Local heart, global soul

As III Smoking Barrels makes waves in the festival circuit, director Sanjib Dey talks about its universal appeal and the prospects of creative storytelling in the Northeast region

Published - November 16, 2017 01:07 pm IST

SMOKIN’ HOT A still from the film

SMOKIN’ HOT A still from the film

Filmmaker Sanjib Dey has just returned from the European premiere of his debut feature III Smoking Barrels . The film was the official selection in the International Competition section at the 66th International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg which is the second oldest film festival of Germany after Berlin.

A multilingual film inspired by true events, III Smoking Barrels is being well received at the festival circuit across the globe. After a successful World Premiere at the 38th Durban International Festival, back in July, the film has already made it to the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) where it will have its India premiere. The film is produced by Amit Malpani and stars seasoned actors Indraneil Sengupta, Subrat Dutta, Nalneesh Neel, and Amrita Chattopadhyay. It has been shot across the Northeast India over the course of two years.

Working in Bombay, over the last decade, Sanib Dey has worked with the likes of Govind Nihalani, Habib Faisal, and Australian director Sean Lynch. Born and brought up in Golaghat, Assam, Dey has previously directed television shows and short films. He is also the recipient of the prestigious J. Abraham National Award which he won for producing a short film titled The 100 Watt Bulb .


On the storyline

My film is an anthology of three stories from the Northeast India; each exploring a different stage in life – A child involved in armed conflict, a boy in drug peddling and a man entangled in elephant poaching. Through this film, I am trying to touch upon the complexities of this beautiful region, while showcasing its ethos; and I wanted to diligently explore these three issues, their cost on humanity and what it speaks about us as a society.

On returning to the Northeast after working extensively in Mumbai film and television industry

To be very honest, rather than me trying to find a producer, it was Amit Malpani, my childhood friend from the region, who initially approached me to direct a film for his new production house . His only condition was it must be a film about the Northeast but with a pan India appeal. Coincidentally, he was asking me to do something that I always wanted to do. So the journey began, immediately.

Sanjib Dey with the cast

Sanjib Dey with the cast

On the universal appeal of the story

Well, I think the setting of the stories is more indigenous than the stories themselves. The stories are more universal. The film talks about three overlooked but important issues that are actually universal in nature but that may not be the only reason for its global appeal. The film simultaneously focuses on human emotions and complex relationships — that universal humanistic language is perhaps the main reason why the film is transcending borders.

On showcasing at Mannheim-Heidelberg Festival, which has been the launch pad for great directors like Satyajit Ray.

All I can say is that I feel really blessed to get such a prestigious platform for my debut feature. To tell you the truth, I am in the filmmaking business because of the great Satyajit Ray. As a school kid, I used to watch his films on Doordarshan and got swayed by his work.

On exploring sensitive issues like drug abuse, human trafficking and animal poaching.

Making a film about a region comprising a warehouse of cultures, ethnic and geographical diversities has really been a huge challenge. So the idea of compiling three episodes together came to my mind which perhaps has provided me with greater liberty to explore the indigenous elements of the region. The root of all the stories lies in the real characters which I have personally encountered.

The film required us to shoot near international borders of Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. It was extremely difficult due to climatic, geographical and security reasons. For most of my career, I have been working in Mumbai with highly professional crew. And I have also worked with a Hollywood crew in Afghanistan. But I knew that this time it was going to be different and so I had to be very astute in selecting my cast and crew. I ended up with a rare combination of experts from the mainstream Indian cinema and fresh talents from the region. This was perhaps the first step to envisage my producer Amit Malpani’s vision of making a film with a pan India appeal and yet one that remains very Northeastern in its soul.

On lack of films from the North East

Well, I don’t really consider myself the best person to answer this question as I have hardly worked with the Northeast film industry before this film. I think it needs a deep analysis to understand the real reasons. But let’s not forget the fact that the main filmmaking states like Assam and Manipur have seen a rise in insurgency during the past few decades. So the cinema halls started shutting down one by one. And people started taking resort to watching soap operas and cricket matches on national television. The nail in the coffin came with the emergence of poor quality video films. But the situation is far better now. Currently, there is no dearth of good filmmakers in the region. But where are the producers who can finance and market a good film? Where are the cinema halls? This has to be addressed.

On widespread ignorance abut the region as Priyanka Chopra recently committed the blunder of describing Pakhi Tyrewala‘s Pahuna as the first film to have come out of Sikkim.

Interestingly, Priyanka Chopra is the producer of the said film. Has any other big name from Bollywood taken interest to produce a Sikkimese film before her? I guess not. And I recently read that she is producing an Assamese film too. That sums up the entire argument. Here is a lady with noble intentions but poorly informed about the region and its cinema like most people from the rest of the country. Good that she quickly realised her mistake and offered an apology!

On the importance of independent filmmakers making commercially viable films

Commercial success shouldn’t be the only driving force behind making a film, but, at the same time, I don’t want my producer to quit the film business after producing just one film. Fortunately, III Smoking Barrels has evolved as a film with certain entertainment elements for mass consumption without any compromise with the content. As far as earning from other avenues is concerned, VOD is always an option and a hugely untapped medium. Mobile theatres have good business potential as well.

On the danger of being labelled as one film wonder

I think there has been a big problem of funding and distributing films in the region. The local governments need to play a key role here. Mandatory screening space for local cinema in theatres is a much-needed requirement. Also, we need better subsidies for local films.

And, above all, many more cinema halls! But I am hopeful that with the emergence of young and fearless talent from the region, things will only get better in the future.

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