Utpal Borpujari’s “Mayong: Myth/Reality” looks at the rural outpost in Assam where magic used to be a way of life

On July 15, 2011, the day “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” released in India, young people in Guwahati (and elsewhere) turned up in hordes at the theatres to watch the story of the boy wizard and his final tryst with Voldemort. Film critic and documentary filmmaker Utpal Borpujari also turned up, but for a different reason.

He carried out an informal survey among the people there. While most of them knew everything about the fictional world of magic in Harry Potter, they were largely unaware of Mayong, despite it being located 40 kilometres off Guwahati, and on the way to the popular Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary.

What makes this ignorance more telling is that Mayong has a rich tradition of sorcery and the practice of magic is a way of life.

Borpujari has captured the reality of this mythical place in his documentary “Mayong: Myth/Reality”. “The first time I went to Pobitora was in the early 90s. I did not know about Mayong then. When I came to know about it, I felt a little ashamed… Assamese people have lots of stories about it, but very few people visit this place,” he says.

Structured like a travelogue, the film progresses through interviews with the residents of Mayong. We are told, for instance, of the bagh bandha mantra, which was used in 1960 in Teteliguri village on the banks of the Brahmaputra, when a tigress was captured by Muhiram Ojha. Several others, such as the luki mantra, uran mantra and malshram mantra, were also used to perform different tasks.

Unfortunately, most of these tales exist only as hearsay. There appear to be very few magicians left in the village, and the ones who claim to have learnt it from their forebears are reluctant to perform in front of the camera, leading the viewers to doubt the authenticity of their claims.

But when one sees Tilak Hazarika make a split bamboo stick come together, and balance a plate on the stiff back of a young man, it is, as the laconic voiceover informs, “quite interesting, and logic defying”.

“I am a student of science, I look at everything from the point of logical explanation. But, at the same time, I also believe that science has not been able to explain all the mysteries of the universe,” the filmmaker, who is also a trained geologist, says.

Magic or not, the film gives ample evidence of Mayong history to point towards a presence of the surreal. It calls for the preservation of the scriptures containing the “tantra-mantra” that have been passed down the generations, and are stored away in trunks.

This has already begun to happen locally, and for a systematic study of their oral and textual history it is important to understand the significance of Mayong.