Interview Assam

The struggle of real people to live despite all the odds inspired God On The Balcony: Biswajeet Bora

Biswajeet Bora, who won the Best Director award for the film at the 26th Kolkata film festival earlier this year, speaks about the film and his own journey in cinema.

Shoma A Chatterji

Assamese filmmaker Biswajeet Bora received the Best Director award for God On The Balcony (2021) at the 26th Kolkata International Film Festival held earlier this year. The film was showcased in the Indian Languages section at the popular festival.

God On The Balcony was also part of the official selection in the Indian Cinema Now section (competitive for first and second films) at the 25th International Film Festival of Kerala, also held earlier this year, and at the Dhaka International Film Festival 2021 and the ImagineIndia International Film Festival in Madrid, Spain, 2021.

The film has now been selected for screening at the Ferrara Film Festival, 2021, which is scheduled to be held from 29 May to 6 June this year.

Bora spoke about his work in cinema and specifically about God On The Balcony in a conversation with the author. Excerpts:

What inspired you to take up films as a career?

Biswajeet Bora

I wanted to become an actor and would take part in school plays. I did a couple of acting workshops, read books on cinema and drama. But there was very little exposure to world cinema for me. The small town in Assam I grew up in had just one movie theatre.

I would often bunk classes to watch films. At home, I would collect any and every film magazine I could find. I loved the Hindi mainstream and the Assamese films of the time.

When I saw absolutely no future as an actor in films in Assam, I went to Mumbai to learn and work in editing. I did a year's editing course and joined as an assistant editor at a studio. Till then, I did not have any definite dream, I was just moving with the flow.

Then how did direction happen?

Filmmaker Jahnu Barua

Everything changed when one day Jahnu Barua sir came to my studio to edit his National award-winning film Tora (2004). I got the chance to interact with him. When the work on the film ended, he asked me to join him as his assistant. My life changed. I began to dream; I could write and visualize things. I gradually found a purpose in life. I felt that filmmaking is the only way to express myself and I find happiness through my work.

Tell us about your earlier films.

My first Hindi film, Aisa Yeh Jahaan (2015), was India's first carbon-neutral film. I stepped into commercial cinema in Assam in 2016 with Bahniman, which was one of the biggest hits in the state. My next film, Raktabeez, was also a commercial hit which was released in 2018. In 2017, my film Phehujali got critical acclaim and recognition at various international film festivals.

How do you get inspired by a particular subject to make a film? 

When any subject touches my heart, I keep it inside me and muse over it for some time before arriving at a storyline. I keep brooding over the subject, study it and discuss it before drawing the story. For instance, when I made Phehujali (meaning dawn in Assamese), I was inclined towards this subject for a long time. It talked about mental illness. I have seen a very close family member going through dementia and this film was inspired by this real-life story of an aged couple. God On The Balcony, too, is inspired from a true event.

So, how did the idea for God On The Balcony come about?

Some years ago, I read about Odisha’s Dana Majhi who carried his wife’s dead body for almost 10km. It disturbed me. I kept it inside me. I was born and brought up in Assam. Since childhood I have been witnessing these kind of real stories. People suffer in different ways due to negligence and underdevelopment, but few care for their grievances. Their struggles to live life despite being suffocated in many ways inspired me to take up this subject. Their little hopes, joys and happiness are what motivated me to pen this story of their daily struggle.

How long did it take for the film to happen in reality?

The journey of God On The Balcony began almost four years back. Initially I wanted to make the film in Hindi and had decided to cast Suniel Shetty in the main role. I met him once and after hearing the script, he agreed to do the film. But as I got more deeply involved, I could not see Khagen Das [the protagonist] in him. So, I dropped the idea and moved on with other films. Two years back, Noorul Sultanji, the producer of God On The Balcony, approached me. When he heard the story, he agreed to produce it.

Which area of Assam do you belong to and which area did this tragedy happen in?

I am from Golaghat district of upper Assam. We would often come across many cases. The remote villages of Majuli island and the villages of Dhenaji and Lakhimpur districts are witnesses to similar incidents. Due to floods every year, people in these parts go through critical struggles of survival we cannot even imagine. Imagine people waking up in the morning amidst devastation caused by floods — no homes, no roads, no food. Many shift base during floods as they do not have any permanent homes.

Such stories are real and the pain is real. I have just tried to show a part of their struggle through God On The Balcony. I do not know how much I have succeeded. I just hope I am able to convey something urgent that needs to be addressed. I have also put a few real clippings of those areas at the end of the film.

How did you choose your cast?

I make an image of a character while I am thinking of and writing the script. Sometimes I find my characters in actors, sometimes I don’t. But at the end of the day, as the director my job is to get the best out of each actor.

In God On The Balcony, for the protagonist Khagen Das, I was looking for an actor who looks real, slim body with intense eyes. Then someone told me about Harish Khanna and when I met him, I found my Khagen!

Before the shoot, I always make sure the actors have understood the characters well. I want them to understand what I want. I spend time with them although I give them complete freedom. I want them to get hold of the mood of the film. For other [members of the] cast in the film, we shortlisted a few before finalizing upon the main cast.

How long did it take you to shoot the film, specially on location?

God On the Balcony was shot in the real locations of Dergaon, in Golaghat district. It took 16 days for us to complete the film. It took seven months to complete the film from conception to the CBFC [Central Board of Film Certification].

How did you organize the finance?

For God On The Balcony I was looking for a producer who understands this kind of cinema and someone who has complete faith in me. Sultanji, who had earlier got the National award for his film Jetuka Pator Dore, suddenly came to my set for an earlier film and expressed his desire to make a film. He is one of the most comfortable producers I have worked with. [Nurul Sultan produced the film under the banner of Maina Productions.]

What hurdles did you face during the location shoots? 

We shot mainly in January, when the weather was awesome. We completed the shooting as per schedule, but problems occurred when we began post-production in Mumbai because of COVID-19. The post-production was hassled.

When you watch the film today, what is your response?

I feel I could have done many things. It disturbs me sometimes. As an independent filmmaker, despite being unhappy, we cannot go and reshoot though we may want to because of budget constraints. I still feel for God On The Balcony I needed two more days to shoot.

What next?

My next film Boomba Ride’s editing is complete. The film is in the Mising language (spoken by the Mising tribe in Assam). I hope people will get a different taste through Boomba Ride.

Besides Boomba Ride, we have announced the biggest budget epic film Sati Sandhani, based on the life of Chutia queen Sadhani. The film is being produced by the Chutia Student Union of Assam with the help of the Assam government.

What do you feel about the present state of Assamese cinema in particular and of the Northeast in general?

Assamese cinema is growing; films are getting appreciated all over. A few films are doing good business in the local market. So, I am hopeful being a part of this industry.

Many filmmakers are emerging in the Northeast now and getting appreciation worldwide. This region is very rich in terms of culture and traditions. There is an exponential growth [in the number] of people from the Northeast who are willing to work in the film and music industry. I feel happy seeing young people from my region doing great work outside too.

The digital medium has changed the scenario of films. The good news is that anyone can express their thought, their vision in an affordable manner. But I would like to add that since cinema is a medium of expression, it must be dealt with very carefully. Both the content and the overall aspects of a film are important. The same economy is also creating bad software in films when dealt with by amateur hands. Quality is missing in their work.

How do you define cinema?

For me, cinema is the most comfortable medium to express my thought, vison or views. It is the most beautiful expression of one’s emotions and thoughts. I feel happy when I see my characters, when I work on my stories, and when I express myself through my thoughts. The joy of articulating myself through cinema is inexpressible. It makes me happy, but when I move forward with some other projects that happiness becomes a memory. So, my life moves on with cinema. Cinema is the most powerful medium as it has the capacity to impact every life in one way or another.

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