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Interview Assam

We should make films on our people and our land, says filmmaker Manju Borah

 The award-winning filmmaker from Assam talks about the importance of making films on indigenous people, with their universal subjects, like the struggle for existence, linguistic rights and political rights. 

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Writer-turned-filmmaker Manju Borah’s work has delved into the socio-economic issues of the Northeast with a firm eye on history. A multi-award-winning filmmaker, she was one of the early women filmmakers from Assam and her first feature film Baibhab (A Scam in Verse, 1998) was awarded the Best Film at the Dhaka International Film Festival in 2000.

Her next film, Akashitorar Kathare (A Tale told a Thousand Times, 2003), looks at gender bias where a woman is forced to abandon her work and become embedded in the traditional role of a housewife. The film won the National Award for the Best Regional Film and the Best Female Playback singer for Torali Sarma. Bora's latest film, the National award-winning, The Land of Poison Women (2019), has been screened at several festivals across the country and is being screened at the Bengaluru International Film Festival, 2020. She is also part of the jury at the festival.

Borah received a senior fellowship from the ministry of culture on her work on the women folklore of Assam. Her engagement with women’s issues, as well as that of indigenous people, continues in her work. She has been a pioneer in making films in lesser known or rare languages from the North-East, a move that has encouraged other filmmakers to explore these as well.  

Talking about how she began filmmaking in Assam, Borah said, “When I came into filmmaking in 1996, I was the fourth woman director in Assam. Mainly Dr Santana Bordoloi was widely known because she made a very good film, Adajya (1996). With that film, we came into the national level. After that there was a big gap. I am making my 12th film now, and am proud of this continuity in my work."

"Five or six years back, other women too have entered the scenario. Rima Borah, Bobby Sarma Baruah, Rima Das are all there. Das is like an institution in herself, as she does everything herself, camera, sound, direction. This is very rare and we are very proud of her,” she said.

Even though her films have won several awards, the journey has not been an easy one. “I make films that are not so low-budget, as my crew includes people from different places. Getting funds is not easy, but luckily, I have some good producers, who value proper content and treatment of a film, like the technical aspects. I do not compromise in those areas,” she said.

Borah added that commercial success would perhaps enable women to make their mark in a big way in Assam, “I want some woman filmmaker who can make a commercially big film. To reach out to the common people is a very challenging job. So once you can reach out to them, one has made their mark,” she said.

Speaking about some of the challenges that she faced in her journey, Borah said, “First is finance. People have lesser confidence in women when it comes to money. For simple technical things, people will not rely on women. In fact, in technical fields, women in India are doing much better than women elsewhere in the world. But women need support from the family and from society as filmmaking is not a routine job."

"It is a 24-hour job. I started my career in films when I was already married for 16 years. Had my husband not pushed me, I would not have been a filmmaker. It’s because of him that I came into this business. I want that all girls should be independent and not look back,” the filmmaker said.

In recent times, there are films from the North-East being made in lesser known or rare languages. Speaking about this, Baruah said, “I don’t want to talk about my own work but I think I am the pioneer in this…I have done research on different women’s issues and ethnic groups. I feel that we are ignoring these [indigenous] people, without whom we are not complete. So I decided that I will make at least three films that look at indigenous people and started with the film in Mishing language, Ko: Yad (2012).

"My next film was in Bodo, which is also the language of aboriginal people in Assam and looked at their struggle for existence. The third one is that of Pangchenpa community, which has less than 5000 people, called Land of Poison Women (2019). Whether they are from the mainstream or the interiors, the status of women remains the same. It is a universal problem,” she claims.
She added, “Slowly, our filmmakers have also started making films in other languages. I feel very proud of them for coming back to their roots. And that is a very good sign. They need to do it with involvement and not for the sake of making films in different languages. Without these dialects and these people, we have no identity. We have a very complex structure of society and should explore that. We should make films on our people and our land and these subjects are universal, like the struggle for existence, linguistic rights and political rights,” she said.

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