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Guwahati / Mumbai, Aug 3: Children’s Film Society, India (CFSI)’s newest production “Ishu” is a feature film that will instantly take the viewer to a world of a kid whose innocent and happy-go-lucky world turns topsy turvy thanks to the superstitious society of adults around him.
Set in a remote tribal Rabha village in Lower Assam area bordering Meghalaya’s Garo Hills, this Assamese feature film is based on renowned Assamese writer Manikuntala Bhattacharjya’s popular novel “Ishu”, and marks the feature film debut of National Award-winning film critic and acclaimed documentary director Utpal Borpujari.
The film takes a look at the inhuman practice of ‘witch hunting’ that is prevalent in parts of Assam as well as some other parts of India, through they eyes of an innocent child whose favourite aunt is branded as a ‘witch’ by the evil village “Bej” (quack) who conspires with another aunt to do so.
Treated like a fairy tale albeit set in today’s times, “Ishu” is a sensitive take on how such incidents impact a child psychologically, with the narrative taking the viewer along protagonist Ishu’s quest to find his aunt who goes missing after being assaulted by the villagers at the instigation of the villainous quack.
The social evil of ‘witch hunting’ has been a recurring problem in Assam, so much so that the state Assembly unanimously passed the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill 2015, following years of sustained campaign by civil society organisations and an intervention by the Gauhati High Court. The Bill, however, is still awaiting the President’s assent to become a law.
Several incidents of witch hunting has been reported in Assam during this year too, while according to data placed in the state Assembly, 93 cases of witch-hunting were reported and 77 persons, including 35 women, were killed during 2010 to 2015.
“However, despite its sensitive and serious backdrop, my film treats to subject in a way that it is suitable for viewing by children. In fact, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has given it a U certification without any cuts,” says Borpujari, who believes that children’s films can affectively take up social issues if handled sensitively.
CFSI Chairman MukeshKhanna said this movie will give a clear message to the people that social evils are bad and must be eradicated from the society. “Children are the future of our country and should always be motivated. By practicing social evils like ‘witch hunting’, we are making circumstances worse for children and disturb their psychology. This will have an adverse effect on the children and will not help them in their career and overall development.”
“Movies like ‘Ishu’ bring awakening in the society about the ill-effects of social evils and educate people about their harmful aspects on the society. CFSI will continue to make and promote such films whose themes are aimed at bringing about transformation in the society for the benefit of mankind, particularly children,” he says.
According to Dr Shravan Kumar, CEO of CFSI, “This is a highly sensitive film in which exploitation of people due to social evils such as ‘witch hunting’ is highlighted. The movie is informative, educative and throws light on the harmful effects of social evils practiced by people in the society. The movie tells the audience that such evils harm children and have an adverse effect on their psychology. Our attempt at CFSI has always been to focus on issues concerning children and their welfare.”
“I am happy to note that in Assam, a Bill to prevent social evils like “witch hunting” has been passed by the State Legislative Assembly, and is awaiting President’s assent. Let us hope that it would become a law soon.”
“This is the first feature film made by well-known film critic and documentary film maker Utpal Borpujari and we hope that children as well as elders will like it,” he says.
Incidentally, the script of “Ishu” was chosen as the only Asian entry into the 2012 Junior Co-Production Market of Cinekid International Film Festival, Amsterdam.
In the film, the lead role is played by 10-year-old Kapil Garo, who hails from Sonapur area near Guwahati. Kapil, who has given a performance with a maturity much beyond his tender age, was selected for the role after the director and his team interacted with nearly 300 kids across Assam. “Kapil has the required innocence and charm that I had visualized in Ishu, and being from a village himself, he blended naturally with the character,” says Borpujari.
The film also stars two-time National Award (Special Jury Mention)-winning actor Bishnu Kharghoria and National Award-winning Manipuri actress TonthoingambiLeishangthem Devi, along with veterans like Chetana Das and Pratibha Choudhury and talented younger actors like MonujBorkotoky, DipikaDeka and NibeditaBharali. Others in the cast include Mahendra Das, Rajesh Bhuyan, Naba Kumar Baruah, MonujGogoi, etc.
Along with KapilGaro, other child actors in the film include MahendraRabha, SrabantaRabha and UdayRabha.
The film’s dialogue, with emphasis on how the Rabha people living near Goalpara area speak Assamese with a particular accent, has been written by Borpujari in collaboration with award-winning theatre director SukracharjyaRabha of the famed Badungduppa Kala Kendra of Rampur, Agia.
Several actors from the Badungduppagroup, including Dhananjay Rabha and Basanta Rabha, have acted in pivotal roles in the film, which has been shot in pristine locations of several Rabha tribal vilages near Agia in Goalpara, located on the south bank of the mighty Brahmaputra.
It may be mentioned that NSD graduate and actress Pranami Bora conducted an 8-day workshop for the actors of the film at Badungduppa Kala Kendra premises, and MadanRabha and BasantaRabha were in charge of imparting accent training for the actors so that all of them could deliver their dialogues in the local accent.
The film has been edited by the legendary A Sreekar Prasad, while its sound design is by Amrit Pritam Dutta and music is by Anurag Saikia, all National Award winners. The cinematographer is Sumon Dowerah, a veteran of many award-winning and mainstream films in Assamese, while other prominent crew members are JItendra Mishra (executive producer), Hengul Medhi (final sound mixing), Monjul Baruah (associate director), Homen Borah (production manager), Golok Saha (art director), Rani Dutta Baruah (costumes) and Achitabh (Shanku) Baruah (make up). The assistant directors of the film were GhanshyamKalita, Ronal Hussain and MonujBorkotoky.
An M.Tech in Applied Geology from IIT-Roorkee, Utpal Borpujari won the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic at the 50th National Film Awards of India in 2003. As a professional journalist, apart from cinema, he has written extensively on politics, society, culture, literature, etc., while working with some of India’s top media houses. Since 2010, when he decided to turn a filmmaker, he has made several acclaimed documentary films that have been screened across the world in various film festivals. Among them are “Mayong: Myth/Reality” (2012), “Songs of the Blue Hills” (2013), “Soccer Queens of Rani” (2014) and “Memories of a Forgotten War” (2016). Borpujari has also served in international film juries as an erstwhile member of the International Federation of Film Critics, apart from having served on juries for National Film Awards and Indian Panorama. He has also curated films as well as served as a consultant for the Northeastern sections in the International Film Festival of India as well as various other film festivals. “Ishu” is his debut fiction feature. He is currently developing scripts for a Hindi and an Assamese film.
For connoisseurs of art and culture, Panchkula in Haryana was the place to be last week. This small township in the northern part of the country was host to the gala Silver Jubilee celebrations of the seven Zonal Cultural Centres (ZCCs) of the country. For four consecutive days, the Panchkula parade ground became the perfect setting for visitors and families from the nearby towns and areas to converge and soak in the vibrancy of India’s rich culture and tradition laid out in front of them in a nutshell. The seven ZCCs had constructed their own special villages where they displayed the entire spectrum of the culture of the various communities in their zones, much to the delight of the thousands who thronged the venue, despite the storm that lashed Chandigarh earlier this month.
The festival, titled ‘Matti ke Rang’, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the presence of AICC president Sonia Gandhi and Minister for Culture Kumari Selja.
Integration Through the Arts
For those who are unacquainted with the functioning of the ZCCs, these cultural centres were conceived by former Prime Minister late Rajiv Gandhi in a bid to promote national integration by disseminating the vibrancy India’s culture to its people in the rural areas. The foresightedness of our former Prime Minister can be gauged from this very act of his. He was one of the first to realise that the diversity of our country is “a practical reality and not just a theoretical concept”, and that culture is the most suitable tool that can be used as the base for national integration. For culture has the capacity to reach across to people, cutting across barriers of time, space, language, values and traditions.
It is pertinent to remember the words he spoke during the setting up of the ZCCs: “The performing arts reach across all communities, all language barriers, and have a unique role to spread the values that have inherited. Participating in the performing arts is an osmotic process of building values, awareness, familiarity and respect and even reverence for different strands in the rich tapestry of our civilisation and our heritage. So integrating our country must be seen as one of the functions of the performing arts today.”
The Zonal Cultural Centres (ZCCs) were set up 25 years ago in second-tier towns of the country so as to reach the people in the grassroots. Since its inception, these centres have been working towards its objectives to preserve, innovate and promote the projections and dissemination of folk arts, cutting across regional cultural borders and bring about unity through culture. The seven overlapping zones comprising the Zonal Cultural Centres have promoted, cross-promoted and created opportunities for cultural exposure and awareness among the people of different states and regions.
With the philosophical implication that the number 7 has, the seven ZCCs epitomizes a celebration of cosmic time and space. The seven ZCCs are North Zone Cultural Centre, Patiala, South Zone Cultural Centre, Thanjavur, Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre, Kolkata, West Zone Cultural Centre, Udaipur, North East Zone Cultural Centre, Dimapur, North Central Zone Cultural Centre, Allahabad, South Central Zone Cultural Centre, Nagpur.
The North East Zone Cultural Centre, which encompasses the eight States of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur and Sikkim, is based in Dimapur. With a competent staff led by a dynamic director in the form of Som Kamei, the Centre has been organizing a number of intra and inter-cultural events in all the States of the country, and even abroad. In Guwahati, the centre organizes regular events through its amphitheatre Shilpgram, which is located adjacent to the Kalakshetra.
Although the seven ZCCs did have a bleak period it between, it was able to rejuvenate itself and make a major contribution in the process of nation-building. The fact that it was able to complete 25 years did warrant a mega celebration, which resulted in the Silver Jubilee celebrations in Panchkula as it was.
When I say the Silver Jubillee celebrations were a gala affair, I mean every word I say. For the choreographed performances of the cultural event at the main stage, which were based on more than 15 singing forms and 12 martial arts, were performed by more than 1000 performing artists alone! During the day there were more than 30 art form performances being simultaneously enacted within seven Mini villages of all the seven Zonal cultural Centre of India. Large crowds thronged the courtyard of mini villages of the Seven Zonal Centres to purchase exquisite traditional items from various parts of the country. But the major highlight of the entire event was the food streets where the special cuisine of each zone was laid out for the visitors. Offering traditional and sumptuous food, the food area was undoubtedly the most sought after area during the entire celebrations. The master craftsmen who were ferried from the different nooks and crannies to set up their stalls also made brisk sales.
A number of popular and eminent arts performed across all four days of the celebrations. The highlight of the festival, however, was the concluding day ceremony when the audience was able to witness the entire spectrum of the country’s culture on a common platform. The choreographed dance presentation of the final day included the famed Chanting form of Sikkim, Thumchen from Jammu & Kashmir, Sankh Vadan from Orissa, Algoza from Rajasthan, Baul Kirtan from West Bengal, Bhortal from Assam, Jangam Gayan from Haryana, Bhakan from Jammu & Kashmir, Dhadhi from Punjab, Tati singers from Nagaland, Nirgun Bhajan from Rajasthan, Kajri Gayan from Uttar Pradesh, Golparia musical instruments from Assam and performance of Langa Mangniar singers from Rajasthan.
An exemplary martial arts display was also a major highlight of the celebrations as martial warriors from various parts of the country – Akhada wrestlers of Madhya Pradesh, Dahal Thungri from Assam, Dand Patta from Maharashtra, Diwali of Uttar Pradesh, Raibanshe of West Bengal, Dandia Gair of Rajasthan, Talwar Raas of Gujarat, Ruk mar Nacha of Odissa, Kalaripayattu art from Kerala, Naibul Thangta of Manipur, gatka of Punjab and Silambattam martial Art from Tamil Nadu – performed together on stage in perfect synchrony.
Northeast India Rules
Northeast India, too, was beautifully represented by the Dimapur-based North East Zone Cultural Centre, which had facilitated the travel and performance of a more than 2,000-member troupe for the festivities. Thanks to the able leadership of its chairman Nagaland Governor Nikhil Kumar and its director Som Kamei, the Silver Jubilee celebrations had begun in the twin cities of Dimapur and Jorhat last month itself.
A Special North-eastern Folk music and Dance presentation, depicting the rich and unique cultural milieu of the region, was also held on the concluding day of the festival. Around tribal music and dance forms were displayed in the event, which was inaugurated by Hon’ble Shri Paban Singh Ghatowar, Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER).
The dance forms from the Northeast which were displayed during the concluding day celebrations included Maibul Thangta dance from Manipur, Wangla from Meghalaya, Juju- Jhajha from Arunachal Pradesh, Tamang Selo from Sikkim, Ngada dance by Rengma from Nagaland, Barat dance from Assam, Hozagiri dance form of Tripura, Punh Cholam of Manipur, Bro Zai of Arunachal Pradesh, Ka Shad Mastieh of Meghalya, Sangrai Mog from Tripura, Singhi chham dance of Sikkim, Dhol Cholam dance of Manipur and Bohag Bihu dance of Assam.
Food is culture too!
Besides art camps, folk dance, handloom and handicraft exhibition and music performances and cultural exchange events, a major highlight of the three-day celebration in Panchkula was the food festival which sought to display the culture of the varied zones of the country through the prism of its cuisine. And judging from the response of the people, North-eastern food, which has been labelled exotic by many, was a clear favourite.
The food street behind each mini village offered a range of traditional cuisines prepared by chefs who were brought in from their zones especially for the celebrations. The North East Zone Culture Centre had also set up stalls for each of the eight States. While the Assamese food stall offered traditional lip smacking delicacies like Black rice Pudding, Chicken coconut rice and Rice beer, the Manipuri food stall offers unheard but very delectable cuisines like Eromba, Sinju, Proautti, Pakoda and Natuga. The Naga Food stall was also very popular for its famed Chicken with bamboo shoots whereas the Sikkim food stall offered its range of Special noodles, momos and other Tibetean dishes. Assamese rice powder gur ladoo and til gur ladddoo were also much sought after by the visitors from outside.
Not only the Northeast, the other Zones too laid down the best of its fares. While one at the Allahabad food stall couldn’t resist the temptation of tasting the Awadhi Dum Aaloo, Jalebi and the chaat papdi, the Maharashtrian food stall had Jawar ki roti and Baingan ka bharta. The popular Hyderabad food stall also served a variety of non vegetarian and vegetarian Biryani.
Art Should be Instrument of Change
The mega Silver Jubille celebrations of the ZCCs concluded amidst a lot of gaiety and merriment on April 16 last. As artists from various parts of the country came together on a common platform to project the diversity of the country, one could remember the words of late Zakir Hussain: “Arts should not only be a mirror of contemporary life but should function as an instrument of social change. There could be no better instrument than the medium of music, dance and drama to bring about national integration.”
For any organization, 25 years is a long time to look back in retrospect. As curtains came down on the celebration in the august presence of Hon’ble Union Minister of Culture Kumari Selja and Sh. H.E Shivraj V. Patil, the resolve of the people manning the ZCCs to usher in “development through culture” further deepened.