Interview Assam

We are not being welcomed by OTT platforms, says actress Zerifa Wahid on lack of opportunities for Assamese films


In an exclusive interview, the artiste-turned-politician discusses her journey in films and her plans for the future.

Dwijiri B Basumatary

Assamese actress Zerifa Wahid started out in the film industry as a child and has since worked with a range of formidable Assamese directors. Her filmography includes two films by veteran filmmaker Jahnu Barua, Bhaandon (2012) and the recent Bhoga Khidikee (2018). Her other notable films include Dwaar (2013) directed by Bidyut Chakraborty; Raag (2014) directed by Rajni Basumatary; and Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi: The River of Fables (2016). 

In an exclusive interview with Cinestaan.com, the actress talked about her journey in films so far. Zerifa considers herself blessed that her parents allowed her to act in films from a young age. She had moved to Delhi to finish her studies and when she came back to Assam, she began studying law. “All my co-actors and my directors were so kind that they gave me the opportunity to study as well during my shooting period. A lot of my exams used to happen during this period so my studies never suffered. It made me more disciplined as I have worked with some of the most disciplined filmmakers," she said, mentioning Jahnu Barua and the late Bidyut Chakraborty.

Her latest film, Bhoga Khidikee, was screened at the Guwahati International Film Festival in 2018 and is slated for theatrical release this year. The film is produced by Priyanka Chopra and was postponed due to the pandemic and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests. "I have done this film at an age where I have experienced life. Before I stepped onto the set, I had a few sessions with Jahnu Barua. The way he treats the actors is amazing. I immediately saw my character from a different perspective. He brings out the character from within you.

"Explaining the nuances of her character, the protagonist Togor, she said that while she starts off as being "very weak in the beginning, we see how she grows stronger and emancipates herself." 

She added, “Jahnu sir's direction made me go outside of myself and watch the character from a distance. This is a very rare experience to learn, but is such an important skill in life." 

Zerifa is also the first actress from Assam to start her own production company, Zerifa Wahid Productions. There were several factors that led to the move. "There were a number of reasons for starting this company but my main reason was that Assamese cinema had hit a new low phase. We didn’t have good cinema quality. There was a lack of proper film policy which would help cinema to grow as an industry.”

Starting off by producing plays, she had hoped to move into film production but the lockdown proved to be a dampener. However, she plans to produce films in all genres, including romance, drama and comedy, but her aim is to set the stories against the backdrop of Assam, catering primarily to the Northeast audience. 

Despite contributions from artistes like Zerifa, Adil Hussain, Seema Biswas and auteurs like Barua, there are still very few well-known actors and filmmakers from Assam who are known outside the region. Commenting on this lack of mainstream visibility, the actress said, "In the international film festival circuit, Assamese films are quite well known now due to the works of Sanjay Hazarika, the late Bidyut Chakraborty and Jahnu Barua, who bring film awards to India every year. The director Rajat Kamal brings many awards. Jahnu Barua has received nineteen National Film Awards! But when it comes to the commercial aspect, we are not being welcomed by OTT platforms. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and Zee5 all have a large catalogue of many Bengali, Marathi, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati and Punjabi films. But not Assamese films. There have been new Assamese films since 2011 — almost 30 to 40 — which are such good films that have done well nationally and internationally." 

Zerifa explains how 2019 alone saw the screenings of exceptional films like Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis (2019) and Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing (2018), along with Bhoga Khidikee. "But the attitude of people themselves is not welcoming. We, the Assamese and Northeast people, are shy and don't know how to approach the market or sell products. There is an absence of marketing skills." She continued, "We don't expose ourselves or put ourselves out there. Many filmmakers are happy with their films being selected in some film festivals but they are not interested in earning the money back. So the problem lies with us personally."

The multi-hyphenate artist has also recently made a move to politics. Although she started her political career more as a cultural icon, the demonstrations against the CAA united the whole cultural fraternity, which spoke up against the controversial legislation. "The whole political scenario changed in Assam. There was a realization that politics should represent us too. Jahnu Barua inspired me when he protested against the Act. He said that even if one is not a political person, one should try to understand the political situation in the state." Witnessing the lack of genuine politicians, Zerifa concluded that politics in India had become "cancerous". She joined the new party Raijor Dal, later joining Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP). “I may sound like a fool, like a young politician, but we lack genuine political figures. Hopefully, I can fill that role and do something good for our community," she added.

Several of the actress-producer's projects are in the pre-production stage. The first project is a romantic comedy about the struggles of women and men in their 40s as they navigate love, work, relationships and ageing in the city. 

Bhoga Khidikee, first screened in 2018, is slated to be released theatrically later this year.