Children’s Film Society, India (CFSI)-produced Assamese feature film “ishu” and Subimal Bhattacharjee-produced 2nd World War documentary “Memories of a Forgotten War”, both directed by Utpal Borpujari, continue to make Assam’s film industry proud.
“Ishu”, the debut fiction feature by National Award-winning film critic-filmkaer Borpujari, has been selected in competition sections of 11th International Children’s Film Festival Bangladesh to be held from January 27 and the 6th Toulouse Indian Film Festival, France, to be held in April.
On the other hand, “Memories of a Forgotten War” will have a special screening at the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), India’s biggest festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films.
Adapted from Manikuntala Bhattacharjya’s novel of the same name, “Ishu” has earned wholesome praise from viewers at Canada Kids Film Festival, 23rd Kolkata International Film Festival (where it received Best Film and Best Director nominations in the Indian Languages competition), 3rd Smile International Film Festival for Children and Youth (SIFFCY) New Delhi and 3rd Eye Asian Film Festival Mumbai. It was also screened at the 10th International Guwahati Film Festival organised by the Gauhati Cine Club.
“Memories of a Forgotten War” too has been appreciated for its in-depth research and depiction of the lesser-known events during the battles of 2nd World War in Manipur and Nagaland by viewers at the prestigious Indian Panorama sections of the 47th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) Goa, the Normandie 2nd World War Film Festival in France, the Fragrances of the North East Film Festival in Pune and the 5th Woodpecker International Film Festival in New Delhi where it won the Best Film on North East India award.
“it’s a great honour that both the films are simultaneously travellng to prestigious film festivals. As someone who strongly believes in depicting untold stories from North East India cinematically, I feel highly encouraged about it,” says Borpujari.
Noted defence analyst and cyber security expert Subimal Bhattacharjee, the producer of “Memories of a Forgotten War” too is elated at the selection of the film in MIFF. “It’s great that the two major reasons we made the film for are getting appreciated: one, it’s an important part of the history of Northeastern India that needed to be looked at from humanistic point of view before it faded away and too late, and two, that as someone hailing from the region, I feel strongly about bringing out positive narratives from Northeastern India that is often in the news for the wrong reasons,” he says.
Incidentally, “Ishu” marks the screen debut of Kapil Garo from Sonapur Baroghoria village on the outskirts of Guwahati in the title role, and also stars Bishnu Kharghoria, Tonthoingambi Leishangthem Devi, Chetana Das, Pratibha Choudhury, Monuj Borkotoky, Dipika Deka and Nibedita Bharali. Others in the cast include Mahendra Das, Rajesh Bhuyan, Naba Kumar Baruah, Monuj Gogoi, etc. Other child actors in the film include Mahendra Rabha, Srabanta Rabha and Uday Rabha.
Several actors from the Badungduppa Kala Kendra of famed theatre personality Sukracharjya Rabha have also acted in the film, including Dhananjay Rabha and Basanta Rabha. Sukracharjya Rabha has penned the dialogues along with Borpujari.
The film has been edited by A Sreekar Prasad, while its sound design is by Amrit Pritam Dutta and music is by Anurag Saikia. The cinematographer is Sumon Dowerah, 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 Ghanshyam Kalita, Ronal Hussain and Monuj Borkotoky.
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.
On the other hand, “Memorie of a Forgotten War” depicts the extreme valour, sacrifice and sufferings of thousands of soldiers and local people in the Northeast Indian theatre of World War II. The film brings the story alive through reminiscences of a number of war veterans from Japan, Britain and India as well as war witnesses from Manipur and Nagaland, where some of the most ferocious battles of World War II took place during 1944 climaxing with the famous Battle of Kohima.
The film was shot in Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi as well Japan and the UK by a multinational crew. Its background score is by Anurag Saikia.
“Ishu” trailer link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mf7gLpg9qc
“Memories of a Forgotten War” trailer link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mw78ftewbmQ
The last few days have been quite momentous for the Indian film industry due to the release of two sensational films. While one was the Hindi version of a South Indian blockbuster, the other was a western director’s adaptation of an Indian novel. Yes, you’re right. I am indeed referring to the Amir Khan-starrer Ghajini and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. The readers of this weekly column would know me to be more into music and Art than in films and even I had thought it to be better to refrain from offering my humble opinion. But then I could not escape witnessing the highly intense debate on Slumdog Millionarie allegedly depicting India in a big light, which seems to have engulfed the entire country over the last few days. Legendary Bollywood celebrity Amitabh Bachhan had also ventured forth to slam the film and so did a number of professionals from various walks of life. And just a couple of days back, exhorting all Indians to refrain from watching it, Arindam Choudhury of IIPM and ‘Sunday Indian’ fame, claimed Slumdog Millionarie to be “a phoney poseur that been made only to mock India for the viewing pleasure of the First World!” That was the moment I decided to offer my own thoughts.
To start with, I feel we would all do better if we leave aside this talk of “aggrieved national sentiment”. Contrary to what many are saying, Slumdog Millionarie has not been “highly acclaimed just because it has been made by a foreign filmmaker”. And unlike what Mr Choudhury claims, it is also not “an endorsement of an erstwhile imperial mindset of the West and its blinkered vision of India”. Come on! Slumdog Millionarie is just a piece of enthralling cinema with an artistic touch, made with the sole aim of providing entertainment. It is not, and was never meant to be, a portrayal of India’s poverty or a documentary at that. The film is only a story of hope — one that reemphasises the age-old adage that one has to cross a lot of adversaries in order to make it to brighter times. After all, who thought that a movie which begins with violence would progress to become an anthem of friendship, love and joy?
And for those, Mr Choudhury included, who still believe that people like me have an inherent fascination for “satisfying some imperialist design”, I would like to tell them, with my limited knowledge of world cinema, to watch films like Trainspotting, This is England, American History X, and the like. I say this because even these films depict crime, violence, corruption and the darker side of western countries. Herein, one should remember that a country or a place does not become bad just because a film dares to show what we generally try to hide in a corner of our minds. If so was the case, films like the ones which I just mentioned would never have been made. In a way, it is imperative that these types of films are made once in a while. For we need to remind ourselves of the reality we live in. That is the only way we will ever find a solution to the problems plaguing our country. Otherwise, whenever we cross a busy road or junction and find a beggar approaching us for alms, we will forever keep turning our heads away, trying to keep the scene in a remote corner where we are least likely to be reminded of its existence.
If we look at it, Slumdog Millionaire depends to a huge extent on the time-tested Bollywood strategy of a fight among orphan brothers due to a clash of ideologies, the streets, brothels, separation, fights and the final sacrifice for a happy life thereafter. Yes, it is based on impoverishment. But for a change, why don’t we stop looking at the background and concentrate more on the foreground? Despite all this talk about a resurgent India, slums in Indian cities are a fact. Poverty is a fact. We might criticize Danny Boyle for depicting a wrong picture of Indian poverty, but are we aware that the Art director of the film — the person who designed the entire slums and props used — is an Indian, and a Mumbaikkar at that, by the name of Abhishek Redkar? I am sure most of us don’t but still we criticize. After getting to watch such a fantastic response of the world audience towards the story of a couple of orphans in an Indian slum, don’t you think it’s better if take the film as a honest criticism and devise ways to eradicate this poverty instead?
And then there are those who lament the lack of exposure for India’s talents. To be very frank, this theory has started becoming very repetitive now. I grew up listening to this tirade first as an Asomiya, then as a Northeasterner and finally as an Indian. Don’t you think its time to move on? And for all those who want to compare this film with Salaam Bombay, I seriously believe that Art is one subject which should never be judged by comparison. While it is true that the earlier portrayal of Mumbai had its own characteristics, it is also a fact that Slumdog Millionaire is exclusive in its own right. But why am I wasting so much of the editor’s valuable print space? Slumdog Millionaire would never satisfy the traditionalist Indian because it neither has comical underworld dons, glorifying pseudo-nationalism nor raunchy item numbers to satiate the hungry desires of the sexually oppressed Indian masses.
Coming around to something which I am more comfortable doing, I would rate AR Rahman’s music in the film as a commendable effort. For someone who has become habituated with the familiar sounds of Indian films, it did take some time for the film’s music to go down my system. But in retrospect, shorn of its Indianness, the film’s score has indeed fetched a brownie for Rahman. And finally, I would suggest you all to go and watch the film, instead of introspecting about it, and decide for yourselves. I guess that’s always the easiest way around!
Which kid didn’t get the chance to savour the beauty of comics? Almost every one of us have, I guess. On a personal note, I have fond memories of growing up with my regular quota of Archies, Tintin, Tinkle, Asterix, our very own Chacha Choudhury, Billu and other popular cartoon characters. For long though, comics have been relegated to the ‘you have to grow out of it’ category, just in the same manner that animation used to be an exclusive domain of kids. Surprisingly, however, comics have proved to be an interesting and rich medium for crafting stories for adults. Over the years, even my concept about comics has undergone a sea change. From being just a method to while away time and also as a mere source of entertainment, I have started regarding comic books as a strong social tool, having the power to be a catalyst in major social developmental processes.
My thought process can be traced back to my stay in New Delhi quite a few years back when I used to watch like-minded cartoonists, journalists, film-makers, research students, businessmen, professionals, sportspersons, bike racers, and what not, use cartoons as their preferred medium to drive home a strong social message. Using cartoons and motorbikes, these dynamic individuals used to travel to quite a few places, campaigning for strong social issues like girl child infanticide, foeticide, drug addiction, the menace of HIV and AIDS and the like. That was the time I realized the power of visualization and though quite a few years have passed since then, I still continue to be overwhelmed with comics as a subject.
The concept of graphic novels, though still in a very nascent stage, is slowly picking up in India. And one of the forerunners in the field of graphic novels in India – Parismita Singh, whose debut graphic novel The Hotel at the end of the world was recently released by Penguin books – has a very strong connection with Asom. Hailing from Asom, Singh’s debut novel recreates Asomiya folklore in a language that will stay with you long after you turn the last page, even though she likes to maintain that her debut work is based on universal surroundings.
The Hotel at the end of the world is a mixture of inter-related stories narrated by the inmates of a dhaba in some remote hills of the Northeast. The novel begins with a couple of strange characters – called as Kona and Kuja – seeking refuge from a raging storm in the hotel. With the company of the other customers in the hotel and as the drinks flowed, stories were narrated, stories which began with the strange traveller’s quest for a floating island. Interlinked with each other, the stories play around the mind of the reader, just like the mist and rain that surrounds the hotel at the end of the world all year round.
The stores might be the ones Parismita had heard as a child. But the inspiration from folktales has been minimal. Take Kona and Kuja for instance, these are characters which exist in certain Asomiya folklores. In the novel, they are two friends; one has legs that end at his knees and the other can see far-off things but not what’s in front of his nose. But, as Parismita says, her retelling of it in their wild adventures to China and then to find the floating island are hers alone. She also recreated the Nightwalker, a character found in different storytelling traditions, poignantly.
As a debut offering, Parismita’s narrative is fresh, powerful and flows easily. All in all, a wonderful offering and we look forward to more from her.
Shillong. How does one describe this quaint little hill town in the north-eastern periphery of India? More than the cool breeze and the droplets of rain that tantalize your skin as you walk through its meandering roads, this scenic town is known for its fixation with rhythm; for it is a place where you don’t go around searching for music but let the music find you. It would not be wrong to say that besides its peculiar small-town charms, Shillong is best defined by music. And why not? Thanks to the strong Christian tribal population and the strong influence of western culture in the lives of the people, this small town is one of the most vibrant western music destinations in the world.
But there can be musical surprises even in a place like Shillong which is so deeply soaked in music. I am talking about the Shillong Chamber Choir, a unique choir group based on Meghalaya’s rich musical traditions that has mesmerised people across the globe. Led by seasoned concert pianist Neil Nongkynrih, the choir group recently returned from South Korea, having bagged a silver medal in the World Choir Championships that was held there. Had the organizers not cancelled the championships due to the outbreak of the swine flu epidemic, the members of the choir group feel they could have easily brought home a gold medal.
The year 2009 has been particularly good for the choir group. Earlier this year, the group collaborated with the Vienna Orchestra for a concert held in Shillong and later, in Kolkata. The collaboration with the Vienna Orchestra created musical history for the town of Shillong for it was the first time that a full member western-classical orchestra collaborated with local artists from Shillong in their own backyard. Then last month, the choir bagged the silver medal at the World Choir Championships in South Korea. Talking about the Korea tour, co-Chairman of the Meghalaya State Planning Board Aubrey Scott Lyngdoh, who led the team, said, “We were the first team ever to represent India in a World Choir Championship. Judging from that angle itself, our participation in the world championships is a matter of honour for not only Meghalaya, but the entire Northeast.”
The World Choir Championships — also known as Choir Olympics — brings together choir groups from all over the world, including some of the famous bands from Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America. The achievement has now placed the Shillong Chamber Choir as one of the leading choirs, not only in India but also in the international circuit. Though the championship is divided into three categories, the choir could compete in only one as the entire event was cancelled due to the outbreak of swine flu. Lyngdoh said, “We were expecting a gold medal at least in the gospel and general categories. But the silver medal is still a big inspiration for us as we were competing against the best choir groups of the world. This has raised our level to international standards.” The gold medal went to the former world champion Elfa from Indonesia. Lyngdoh feels that even though the choir failed to bag the gold, their impressive performance has elevated Shillong into international focus. “Now people from all across the world want to know more about the Shillong Chamber Choir,” he said, adding that a section of the audience rated the choir group’s performance to be very high. “We are now receiving a lot of enquiries as to who are the Khasis, Jaintias and the Garos,” he added.
Band manager of the Shillong Chamber Choir Bill Richmond, who was part of the entourage to South Korea, said that the group also performed in several other parts of Korea. “The choir group went with only 17 members and had to compete with groups consisting of more than 80 members. The choir later participated in several “friendship concerts” in and around Forbidden City, the main venue of the championships.” Reminiscing about the choir’s performances, Lyngdoh said, “The people really appreciated the choir. When rains threatened to halt one particular concert at an open-air venue, the organizers provided the audience with free raincoats so that they could stay and watch our performance.”
A way of life
Now let’s start from the beginning. The Shillong Chamber Choir was formed in 2001 by acclaimed concert pianist Neil Nongkynrih who wished to bring together some like-minded singers to produce a variety of music, rather than being limited to only one kind. The choir’s versatility reflects itself in the age of the members: while the youngest member is a 13-year old, the oldest is all of 27 years. The group’s debut performance saw 25 soloists assembling at Pinewood Hotel on January 14 and 15, 2001 for the first performance of a chamber choir in the city, and the same was a resounding success. There has been no looking back for the choir and its members since then. But along its journey, the Shillong Chamber Choir has stopped being only about music and rather, it has become a way of life.
A Khasi folk opera
Their repertoire now includes pieces from Handel, Bach, Gershwin, Mozart, Neil Nongkynrih’s compositions, Khasi folk songs as well as popular adaptations of Queen and ABBA. As Neil says, “We play all kinds of music; the sole criteria for selection of the music is its possession of positive vibrations, which uplifts one.” The group however won the silver medal for their performance of Sohlyngngem, a Khasi folk opera. Sohlyngngem tells the story of a girl who had to encounter a lot of hurdles in love. Struck with grief at having lost her lover, the girl finally turns into a bird (Sohlyngngem). “It was a great privilege to showcase music written in Khasi, which is now considered one of the dying languages of the world. Winning the silver medal was simply out of the world,” says Neil. Sohlyngngem dwells a lot on contemporary socio-political events in Khasi society, touching on quite a few areas of humane interest, like multi-culturism, hypocrisy, alcoholism, cruelty to animals, the unusual role of the maternal uncle in a matrilineal society, lost love and the like. In the words of the composer, “My obsession with Sohlyngngem perhaps has a lot to do with my desire to promote Khasi folklore through different forms of expression. The folk opera has been made in such a way that it appeals to the young generation and keeps them close to their culture. The opera itself is based on a very dark subject that is interspersed with dark comedy.”
And Neil’s attempt to promote Khasi folklore in the form of an opera is an idea exclusive in itself. Whoever thought that the bunch of young singers would ever be able to reflect the varied emotional undertones of the subject of the folklore through just their voices? “The voice of north-easterners, especially of the Khasis, has elements of a certain kind of sorrow in it, an unique emotional appeal. It perfectly complements the Khasi folktales which are mostly tragic in nature.”
The story of the Shillong Chamber Choir is closely linked to that of its founder Neil Nongkynrih, who left for England to learn music much against the wishes of his father. Once in England, Neil learnt from the best and made his mark as a successful concert pianist but fate had other plans in store for him. After numerous shows as a concert pianist in Britain, he felt his music was getting “elitist and commercial.” He tells me, “I came home only once in the 13 years I had been away. I was doing well professionally and a glittering career awaited me, but I felt ashamed with my own life. Doctors said I was stressed out, I needed rest and what better place could be there for that than home? I had come here for just a short vacation but once I came, I felt that I was needed here. That’s a great thing you know – the feeling that you’re needed.”
Once in Shillong, Neil, a man who is always in search for something new, finally found a purpose: start his own choir group, that is. The beginning was difficult for it was hard to find members. “I was frustrated with people who would come to the choir for short intervals and then go back to join their schools, colleges and places of work. I decided to take a risk and start my own school where I would teach them music as well as their regular courses of study.” Accordingly, Neil started his ‘home school’ in 2002 with his first student Ibarisha Lyngdoh. All of 16 years, Ibarisha is the “mascot of the home school”, having been gifted with an amazing voice. The young talent can sing in Khasi, Hindi, Asomiya, English, French, German, Italian and Latin. “Such is the potential of this girl that she gave a solo recital in Switzerland at the age of 13,” says Nongkynrih with pride.
A place to blossom
“I am very concerned about the present educational scenario in our country that prevents children from being their true selves. I don’t want my school to be labelled in any way for it is different. I just want my school to be a place where children can blossom and be their true selves,” says Neil, when I question him about his home school. So does his belief have its roots in his own school days? “Yes, I did not enjoy studies and my school,” says Neil, “I guess that’s why I used to spend most of my time playing the piano to escape the drudgery of studies.”
Each of Neil’s students has a story to tell; each different from the other. “Initially, I felt like taking only musically-gifted children but after sometime, I felt that was being too elitist,” says Neil. Most of the students come from troubled families or suffer from some sort of mental disability. Some parents just come and hand over their child so that they turn into a “good human being”. “These children now stay with me. The school is about living together and enjoying music. For me, music is a means to participate in the society.”
Though he claims that he is no social activist, Neil has proved with his home school that music is also a way to reconnect with life. One of his lead singers, Johanan Lyngdoh, is a 19-year-old former drug addict whose family had given up on him and left him at Neil’s house one day. The music and “Uncle Neil’s” ministrations brought him back from the brink. Similar is the story of another young girl Mika Phanbuh, who has been diagnosed by doctors as suffering from Down’s Syndrome – an illness which prevents one from leading a normal life. Thanks to the music and care in Neil’s home school, Mika can now sing, play the piano and even read music! “For me, Mika is as much a star as Ibarisha is. If she had been left to your ordinary system, she would have spent the rest of her life in a mental facility.” I remember watching in absolute amazement as Mika cuddled up with her mentor, her Uncle Neil, who then told me, “We are planning to make a little album where Mika will play the piano with the Shillong Chamber Orchestra backing her.”
Jessica Shaw Lyngdoh, another talented member of the choir, tells me, “The education that is imparted here is life changing. It’s not all about singing, but it’s about evolving spiritually. One of the most important lessons Uncle Neil taught me was to lead by example. He is more than just a teacher; he is more of a father figure to me.”
God is the source of all healing
“Sometimes, I feel I am unrighteous in giving too much credit to music. Healing power comes from God who gives us all different skills; music is just one of them. The ultimate source of all healing is God,” says Neil, slipping into a retrospective sort of mode, when questioned about the relevance and healing power of today’s music. He continued, “You know, 85 per cent of the music today does not heal. We talk about rock and metal being a bad influence on our youngsters, but so are love songs. If we look at it, love songs have done more damage than any other musical genre.”
It is a fact that today’s youngsters, as can be seen in our very own Northeast India, are more into rock and pop music than any other genre. Neil, however, is still confident about the reach and relevance of Classical music. “Although people like me will never be popular, I feel my work will have much greater impact in the future than it has now. I don’t think even Mozart or Bach were aware that their music would be played this often.”
Besides its relevance in contemporary world, Neil is more concerned about his music being a journey in spirituality, towards the truth. “I have spent my life in the quest of truth. Truth is not always wonderful; at times it is not to everybody’s liking. But the truth is part of god’s laws of nature. My music, as well as my life, is governed by this very law. I would never ever want to know that my life here on earth was overrated, which sadly is the story of most popular artistes nowadays.”
The journey continues
Besides planning future concerts in several parts of the world, Neil Nongkynrih is also working on his next Khasi opera – an epic of hope which is based on the life of St Mary Magdalene. “St Magdalene is a name that has been much abused, but she still remains a symbolic hope for humanity. She is an inspirational saint; she is an example for those who lost hope, for those who think that there is no more time to change and for those who wants to correct what is wrong. I have crafted the story from the point of a woman – a sinner without any hope – who finally meets the dawn of her life.”
Even after having tasted international success, the members of the Shillong Chamber Choir remain committed in their pursuit of the truth. In the words of its founder, “The choir is not about people who just want to reach higher grounds; it’s made up of people who are really committed to their music. Earlier the story was different but for the members of the choir now, music is just the means towards the truth and not the ultimate goal.”
The journey continues…