Nine-time National Award winner Jahnu Barua opens up about art, cinema and his native state — Assam.
The role of a film-maker… is that of fulfilling a social responsibility. An artiste enjoys the privilege of being morally connected to society, through his audience. It is like the symbiotic link between teacher and student, or a builder of bridges and those who use it.
The human mind… is a monster in need of constant stimulation. Art and literature are the greatest of stimulants. I make films to share a part of the collage of my mind, my “madness.”
Art and culture… are the very essence of life, much more important than material possessions. They activate the brain in a way that no possessions can. Too much of materialism can be detrimental to the arts, as has happened in post-War United States and Europe. It could also lead to the emergence of a counter-culture.
Shankar Dev, the founder and greatest exponent of the neo-Vaishnavite movement in Assam… realised the beneficial and harmonising effects of art and culture on society and accorded them the highest pedestal. The development of Assamese society through many centuries, till the present, can be attributed to Shankar Dev’s contributions. He is the finest example of social responsibility through creative genius.
My years of filmmaking… have increased my powers of observation and helped me make better films. But I lay no claims to complete knowledge. There are always limitations to one’s knowledge.
The media’s responsibility... is to speak of and promote good, alternative cinema.
While starting a film... the filmmaker must exercise self-discipline. To give an example, abuses are alien to my village and a film with an overdose of it could affect the thinking of its residents. I have no issues with the present censorship norms but am puzzled over the distribution norms, since even commercial films flop.
Reconciling commerce and creativity… is something everyone strives for. Cinema has become a purely commercial proposition today and the huge budgets naturally prompt the desire for saleability. It would be good if those who marketed films opted for good products. There was a vibrant, alternative cinema till the mid-nineties. Besides me, there are only a few other filmmakers like Girish Kasaravalli and Adoor Gopalakrishnan who are traversing the less-trodden path.
Drug-addiction in Assam... is being tackled by measures to stop the inflow of drugs. But more dangerous are the “mental drugs” that damage society. Obscenity in cinema, including film posters, has the power to destroy young minds. Society’s lack of awareness on such issues is only aggravating the situation.
The Ahom community and their Four-Door Golden Principle for State governance… appealed to the emotions of the Assamese people. Even today, these principles have a bearing on their lives. The Ahoms’s use of artistic leadership was a better form of governance than the kind employed by messiah-like leaders, which contributes to weakening people and killing their individual spirit and ability to solve problems. A story from my childhood highlights the native wisdom of the people from villages — they were able to figure out when the floods would come and would prepare themselves by climbing platforms and waiting there till the floods receded. This attitude and the capacity to solve problems is missing today.
The status of women in Assamese society… is something to be proud of, in terms of the respect accorded to them and the absence of dowry. In the 1950s and 60s, the bride’s family had to seek permission to give gifts and this was often refused. But today, there is a change. The groom’s family is quite happy to accept gifts. The arrival of the dowry system will sound the death knell for the centuries-old Assamese society.