Turbulence of a Lost Cinema Industry | Assam

By Maharshi Tuhin Kashyap

Defining Cinema is irrelevant because there hardly exists someone who has not watched one. The audio-visual medium of storytelling ,that is referred to as the combination of many other existent art forms like painting, music, dance etc., has evidently evolved into a totally new and different art form.

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Cinema is generally linked to entertainment, but as  an Art form cinema has always proved to be linked to deeper aspects than mere entertainment. Since its emergence in  the end of the nineteenth century, by the Lumiere Brothers (arguably), Cinema has always been close to existence and life. Cinema can represent the social, cultural, economical and political scenario of a society and thus, eventually, has an exclusive effect on society and vice versa.

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In India Dada Saheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra was the first feature film. Slowly, Cinema started to be made in the country and it became popular. Talkies came along and eventually, cinema went deeper into the country. Cinema was seen as a very different form of storytelling. Jyotiprasad Agarwala was one of the rare ones who understood its grave potential and finally made the first Assamese Film “Joymoti” in 1935, which engraved the roots of a flourishing Cinema Industry in the years to come. Joymati became a noted film not only for Assam but for the Indian Film Industry as a whole. It was the first film which featured a female lead actor, which was a never-seen-before phenomenon in the country. It also happened to be the movie that brought in ‘Realism’ and politics in Indian Cinema. Technically too, it pushed ahead Indian Cinema by being the first talkie film to have used Dubbing and Re-recording technology in the country. As one can see, such revolutionary was the start of Assamese Cinema that the world waited to see its magic. The industry did become well known with the very good films that it delivered.

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Another very important film maker of Assamese origin in the pre-independence era was Pramathesh Barua, who made many great cinema that changed the Indian Cinema scenario. His most famous films include Devdas, Bengal 1983, Rooplekha among others. Meanwhile, Assamese language films by various filmmakers took Assamese Cinema History ahead. Bishnu Rabha and Phani Sharma’s Siraj was a notable film. Eventually, filmmakers like Phani Sharma (Pioli Phukan), Nip Barua (Ronga Police), Bhupen Hazarika (Pratitdhwani, Shakuntala), Brajen Baruah (Dr Bejbarua, Upaja Sonar Maati) started leaving marks with their National Award winning films. Cinema now became popular. Assamese Film Industry was producing notable works every passing year. Then came a legendary film (often underrated) – Gonga Silonir Pakhi (1976) byPadum Barua. This is a cinema that re-defined the cinematic language and realism in Assamese Cinema. After that came a very long and beautiful time for the industry, when some of the most celebrated film makers of the state like Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Jahnu Barua, Manju Borah had started making the greatest and most known films towards the turn of the century. This is how smoothly the curve of Assamese films was going with immense stability. Who would have expected that suddenly by the turn of the next century, it would go into a grave depression.

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This depression went so deep that Assamese films stopped being made. There are many theoretical or logistical reasons that came up for this. Some said it was the degrading quality of the films, some said it was the competition of the industry with Bollywood that it could not survive. Many also claim that increasing terror by ULFA and their threat to plant bombs in cinema halls lessened the number of cinema goers in Assam. Many believed that it was the VCD trend that had started, brought this depression. VCDs basically used to have bihu or modern Assamese songs and a connecting storyline to make it more interesting. As they became popular, people stopped going to cinemas and started watching these VCDs as they were easily available and could be watched at home. Piracy of films also had grown immensely during this time, which was a big reason for the film makers’ loss. Some of these or all of these reasons were responsible for this depression.

Whatever the reason be, this was a huge downfall. It was so bad that the industry broke, Cinema halls almost went empty, film makers suffered huge losses and of them many (most) of them left film making. It was such a downfall that the industry is still struggling for its existence. Then again, the films which were released were not up to the mark and people grew a mindset that Assamese films are always boring and have poor storylines; the situation worsened with time.

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Meanwhile, the Mobile Theatre groups gained popularity among the masses. Many good film actors now became a part of mobile theatres. People started looking up to this kind of storytelling. And soon enough, the films that were produced had a taste of mobile theatre in them. Mobile theatre actors started acting in movies as they were the popular ones in the state now. Since mobile theatre was basically about exaggeration and melodrama, this entered into films too and somehow degraded the films produced. Now people started looking at Assamese films as exaggerated and theatrical movies that had no realism.

The industry which had introduced Indian Cinema with politics and realism was now far away from it. This was how the industry had almost left producing films. Most of the films that somehow got released were disappointing. Though there were some good attempts and socially relevant or realistic films being made, some even succeeding to get recognition in festivals or getting National Awards, people were still not going to cinemas. The tragedy continued and it seemed as if it would never stop.

When there is a void, beautiful things evolve. Turning the pages of history of cinema, it has always been evident that all the film movements across the world have arose when there was some kind of a void. The people of a country together went through depressions or massive struggles; people wanted to be heard. They wanted to tell their stories. Aftermath of World War I had started many of the film movements be it the Soviet Montage Movement or the German Expressionism. The Italian Neorealism  Movement and French New Wave also came up after World War II. If we look deeply, the people of these countries were fed up of the social and political crisis. They felt that the depression was not represented in the previously made films and thus there was a sudden urge in them that pushed the arisal of films that spoke for them.

Assam has had its share of instability for a long time now; the people have been deprived and troubled in numerous ways. The depression in the film industry adds to the frustration of film makers and film lovers of the state. In the very recent scenario, a very beautiful ray of hope that has been seen. Many young film makers have started making new films and a change seems to be coming, a positive one. The change definitely is good and people seem to be anticipating the rebirth of the lost film industry of Assam.

The amazingly scripted Indie film Local Kung Fu by Kenny Basumatary was a very unexpected gift to the Assamese audience. As it became popular, independent film makers started making films confidently. Then started the reign of some amazing films like Kothanodi, Handuk, Othello, Alifa, Dau Huduni Methai, Maj Rati Keteki, Beautiful Lives, Xoikhobote Dhemalite, Antareen, Dooronir Nirola Poja and Bokul which have been critically acclaimed by critics and film festivals around the world; many have won National Awards as well. Also, these films have been able to grab considerable audience attention. Films like Nodi Mathu Boi and Dooronir Nirola Poja have been able to touch hearts of the audience. Assamese cinema has also been growing technically and artistically. The recent films are giving very special care towards quality of mages and sounds. Avataran is a much anticipated sci-fi film. There were also a very few films which seemed to try the Bollywood style of typical commercial films. Some failed, some did make money. But is it logical to feed the audience with hopes and eventually make money from the film, finally disappointing them? Is it necessary to promote a film with shots of exotic locations, but finally disappointing the audience? Well, where there are good signs, some bad examples shall exist too.

However, the good movies have revived the possibility of a long awaited cinema revolution in Assam that would redefine Assamese Cinema and rebuild a flourishing film industry in the state. And for that to happen, we definitely need indie films as well as mainstream commercial films, experiments with the medium (cinema) and the audience; how we want to tell our stories and how people want to hear them. The hopes are strong and with internationally acclaimed films like Village Rockstars, this dream of a great film industry in Assam has been strengthening. So, Is This Revolution Coming?

(The writer is a film student and has written this with his limited knowledge and exposure. This is not a criticism, rather an expression of his feelings about the beloved film industry of his mother state)

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