Offbeat Monday | Movies

Northeast, where movies yearn for a voice

A still from Örong.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“I am still in debt for the last movie I made,” says 38-year-old Suraj Duwarah, whose debut film was also the first-ever to be made in the Assamese dialect Rabha.

The movie that got Mr. Duwarah into debt was also the one that secured him a National Award in 2014 and screenings at the Kolkata International Film Festival as well as the International Film Festival of India, Goa.

The movie, Örong, a story of a boy dealing with adolescence, however failed to get distributors, with Mr. Duwarah being told the subject isn’t something that would click with the audience.

Örong’s case isn’t a rare one in the north-eastern part of the country, where enthusiastic filmmakers churn out about a hundred movies each year across the many languages and dialects that exist in these parts. Getting the films to audiences even inside the region is, however, what’s proving to be frustratingly difficult for the filmmakers.

Pradip Kurbah, whose National Award-winning Khasi movie Onaatah - of the Earth received praise from veteran producer-director Ramesh Sippy, says people hardly know about Khasi cinema.

“How many of us are aware of our own cinema?” asks he. “I choose to show my film to other States before going to mainland India,” says 40-year-old Mr. Kurbah, who prefers to call himself a filmmaker from the Northeast rather than a Khasi filmmaker.

Onaatah, inspired by real-life incidents, tells the story of a rape survivor who struggles to find acceptance in society. It was shot in 18 days with a crew of 21 people “who used their own cars, wore their own clothes.” Months after its release in Meghalaya, where it was shot, the film has hardly made it to the other parts of the Northeast.

A scene from ‘Onaatah - of the Earth’

A scene from ‘Onaatah - of the Earth’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement


The result hasn’t been much different for the National Award-winning Kothanodi, a crowd-funded Assamese film starring acclaimed actors Seema Biswas and Adil Hussain. Released in May 13 last year, the movie hardly got out of Assam.

Critical acclaim is no guarantee for a screening.

The challenge, especially for the nascent Khasi film industry, is the number of films being made by others in the region. At least 15 are made every year in Meghalaya alone to add to the 20-30 in Assamese and 60-70 in Manipuri. Mizoram also churns out movies. The eco-system, including multiplexes, to support these numbers, however, is inadequate.

They have to compete with the more popular Hindi (especially in Assam), English and Korean films (in Manipur). In Manipur, Hindi cinemas aren’t allowed to screen, but the two theatres in Imphal barely manage to screen local fare.

Oinam Doren, an award-winning Manipuri filmmaker, reckons local films are emulating typical Hindi cinema plots and “the financiers, who know nothing about film production, get involved in filmmaking for the glamour quotient and lose money. Hence the business also suffers along with quality.”

Screening a movie in several States involves a lot of funds, which the makers mostly have to bear on their own. Most directors, including Mr. Kurbah, travel from village to village to raise awareness and create avenues to showcase their work.

Getting a release isn’t the end of the troubles. Movie tickets are priced low, making it difficult for producers to recover money. “About 50% of the profits are taken away by the theatre-owners,” says he.

A still from Örong.

A still from Örong.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement


With only a few theatres and limited budget, movies like Onaatah ride on the social media buzz. Actor-producer Vishakha Singh, who co-produced the film, says, “Social media did help. But what turned the tide for us was winning the national award. And Ramesh Sippy's encouraging words that Onataah was easily one of the best films he had seen in a long time.”

What further worked for the film was that the entertainment tax was cut to 7.5% from 20%.

Ms. Singh says, “We definitely need to have more number of multiplexes in the region. Until then, our best avenue in a scenario where English and Hindi films also have a major share of the pie, is to go the International festival route.”

The film festival option has been explored fairly well by films from the Northeast, especially Assamese and the Manipuri ones, for a few decades now. In 1991, Aribam Syam Sharma's Manipuri movie Ishanou was one of the few Indian films which was screened at various festivals. Its lead actor, Anoubam Kiranmala, won the jury’s special mention at the Cannes Film Festival that year.

Also, movies made in the region get screened in the North East Film Festival in Delhi every year.

While the exposure at film festivals is invaluable, filmmakers rue that such outings don’t guarantee good audiences. “There are hardly any people turning up at such festivals,” Mr. Kurbah says. “We have to target each and every city and move the festivals. Otherwise, no one would know.”

Filmmakers believe they won’t stop. “Passion,” says Manabendra Adhikary, a tax consultant by day and a film producer by night. “There is talent, there is passion and so we make movies.”

Mr. Duwarah, the maker of Örong, is shrugging off his losses. “As they say, ‘keep working, keep trying,’ so I have started working on the next project, a sequel, which should get over by 2017 I guess.”

Watch the trailer of Onaatah - of the Earth :


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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 7:58:14 PM |

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