Shalim M Hussain
Alifa is realism at its best, and it is almost certain that it will ignite a renewed interest in the Assamese film industry
Once in a while comes along a work of art that redefines an entire industry. Deep Choudhury’s labour of love Alifa will hit theatres soon after making a round of film festivals. It is almost certain that it will ignite a renewed interest in the Assamese film industry which is currently undergoing a brilliant resurgence in the hands of a small group of young, highly perceptive filmmakers. Even if it doesn’t, due to distribution issues (which is something the industry has to tackle head on) or otherwise, Alifa will be remembered as one of the best Assamese films made in recent times. The story of a migrant labourer and his family who belong to the Bengal-origin Assamese Muslim community who happen to encroach on forest land in the hills of Guwahati, the film is an important intervention.
In a nutshell, it is about a working class family in Guwahati consisting of Ali the father, Fatima the mother and their young children Alifa (her name is a portmanteau of her parents’) and Faisal. The film traces one year of their lives as they survive the seasons, unemployment, the lack of a school, adultery and the horror of a leopard stalking the hills. However, what stands out are the set-pieces- small concise vignettes into the lives of the characters which in themselves are complete stories (Deep Choudhury’s work in the advertising world and his earlier experience in short films helps). Midway through Alifa, Ali tells his daughter a story about his childhood on the banks of the river Beki. The child’s mind wanders and in a beautiful scene shot in soft focus on a FS700 camera, Alifa imagines her father and his friends as young boys splashing in the river, stealing corn and running from an angry farmer. It’s a simple scene but contrasted against Alifa’s inner monologue in the opening sequence of the film where she says that she has never seen the river up close makes it a moving revelation. Brought up in the hills, Alifa has never experienced the river- the one entity which defines the life and identity of her community. Later when Ali is accused of being an encroacher, he talks about the lands his family owned on the river banks and how they were eroded by the river, forcing him and his family to move out of the village. This is how the politics of Alifa works- in short bursts of exposition (particularly when the word ‘Miyah’ is thrown at Ali) rather than plain didacticism.
The plot apart, Alifa feels extremely real. The worn-out clothes, dull jewellery, an umbrella with a broken handle, a dented aluminium water vessel and a sooty kadhai give the film a level of verisimilitude reminiscent of the best of Bhabendranth Saikia’s movies. The art direction by Golok Saha and Roma Roy is really commendable as is Gita Rani Goswami’s work on the costumes. In an interview with the director, Choudhury told me that to maintain the authenticity of the props, most of the furniture was sourced locally from people living in the hills. The art direction team bought new clothes, utensils and jewellery for workers in Guwahati, Dhubri and Barpeta and exchanged them with their used clothes and utensils.
Pakija Hasmi plays the titular character with a rare innocence. Her dream is to join the local school as soon as her parents can afford it. Her interactions with her brother Faisal (played with cutesy naughtiness by Rayhan Abdul), especially when they are alone in the shadow of the hills have an element of the Apu-Durga relationship in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. In Ali, the frequently unemployed husband who has to deal with the fact that his wife is now the primary breadwinner and is also having an affair with a young Lothario from work, Baharul Islam gives the most restrained performance of his film career. You can almost feel the anger bubbling under his sweaty face and when he finally breaks, it is heart-rending. Ali was written with Baharul Islam in mind and when Choudhury approached him, Islam said ‘I surrender (to) you.’ As for Jaya Seal Ghosh who plays Fatima, Choudhury knew that the character should have an aura of glamour to make her look enticing and yet, maintain the gait, demeanour and look of a strong-willed working mother. Ghosh was asked to stop shampooing her hair, threading her eyebrows and waxing her hands one month before the shooting. This was followed by an intensive week-long workshop to enable the actors to enter the minds of the characters. The results are spectacular! The Jaya Seal Ghosh in the auditorium where I watched a special screening of the film was all elegance and charm and Fatima on screen was an entirely different woman- weather-beaten, tough and beautiful with the cheap lipstick and hurriedly done hair of a working woman making an effort. The minimal makeup by Shankhu Barua is non-intrusive and immersive.
The world in Alifa is an interesting study in contrasts. The children play in the jungles and in the evenings huddle before a small television for the latest episode of Chota Bheem. The Rukminigaon labour bazaar where the labourers stand in line for customers to evaluate and pick them like any other commodity is an entirely different Guwahati than the villa where the labourers work. Against the studied seriousness of the film is a wealth of domestic humour most of which is derived from clueless Saifuddin, Ali’s friend and confidante. Unlike the other actors who speak Assamese or Bengali, Satya Ranjan who plays Saifuddin is Oriya. Since he didn’t understand a single line of the dialogue, Choudhury asked him to play the role with a blank deadpanness that is so apt for the role that he owns every moment he is on screen. To get the dialogues right, Deep Choudhury had Girin Gope and journalist Khairul Alom work on the accent and the vocabulary. The only gripe I had with the dialogues is that though all the actors speak the same dialect, their accents are all different. This is a minor issue. Keep your ears pricked for the choicest ‘Miyah’ cuss words (which somehow passed through the censor) and the scene where Ali serves his children jackfruit.
Choudhury says that ‘Miyah’ characters are stereotyped in Assamese cinema and even the dialect they speak is exaggerated for humorous effect. He had to take extra care to see that he didn’t commit the same offence. I had my apprehensions while watching the film too, waiting with anticipation for one moment when the film would slip, just one moment when the masterful plotting and deep sensitivity would give way to an unintended reification of stereotypes. It didn’t happen. In one scene, the imam of the mosque says that he had a dream in which God gave him a personal message. For a moment I felt that this was the tipping point. The audience in the NEDFI hall where I watched the film tittered. But what the maulana says next is extremely practical and worldly. Let’s set up a patrolling system, he says, so that the big cat cannot harm us. The scene in which tragedy finally befalls the community (Alifa is not a thriller and revealing the climax doesn’t really give away anything but I will refrain from revealing an important plot point) is animalistic and utterly raw not in gory terms but in the reaction it draws from the people.
However, Alifa doesn’t hinge on one particular event or figure. There is a delightful lack of cause and effect in the film. Alifa’s mother Fatima has a casual extra-marital affair with a colleague, and Ali nurses a jealous grudge against the young man but neither of these plot points have any bearing on the final outcome of events. After Fatima is beaten up by Ali for her affair and left alone in the house with Alifa, she goes back to peeling potatoes. This is realism at its best- regardless of the environment or sequence of events, life must continue.
When I ask Deep Choudhury if refraining from polemics was a conscious decision, he says that he believes in the audience. ‘I knew that I was not making a documentary or an art film. My job is to tell a story and raise issues’, he says, ‘The audience is intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions.’