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Interview Assam

Would always prefer a film to be released in theatres, says veteran Jahnu Barua

Barua, doyen of Assamese cinema, explains why the OTT boom may not help all filmmakers. He also speaks about Assamese identity and history and why he considers himself non-political.

Dwijiri B Basumatary

As part of her commitment to bring more attention to regional-language films of India, actress Priyanka Chopra decided to produce the Assamese film Bhoga Khirikee. The film was directed by Jahnu Barua, a multiple National award winner known for social-realist films like Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai (1987), Xagoroloi Bohu Door (1995), Konikar Ramdhenu (2003), Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (2005, Hindi) and Baandhon (2012).

The soft-spoken director has led a busy life and had an acclaimed career. While he has almost 20 films under his directorial belt, these days, one is more likely to find Barua sitting at his desk and writing, or painting a picture.

Barua spoke to Cinestaan.com about Assamese identity, history, the impact of rapidly changing forms of film exhibition, and the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic. “This pandemic was something unexpected," said Barua. "But I have been doing well. I am a positive person and have been busy writing. I have also been singing. I am not a professional singer, but I sing for myself (laughs).

"I have been reading many books. I have also been painting from time to time. So I have been doing these things. The pandemic has been rather good to me because I can rest. I am a quiet person and don’t like noise. I like calmness, the peace, the quiet.

"But of course, this is not to say the pandemic has not harmed anyone. It is very sad what this nation has been going through, those less fortunate than us.”

Reminiscing about his journey as a filmmaker, where he has donned several hats — producer, director, writer and editor — the filmmaker spoke of the roles he finds most challenging. “Writing and directing are the most challenging parts of filmmaking," he said. "Directing, because you have to take care of everything, look at everything, make sure everything is going well. And writing because that is what the film is based on. You have to write with the film in mind. You have to be able to picture it and write accordingly."

Reflecting upon the aesthetics of his films and the centrality of emotion, the director said, “Emotion is very important in my films. When you look at my heroes, they are facing so many trials. There are stories of underdogs fighting against society’s obstacles or against higher authorities. I want to make humanist portraits of such common people so emotions are definitely important.”

Coming to the current scenario and changes in the mode of exhibition of content, the veteran felt that the OTT boom needs to be observed and understood. “It all depends on who is picking the films and on what basis," he said. "I have seen how regional films from other parts of India are doing very well on these platforms. But a lot of Northeast films keep getting ignored by the bigger, more well-known platforms. It is best if these films can be released and seen in cinema halls and be commercially successful this way. I would always choose for a film to be released in theatres than on a streaming platform."

Elaborating on the thought, he said, “Theatres are a communal experience. Going to the theatres, watching a film in a dark room with others, it is like a ritual. I don’t watch films on phones or sometimes not even on TV. I think people would be missing out on a lot if they chose to watch films at home and not in theatres.”

Asked about the youth in the Northeast and their sense of heritage and identity, Barua said, “I know many young people from the Northeast who are growing up away from their homes. It is a sad situation. Many young people today are getting out of touch with their roots. They forget where they are from, they lose their sense of identity and feel lost. One should never forget where they come from, their culture. You should know your roots.”

The outspoken filmmaker has often taken a public stand on issues related to Assam, the most prominent being his opposition to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). “I would say the CAA is simply threatening Northeast identity," he said. "The government [in Delhi] does not care about the Northeast. The leadership [in the Northeast] is weak. This is why, as I said earlier, young people are losing their sense of identity.

"But I don’t see myself as a political filmmaker. I am not a political person. I am a humanist. I just think it is my duty to reflect the times we live in and stay true to that.

"I know some filmmakers do not want to do that. They make films about places and cultures and societies that are different from theirs. And that is good. But I think that eventually a true film comes from the heart and the roots of a person."

According to Barua, the Citizenship Amendment Act is threatening the Northeast because small ethnic minority groups are being swamped and their culture is being eroded. "And that is not good," he said. "This is why I think it is time for young Northeast people to get back in touch with their roots, with who they are.

"But I am not a political person," he repeated. "I have some opinions, as everyone does. But I see myself as a humanist first. My concerns are to do with humanity.”

As he awaits the release of Bhoga Khirikee, which was stalled for various reasons, Barua is also looking forward to his next project, a historical film about Lachit Borphukan, a general in the Ahom kingdom. “It’s a shame that many Indians, especially Northeasterners, do not know him," the filmmaker said. "It goes to show how the education system does not write about important Northeastern figures.

Lachit Borphukan was an Assamese general who led his army in battle against the Mughals 17 times, winning most of the encounters. In 1671, he led the Ahom kingdom in the Battle of Saraighat against the Mughal empire.

"The Ahoms, the Bodos, he united all the different peoples of Assam at a time when the Assamese were not united, and he led them into battle against this mighty empire and won," Barua said. "He essentially protected Assam and today we should all be grateful, or at least know about such a leader.”

Asked what he would advise aspiring filmmakers, Barua said, “Believe in yourself. This is the most important thing to remember when you are starting out. Be positive. Work hard. Practise self-discipline. But most importantly believe in yourself. If you don’t believe you can do something, why will other people believe you? So you have to trust that you can make a film. It is the only way you can get anything done!”