating. Now, after years of taking it to educational institutions and other venues across the states, viewers identify with the films. If you want to create a consciousness for the films of the Northeast, that's how long-drawn the process is. There are no short cuts, because the region's cinema is not like your regular filmy fare."
Borborah welcomes the move and feels like a tiny window might open up to the Northeastern states after IFFI, but the government cannot ignore cinematic literacy on ground. "Smaller towns need to be exposed, repeatedly, to such cinema to fully grasp its content. It is a process, not a one-off gala event," he says.
Mumbai-based Assamese Film critic, Jahnu Baruah, says he is surprised it took the government 44 years to realise that the region with the most diverse, vibrant cultures has cinema to match, "It is a classic case of ghar ki murgi dal barabar (home-grown talent is barely recognised for its worth)," says Baruah with a chuckle. "If you look closely, the surge of cinema in the Northeast in the past five to seven years is a result of dogged filmmakers - it has always been about individual efforts, not government intervention. They have created their own space, their own competition."
Baruah points out a factor that has long plagued the region's locals, filmmakers and critics, and has made them rather belligerent. "The culture and people of Northeast are clubbed as if they are homogenous. In the Indian Panorama section at IFFI, for instance, there are six Malayalam films, five Hindi, Five Bengali and only one Assamese film, which is supposedly representative of the Northeast. Is that supposed to mollify the starkly different cultures of seven states? Yes, the world will focus on the Northeast through the inclusion of a special segment - but are you highlighting the heterogeneity of the states at all here. I'd like to see an authentic representation of the states rather than a superficial one."
Dondor Lyngdoh, the 31-year-old Meghalayan filmmaker, whose film, Ka Lad, will be screened at IFFI, says he sees the platform as a purely networking one. "I am in touch wil filmmakers whose films have been screened at earlier editions of IFFI, and some of them have reached someplace better after that. I hope negotiating with financiers will be easier after my film's screened at Goa. For Ka Lad, my friend and I paid untrained actors from our pocket - I hope we will not have to resort to that anymore."
Ka Lad tells the story of the changing landscape of Shillong in the name of development. The film traces the stories of locals - a barber, a pan wala and a contractor, caught in the web of their memories and forced to make new ones. It was made on a meagre budget of Rs seven thousand in January 2012.
The forthcoming screening means much to Lyngdoh, whose earlier film, 19/87, which was about ethnic clashes in Shillong, did not really make it to film festivals. Ka Lad, too, will see its first international screening only at IFFI this year. "No filmmaker from Shillong has ever made it big. This might just be my chance at that," smiles Lyngdoh.
‘Hope to portray the region’s journey through time’
Utpal Borpujari, a National-award-winning filmmaker and critic, has curated the section which will focus on films from the Northeast at IFFI. The segment will include performances by artistes from the states of the region and a panel discussion with Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi from Arunachal Pradesh, Aribam Syam Sharma, social activist-author-editor Patricia Mukhim from Meghalaya, actress Meena Debbarma from Tripura, Manju Borah from Assam, Mapuia Chawngthu from Mizoram, Prashant Rasailly from Sikkim and Tianla Jamir from Nagaland.
"The move was much-awaited," says Borpujari. He adds that the challenge now is to represent the region sensitively and amass films which will highlight the difficult, 80-year-long cinematic journey of the Northeast. Borpujari says he has chosen to screen Rupkonwar Jyo tiprasad Aru Joymoti, a documentary directed by Dr Bhupen Hazarika on the making of "Joymoti", the first film in the North East made in 1935 by Jyotiprasad Agarwalla. The documentary contains the only surviving portions of "Joymoti". He will also screen the first Manipuri film made in 1935, which was also the first film to come from the Northeast region.
"Focus Northeast is not only about screening the region's films, but also a chance of rediscovering prints of the films we have lost over time. I see this as a way of giving viewers a comprehensive, cognitive view of the region's folklore, music and ethnic diversity," says Borpujari.
The segment, he hopes, will also throw more light on other related aspects of the region, such as its literature, notable locals and ongoing research projects, which could then forge newer ties. "Digital technology is democratic, and filmmakers from the Northeast are really depending on that access to make themselves heard. There are tribes in the Northeast which have never been represented in cinema until now, and I hope this segment gives viewers a sense of the cinematic journey of the region and place it in historical context."