A river sobs even as it becomes the tempestuous highway for insurgents on the island of Majuli. A city-bred journalist, accessorised with knapsack and digital camera, arrives in search of a missing friend. And an Assamese guide perched on a bicycle becomes the tremulous face of an island whose exquisite features are often contorted with the pain of sudden violence.
Bidyut Kotoky’s As the River Flows [Ekhon Nedekha Nodir Xhipare in Assamese] is a bilingual film that explores the lives of people torn asunder by the conflicting ideologies of extremist groups and the law of the land. A raging Brahmaputra, swollen with lashings of rain, becomes an apt backdrop for the story of an uneasy river island. As a character in the film ominously affirms, ‘Here in Majuli, unlike Mumbai, we don’t get every news in a newspaper. But everyone is informed about everyone here.’
The theme of sudden disappearances and untimely death is inspired by the abduction of rural development activist Sanjoy Ghosh, by ULFA [United Liberation Front of Asom] militants in 1997. Kotoky, who addressed the audience at the world premiere of the film at Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival yesterday, spoke of the north-east as a part of India that is ‘not a big enough vote bank to be taken seriously’. Actor Sanjay Suri, who plays the role of Mumbai journalist Abhijit Shandilya, also spoke of insurgency in Kashmir - where he was born - and the trauma it breeds in any state caught in its grip. Speaking about the film and the role of provocative cinema, he said, ‘It doesn’t promise to change things but it can start a dialogue.’
The cast of the film, which includes Victor Banerjee, Sanjay Suri, Raj Zutshi, Nakul Vaid, Naved Aslam and newcomer Bidita Bag, apparently escaped a few grenades while shooting in Majuli. Victor Banerjee, who plays a benign grandfather with Gandhian ideals, described Majuli as the ‘epicentre of Assamese culture’. He mentioned his culinary adventure with curried pigeon during the shoot, and said, ‘My heart belongs to Assam. My soul remains in Uttarkhand!’
Actor Bidita Bag, who debuted in the film as the gentle guide tormented by a romantic past splayed with bullets, said she learnt Assamese in a few month for the role.
Kokoky also admitted that the actors were picked keeping in mind a Hindi film audience. ‘Their accents are not Assamese,’ he stated unapologetically, at the premiere. The film, whose protagonists are not from the state, has courted controversy for not being Assamese enough.
A contender for the National Film Award this year, it was rejected by the jury, as a part of the film was shot in Mumbai and several dialogues were in Hindi. But the debate on whether a story bound by geography must necessarily be told by local actors was quelled by Sanjay Suri who put it all to rest by saying - ‘Everyone’s local; we’re all Indian’.
As the River Flows was screened on 29 July, Sunday at the 12th Osian Film Festival being held at Siri Fort Auditorium in the city and is one of the many that premiers in this festival.