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Interview Assam

This film was like a catharsis for me, says actress-filmmaker Rajni Basumatary on her latest Bodo film

On the sidelines of the Bengaluru International Film Festival, the multi-talented artiste talks about the genesis of her film and why it was crucial for her to tell the story of the far-reaching consequences of a draconian law.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Actress, writer and filmmaker Rajni Basumatary’s Bodo-language film Jwlwi – The Seed looks at the insurgency in Assam and the consequences of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). It seeks to highlight the lives of those who are left behind to deal with the consequences of the choices that men have made. It is a story of hope, found through resolute perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The film was screened at the Bengaluru International Film Festival.

Basumatary has done roles in films like Mary Kom (2014) and The Shaukeens (2014), and has written, directed and produced the acclaimed feature film Raag (2014), starring Adil Hussain and Zerifa Wahid. In an interview with Cinestaan.com, she spoke of the personal journey that she undertook to make Jwlwi – The Seed. Excerpts:

You are the writer, director, actress and producer in this film. Doing all of these roles must have been quite a challenge. Did you always intend to act in it?

It was difficult work but it’s easy mathematics for indie filmmakers like us. I am a filmmaker because I am a writer, and became a filmmaker because I mostly like to write short stories and novellas. So it was natural that I write the script, especially because the story is about the Northeast. I became a filmmaker 16 or 17 years ago, so I was going to make it, and became a producer for this film as I did not want to go door-to-door asking for funds. I went through that during the making of my last film.

My husband also decided to support me and we put in money. I also raised some money through crowdfunding on Wishberry, about Rs7 lakh. I also met my Dubai-based co-producer, Jani Viswanath, who is incredible and is doing a lot of philanthropic work. She readily agreed to finance the last part of the film. 

For the acting part, I did audition some people, but I was not satisfied. Anyway, I like acting. I was not my first choice for acting, simply because it would be too much work, but I did not have too much choice as the film is in Bodo. So it had to be someone who knew the language. 

You mentioned that this was a very personal journey for you as your brother went missing many years ago.  How much of the film comes from that experience?

A lot. I had this burden in my heart and did not make this film for so long as I was hoping, and am still hoping, that my brother will come back someday. Then the story would have been different, perhaps. But his not returning and us not getting closure was too much. This film was like a catharsis for me, and probably for other family members who went through the same thing.

In the film, you choose to focus on the lives of those who stayed behind, especially those of the women. It's similar to the situation of women in Kashmir. So there is the personal aspect in the film, but also the history of the land and the insurgency.

The situation is much deeper than what I have shown and people have gone through so much more. My brother left home in 1991 and went missing in 2003. But another brother, who was at home and stayed behind, was subjected to all kinds of torture on behalf of the brother who ran away. He had a family, but he was not spared. It's terrible that those who wanted to live a normal life were not allowed to do so. He died in a road accident and my mother said that it’s good that he died, because he was dying everyday in any case due to the torture.

How did you get to know that your brother had gone missing?

The rebel groups used to hide in the Bhutan jungles and the Indian government pressurized the Bhutan government to not allow that. So a message was sent to all the rebel groups and they were invited for talks. It seemed reasonable and they all went. It turned out to be a trap and many of the rebels were killed and many were captured. My brother was one of those who was captured... I think the name of the operation was Operation All Clear.

So in the past 25 years, I have seen that it’s mostly the women who suffer because men go. They make their choice and are either killed or on the run. But women are either half-educated or illiterate, unskilled, and the whole family is left to these women, including the responsibility of the husband’s family. That affected me a lot. It’s also difficult for these women because they do not know whether they are widows or married.

There are some grants for widows but my sister-in-law does not want to take that grant because she is hopeful her husband will come back.

You have got tremendous support from the people of your tribe because at the screening, there were so many of them who came in to support your work. Are they Bodos living in Bengaluru who just heard about the screening of your film? What has been the reaction back home?

Yes. When they got to know about the screening, there were so many of them who wanted to come for it. My target audience was the younger people, who have not seen those days. I also wanted to tell the story outside Bodoland, Assam, as hardly anyone knows about this in detail.

Our own young people do not know about this either. For me, I feel that there should be forgiveness and healing, but you should not forget because your decisions about the future will depend on the memory of your past. So, this makes me a bit uncomfortable when people say that these things happened long back, whereas it is actually recent history.

Thankfully, people have received the film very well, though there are mostly commercial films that are made in Bodoland. So this film was a refreshing change and has been received well and they are very proud of it.

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Bengaluru International Film Festival