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Out Of Focus

While films from the North East are drawing attention at festivals, the talent in the region is largely stifled. It is time we took off our blinkers and gave North Eastern cinema the impetus it needs

For the longest time, the North East has been left in loneliness, from the growth in cinema the rest of the Indian film industry has been seeing. The growth in the number of screens being added across the rest of the country by certain multiplexes is well documented in investor presentations and the trade media. But, in the North East, a population of over 45 million people is being serviced by around only 150 screens, of which around 50 of them are auditoriums. That accounts for a rather dismal average of people serviced per screen.

This also is perhaps one of the reasons the largest amount of cinema business that has been generated in the region (Assam, Sikkim, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya) cumulatively has not been over a crore of rupees. All this, despite the region being reported to be one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.

The last few years alone have seen the region produce some of the most noteworthy films, whether it is Sange Dorjee’s Crossing Bridges; Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanoodi; or the more recent Lady Of The Lake by Haobam Paban Kumar; and Ralang Road by Karma Takapa, among numerous others. The unfortunate truth is that while we turn a blind eye to the fast-changing and growing industry of the North East, they are finding accolades, acclaim and appreciation outside the country. 

It takes a Busan film festival to discover Kothanoodi and Lady Of The Lake (also officially selected at Berlinale) and a Karlovy Vary film festival to discover a Ralang Road before we take notice. Noted filmmakers like Padma Bhushan Jahnu Baruah and celebrated filmmaker Manju Borah continue making cinema that the world takes notice of and that wins prestigious awards, but across the country we fail to recognise these stories in all the glory they deserve to be known.  

Albeit festivals like the Mumbai Film Festival, International Film Festival Of Kerala and IFFI (which have had a focus on North Eastern cinema) are pretty much the only avenues where these films get showcased; there lacks a pervasive initiative to showcase these stories to the rest of the country.

The state of things is well articulated by filmmaker Pradip Kurbah, who hails from Meghalaya, among the other filmmakers in the region (the ‘region’ being rather loosely used for lack of a better word), who travel from village to village to screen their films to a hungry audience due to the lack of screening venues. Asked if he reckons there is any sort of association or body that helps promote filmmaking in his state, the answer is met with an unfortunate ‘no’. This is, however, different from Assam and Manipur, where for starters there is a body that is focused on promoting film-making in the region – Assam State Film (Finance and Development) corporation.

From a minor tax levied on film tickets towards creating a fund, to active interest in producing quality content in the region, the wheels are in motion.  Director Haobam Paban Kumar, whose Lady Of The Lake put North Eastern cinema on the global map, is more positive and echoes the sentiment that steps are being taken in the right direction, but also admits that more could and should be done. 

Echoing a similar sentiment for the need for more to be done in the region that has highly interesting stories to tell, filmmaker Bhaskar Hazarika says, “Apart from infrastructure development – such as new screening halls, studios, equipment – the North East would really benefit from capacity development in filmmaking. We are in desperate need of technicians, writers, directors and sales and marketing. The large region is presently served only by one bonafide film school – the state-run Jyoti Chitrobon in Guwahati, Assam. And it is not just the supply side. I wish we could have more cinema literacy in the North East, so that audiences become more aware of how to enjoy cinema, and work with filmmakers and producers to create a progressive cinema culture in the region.”

An example of the fact that there are interesting stories being told in the region is also the fact that the Khasi language film Onaatah by Pradip Kurbah has sold its Marathi and Malayalam remake rights.

Amid all of this, it is perhaps the first time ever that a production house backed by a noted actor-turned-producer has focused on making cinema in the region, which will shed a little more, much-deserved limelight on the region. The Priyanka Chopra and Dr Madhu Chopra-led Purple Pebble Pictures is currently in the post-production of Pahunadirected by Pakhi Tyrewala, a film set, cast, crewed and filmed in the region. If that is not all, staying true to the film, it has also been filmed in a language of the region. 

A celebrated North Eastern filmmaker, on condition of anonymity, says, “I feel stifled, my creativity feels stifled. Between the big Hindi films, English films and the extensive piracy that exists here, there is really nothing we can do. We are curtailed to making micro-budget films because the infrastructure does not allow us to think bigger.”

Beyond the lip service that exists in heralding cinema from the North East, the need of the hour is to enable filmmakers and filmmaking in the region. Whether legislative support, cinema exhibition infrastructure or honing filmmaking talent, there is far too much to be done.

The fragmented nature of the region, with multiple languages, dialects and state divisions, certainly does not help and this coupled with the issues of cinema infrastructure across the region end up slowing this region with impressive stories and storytelling.

The only organisation that had the inclination to facilitate cinemas of India has also, owing to certain matters, been disarmed to a certain extent, with the lack of funds normally allocated for such activities. A sad state, considering it had backed films from the region and was committed to furthering the cause of quality cinema from across the country.

There is recent talk that the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI) has been allocated funds to deploy towards the production, support and distribution of cinema from the North Eastern region, albeit towards children’s films.  This CFSI has over the last few years also been organising the North Eastern Film Festival, a great initiative towards raising awareness of the hidden stories from the eight states, but once again a singular event held annually.

The need for something pervasive, inclusive and done wholeheartedly is missing. The need for action to be taken to unite the eight states in terms of furthering local cinema is unmistakable. There is a dire need for legislation to support filmmaking in the region, whether through exhibition infrastructure, cinema education or simply cracking down on rampant piracy. More than all of that, perhaps it is the need of the hour that we recognise cinema of the North East first, as a force to reckon with.

“Everything we need seems far-fetched, we are better off making films and exploring appreciation and business of our films outside the country,” concludes the filmmaker who chose to remain unnamed.

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