We speak to Assamese film director Bidyut Kotoky on the cinema he makes and the stories behind them
With reference to the Northeast, the dominant narrative is of a region marred by conflict. In your second feature length film Guns n Guitars, you chose to reflect on a different aspect of the Northeastern states: their close affinity to music. Why did you choose to do so? And, your film also talks about violence in a matter-of-fact way, how did the two contrasting themes come together?
For the past 40 years now, Lou has been organizing an annual concert on Bob Dylan’s birthday and now this has become somewhat of an occasion in itself. As we were discussing the music scenario in the Northeast on a drive together, I asked Lou about this concert. He explained that one day way back in the 1970s, he had felt a strong urge to thank Mr Dylan for the way his songs had touched Lou’s life, and rather than write him a postcard, he thought of thanking him with a birthday concert. Since the concert was very popular with the local audience, he was requested to repeat it the next year and the year after and the trend continues till date.
Lou told me on a May morning in 2011 that he was planning to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday in a different manner that year. He was planning a massive concert in a large vacant plot, near the Umiam Lake in Shillong. He kept a nominal entry fee for visitors. Local food and brew would be available at very reasonable rates and some of the best bands of the Northeast would be playing music all day long. Instantly, I knew that this is a film I have to make!
More often than not, the Northeast finds mention in the national media for all the wrong reasons – when there is bomb blast, ambush, economic blockade, drug haul, so on and so forth. With no mention or focus on the positive energies in the region, the default focus has been on the negative energies. For years, I have been troubled by this and have tried to bring out various lesser known aspects of the region through my films.
Xhoihobote Dhemalite(Rainbow Fields), your latest film, is about children growing up amidst violence, and the impact it has on their lives all throughout. Here again, you have explored themes such as violence juxtaposed with the innocence of childhood. Would you like to elaborate on this?
The film is semi auto-biographical. I grew up in Assam in the 1980s and experienced the death, violence and destruction first hand. As I grew up, time and again, I used to contemplate on how those days had affected my subconscious psyche.
The arrival of my daughter Mo’u gave birth to the father in me and I started questioning the world she is growing up in. It made me more sensitive to the children growing up in violent places, witnessing brutality around them. This is when I started to question myself, ‘if we are borrowing this world from our children, than what kind of world are we leaving behind for them?’ I knew that I’d to do something and Xhoihobote Dhemalite was born (although professionally it was not a smart decision considering the health of Assam’s film industry).
The stellar star cast of the film with seasoned actors such as Victor Banerjee and Nipon Goswami is said to be the strongest point of the film. How was your experience of working with the two senior actors?
‘Have you heard of born again Catholic? You must be aware that they are more conservative than many Catholics. In the same way, I’m a converted Assamese. I have spent more time in Assam than you two put together. And yes, I won’t say a single word against my people in any film’ – that was the first reaction we got when me and my wife Pallavi met legendary actor Victor Banerjee for my film Ekhon Nedekha Nadir Xipare in Goa even before he read my script. I knew him as the only actor in the world who had worked with three of the all-time great directors – Satyajit Ray, David Lean and Roman Polanski. But as time progressed, I got to know him more closely.
The dubbing of Ekhon Nedekha Nadir Xipare was divided between Mumbai and Guwahati. And he was more than happy to choose Guwahati over Mumbai for his dubbing. But none of us were prepared for the disaster that was waiting to happen in Guwahati on the last day of his dubbing. After a particularly grueling eight hours of dubbing, Mr Banerjee had finished his Assamese dialogues for the film and was relaxing, while the technicians of the studio was taking a transfer of his portion. Than the news came to me: instead of transferring, they had deleted his entire dubbed track by mistake. Nobody had the heart to tell him about it, but being the director, the unpleasant job rested with me. I decided that under the circumstances, I have no option but to be honest and upfront about what had happened. After hearing me out, Victor sir took a deep breath and said, ‘Bidyut, I always believed that in life there is no point pondering about honest mistakes – let’s try to look for a solution’. That is Victor Banerjee for you. A great actor and an even better human being.
Similarly with Nipon da, I grew up watching his films and his performances in Assam’s mobile theatre. I was a little hesitant to approach him for Xhoixobote Dhemalite as it was a special appearance. But he immediately put me at ease with his friendly, approachable nature. And during the shoot too, I was apologetic as it went late into the night… again, he made us comfortable with his ever accommodating character. A perfect gentleman and a fine actor!
You are based out of Mumbai but your films are set in Assam, without the associated nostalgia which would have been usual. Rather, they probe into deeply disturbing incidents in a matter-of-fact, ordinary way. Is this your way of coming to terms with the ghosts of your childhood, or something else?
Honestly, I don’t choose the subjects of my film – it is the other way round. Until and unless a story starts living in my subconscious and makes me restless enough to share with the outside world, I don’t attempt to tell that particular story, to make that film… And once a story overpowers me, I don’t try to over analyze the same.
Interviewed by Nasreen Habib
Follow the writer on twitter @NasreenAssam