Big Screen Movies

Maj Rati Keteki: A mirror to Assamese society

A still from Santwana Bardoloi’s Maj Rati Keteki.  

It is usually pure happenstance when a film based on a novel unfolds on screen like the pages of a book. This rare quality of the literary, often swamped by the sweeping panoramas afforded by cinema, can be observed in Santwana Bardoloi’s captivating film, Maj Rati Keteki, one of a rich haul of Assamese films from the past year.

The gradual build-up of the film’s narrative, its particular foreshadowing of character arcs and its observational detailing, all evoke a sense of the written word, hand-crafted with emotions seemingly instigated only by deeply felt hindsight.

Quite unexpectedly, the book in question is an imaginary one, A River Runs Ashore, woven into a meta-narrative. In the film, celebrated writer Priyendu Hazarika (Adil Hussain) returns to Guwahati after a self-imposed exile. The conceit of his frequent meandering into memories gives shape to a saga of childhood and loss set in rustic North Guwahati.

The period narrative, set in the 1970s and presented in a series of episodic vignettes, has its own unity.

Santwana, who scripted and storyboarded the film, explains, “The older tale was originally the main story. When I brought the author in, I wondered if he were to take a look at the society now, would he be able to discern a relationship or textural similarity with his past, as embodied by his book?” It is a juxtaposition that perhaps yields an unexpected outcome.

Contemporary feel

The film’s nostalgia-tripping is far from rose-tinted, and doesn’t strip the past of its complexities.

A still from Santwana Bardoloi’s Maj Rati Keteki.

A still from Santwana Bardoloi’s Maj Rati Keteki.  

The pages out of history are thus suffused with a contemporary character that places them resolutely in the present, while Priyendu’s latter-day moorings as he negotiates the intrigues of a mendacious publishing world seem clunky and dated in comparison.

Maj Rati Keteki is Santwana’s second directorial venture, and comes two whole decades after her first film — Adajya (1996), based on Indira Goswami’s classic novel, The Moth Eaten Howdah of a Tusker, on the plight of stoic widows in 1940s’ Assam. Remarkably, both films won the National Award for the Best Feature Film in Assamese.

On the impasse of time between both stints, Santwana says, “It’s not as if I had lost my link. All these characters, ideas and themes kept swirling in my mind. This is just one of those stories inside me which has become a film.” While the film isn’t semi-autobiographical, its narrative thrust is derived from incidents she has closely observed.

For instance, as a practising paediatrician, she has often encountered desperate women with unwanted pregnancies. This spawned the sub-plot of the penniless Farida, who cannot afford an abortion at a government clinic.

Similarly, the character of Bhola (Mahendra Rabha), constant playmate to the young Priyendu (Shakil Imtiaz), was based on a real person from Santwana’s childhood.

Playing a boy callously exploited as an unpaid servant in a relative’s home, Rabha’s disarming performance, equally melancholic and mirthful, is a testament to the film’s piquantly intersectional world.

Director’s cut

Society’s prejudices and hypocrisies are unearthed with fair regularity, but Santwana’s treatment of this dysfunctional universe has a gentle beauty to it — the costumes and colour schemes are not ostentatious, and the lived-in interiors of Assam-type homes are captured with warmth and realism.

A still from Santwana Bardoloi’s Maj Rati Keteki.

A still from Santwana Bardoloi’s Maj Rati Keteki.  

“I wanted to capture an old-world feel, on the one hand, and the glossy sheen of present times on the other,” she says. The natural performances and the cadences of the Assamese tongue add to the film’s undercurrent of humour, allowing us to emerge from the film in a spirit of uplift despite the shadows of tragedy that underpin the storytelling.

There are more stories in Santwana’s repository of memories and myths. “I hope I can make another film within a short time because I don’t have 20 years again to go on,” she says with a chuckle.

When Priyendu, a writer with a world view, became the protagonist, Santwana realised she needed an actor with gravitas and polish to bring credibility to the part, and Hussain fit the bill. After he came on board, the cast was put into place. “The young actors faced the camera for the first time. They keep watching TV, and then copy that style. But mostly, I could mould them,” says Santwana. The director’s insistence on precision was underlined when an entire day’s shooting was called off because an actor couldn’t utter an essential phrase with the right intonation and emphasis.

Santwana’s women aren’t heroic, but they are far from cardboard cut-outs — whether it is Sumona, a young writer willing to compromise to get her book published, or the caste-conscious, social-climbing ingénue Papori.

Pranami Bora, who plays mother to Priyendu and his siblings, is a strikingly stoic, if conflicted, presence in the film, keeping her family afloat in trying times, and standing between an idealistic husband and angsty son (Rahul Gautam Sarma). “She was coy initially. I told her that after years of marriage, she would be almost like a colleague to her husband. So all the love and affection stays under the mosquito nets. She understood,” says Santwana.

The film’s one enduring image is that of the young Priyendu stretched out languorously on a boat one lazy afternoon. His rites of passage wouldn’t have been as convincing if Santwana hadn’t carefully constructed the child’s gaze through the parts played by Imtiaz, Rabha, Sarma and Moumita Talukdar as Priyendu’s sister.

The children are all in imminent danger of forfeiting their innocence quite irrevocably, and although some escape unscathed, the film’s abrupt ending denies its audience any sense of closure. Maj Rati Keteki may have quenched local audiences’ thirst for meaningful cinema, but it is, above all, an introspective piece that has much to say about Assamese society and its contradictions.


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Even as a child, the writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 10:34:01 AM |

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