Almost 80 people have lost their lives after being hunted down as witches in the last six years in Assam. Most of those who were killed were women. The popular narrative that exists regarding witch-hunting is that ‘superstitious tribal groups in the villages due to lack of education and scientific temperament target people as witches’. The Assamese film Aei Matite, the first film on witch-hunting in Assam, debunks this myth and asks: why is that most victims are women? Mostly single, relatively well-to-do women, such as widows. So, of course superstition has very little to do with it. Most of the survivors and their families in the film point out the fact that the attacks were well-planned with the intent to usurp property or land. The film directed and produced by Cotton College Principal Sitanath Lahkar is all set to release on 6th October this year, and is a telling critique of the present socio-economic scenario of Assam.
While witch hunting has existed in certain tribal groups such as the Mishings for centuries, the current practice of hunting women as witches goes beyond such age-old practices. Also, the practice is now spreading to non-tribal groups or tribal groups with no known history of witch hunting. What does this indicate then? The answer is beautifully encapsulated by the film which shows the widespread corruption and nexus between religious leaders (ojhas), politicians, local gundas and contractors. All of them have a stake in keeping ‘witch hunting’ alive so that dissenters can be easily removed without arousing suspicion. When the main protagonist, a journalist for Amar Axom decides to leave her job to go to a Rabha village to write about witch-hunting, she is sheltered by a local school teacher, loving called Apha (father) by everyone. She is ultimately successful in writing a series of investigative reports on the village that bring to light how the local contractors (ex-militants) and ojha are hand in glove to ensure that land grabbing can be suitably disguised under the garb of ‘witch-hunting’. She is adequately assisted by a Maths professor and his students, a strong female tribal leader, Apha and his family and other people of the village. It shows how a collective effort can end inequality and injustice, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Cinema with a social message is the most lethal weapon to challenge present hierarchies and injustices. Kudos to the cast and crew for making a film with a strong social message that also has its lighter moments.
Written by- Nasreen Habib