When self-taught filmmaker Bobby Sarma Baruah made her latest film “Mishing” (The Apparition) on a popular belief of the Sherdukpen tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, she knew that it would be a challenging task. The challenge was in the language of the film – Sherdukpen. Being an Assamese filmmaker, to make a film in Sherdukpen was a difficult task, but she did it convincingly. Sherdukpen dialect is spoken by almost 4,000 people in Arunachal Pradesh and is now on the verge of extinction. Among the community of Sherdukpen, there is a popular belief that people before their death communicate in the form of spirits with their loved ones.
“My intention is to showcase the culture of the Sherdukpen tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. I talk about the urgent need to preserve languages, songs and local customs through the powerful medium of film. I believe, my film will help people experience the Sherdukpen community’s belief in wandering souls and spirits,” says Bobby.
The title of the film is “Mishing”, a Sherdukpen word that means the appearance of the soul before one’s actual death. Based on the Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi's novel of the same title, the film won the Rajat Kamal at the 66th National Film Awards.
Bobby’s prowess lies in the subjects she chooses for her films. She debuted with “Adomy” (2014) that tells the story of a woman – Juri, who after getting married to a young engineer, is infected with the HIV. She comes back to her village where she gives birth to a baby girl named Jonak. It shows the position of women in a patriarchal society and how often they have to fight against the social taboos and prejudices.Baruah’s second feature film “Sonar Baran Pakhi” (2016) was a biopic based on the life of Pratima Barua Pandey who is best known for her contribution to Assamese music.
“Mishing” , her third film, is structured in a non-linear narrative. It is set in the ‘90s in one Sherdukpen village in Arunachal Pradesh. The film has two narratives in two different time frames – one narrative is about Radha Binode Singh and his boss Togbe Mahajan, and second narrative is about Radha Binode Singh and Togbe’s son Abu. Two narratives in two different time frames make the story extremely intricate. However, time and place in both the narratives have been defined in such a way that it keeps the audience focused.
Baruah says, “The complex narrative pattern is deliberately used to deal with the intricacies of human mind and life. The popular folk belief is serving as a trope for articulating the community’s perspective and philosophy towards the familiar and the unknown world around them.”
The film begins with a silhouette shot of a character showing his profile, and also a Jeep that comes in the frame.
With a time lapse shot, the filmmaker shows the character going near the Jeep that met an accident. Inside the vehicle, he sees something and is shocked. It cuts to a varied sequence of shots – lambs, flowing water of a stream, an unidentified character approaching towards the camera in his slow gait, a herd of rattling cattle, prayers by a group of village women in a monastery, an extreme close up shot of that character, and then title card of the film “Mishing” flashes in the frame.
One day, Radha Binode Singh, a Manipuri driver (played by Rajib Kro) visits Abu, his former employer Togbe Mahajan’s son to tell the reason of his sudden disappearance. Once Abu recognises Singh driver, he becomes exasperated and says why he ran away from their home. The driver tells Abu, “I came looking for you, Abu. I came all this way to explain. Before I die, I want you to know everything. I could not tell your father. Please hear me out. I first met your father some 30 years ago…”, then the filmmaker takes the story to the past. The shift demands the audience’s unwavering concentration.
The narrative of Radha Binode Singh and his boss Togbe Mahajan reveals that Radha Binode Singh is a Manipuri army-deserter who later becomes the personal driver of Togbe Mahajan, an influential member of the Sherdukpen community. When Singh driver gains Mahajan’s trust, he is allowed to stay at their home.
One day, Singh driver has an encounter with Mishing, and he sees himself dead at the wheels of his own car, and being terrified, he runs away from there. He disappears from there. But 30 years later, Mahajan’s son Abu meets a middle-aged visitor who reveals that he is Radha Binode Singh, the Singh driver. He asks Abu to visit Guwahati to collect his father’s (Mahajan) valuable item from him. He then disappears without a trace. Accordingly, Abu goes to Guwahati to meet Singh driver. But Singh driver’s son reveals that his father Radha Binode Singh has been in the hospital of Vellore for quite a few months. He then hands over his father’s precious article to Abu. Abu is baffled thinking who was the middle aged man who visited him and asked to come to Guwahati?
The film is extremely philosophical that tells us about time, fate, human life, and the mysterious world around us. Bobby coalesces the past and the present captivating in the story, and maintains the common thread – the apparition – that enhances the beauty of the film.