Manju Baruah is one of the eminent filmmakers of Assam. Her films on different social and historical aspects of Assam have won awards in different national and international festivals, along with critical appreciation.
This interview was first published in the 5th issue (2011-2012) of ‘Srijan’, the annual magazine of Tezpur University. She spoke to Bhaskarjyoti Bhattacharjya and Kuldeep Sarma. It was translated from Assamese by Parag Kumar Deka.
1. Baideu, tell us something about your childhood.
: I was born and brought up in a village. The atmosphere of my village was a very inspiring one. Various festivals like Bihu, Raas and various plays and bhaonas, organized on those occasions were a part of our life. Moreover, the village library maintained by the village youths was a precious asset of everyone. We had great respect for those who showed exceptional skills in acting or singing. I was not an actor or a singer, but I was an avid reader, and had read many great works of Assamese as well as of world literature. I was in an Assamese medium school, but at the encouragement and guidance of my teachers, I had stated reading many English novels as early as class five or six. It had a lot of impact on my own practice as a writer. Moreover, I was very interested in watching films, and I did not miss a single movie that was screened in the nearby theatres. During Kaali puja and Durga puja, there was the tradition of screening films near our house. Whenever there were new films in the theatres, my father would hire a taxi and take all of us to it. All of these together helped a lot in strengthening my bond with the world of art and culture.
After I got married, my husband, who had seen my stories and other works published in various newspapers and journals, inspired me to do something in this field. Then suddenly, an opportunity showed up. I got a chance to work with Rajen Rajkhowa in his television serial Patharughate Ringiyai. This gave me some first-hand experience in various aspects of film-making. So, that was the beginning.
2. How did your first film happen?
: After Patharughate Ringiyai, I was to Delhi, where I got the opportunity to work with one Lampard, a British director working as a co-ordinator on a BBC TV serial. Returning to Assam after one year, I teamed up with Rajen Rajkhowa for an Assamese feature-film Sapon. During the shooting for this film, my co-workers inspired me a lot to become an independent film-maker.
3. Who were the Assamese film-makers whose works you admired before entering into film-making?
: I had watched mainly Bhabendra Nath Saikia and Jehnu Barua. I was enchanted. In Jahnu Barua, I like the brevity of his craft. Because of this, his films are so well appreciated both India and abroad. The most important aspect of Barua’s films is that they reflect the Assamese society. Despite of this, his films can transcend the barriers of geography and they have a universal appeal.
On the other hand, Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s films had different kind of appeal for me. His films had often a very good and robust storyline. Moreover, his detailed treatment of the films is another important aspect. This gives his films a lifelike quality, which makes the audience feel like reading a novel. His cinematic language is very beautiful.
4. What is your view on using glamour in a film?
: If one wants to make a purely artistic film, without considering the commercial success, then glamour is not required. But since a film requires a considerably huge budget, it is not possible to ignore the market.
Every director would like to get his or her favorite actor in a film. That is natural. Therefore, one can not overlook the role played by a popular artist in taking the film to a wider audience.
5. In Assam, what is the most expensive aspect of film-making?
: Mostly, it is the camera, since the cameras have to be hired from outside. Moreover, nowadays, the cost of transportation has increased a lot. Apart from that, if one wants good sound editing and music that would be a bit expensive, too.
In Assam, the payment of the artist is not high, which comes as a great relief for the film-makers.
6. Do you consider the mobile theatre of Assam to be a threat to the film industry?
: No, it is not a threat. The mobile theatre is an indigenous industry of Assam. These theatre groups visit many remote and interior places of the state, which is one of the principal factors behind their success and popularity. Assamese films would have got the same response, had there been cinema halls in those places. In fact, what threatens the Assamese film industry is the insufficient number of cinema halls in the state.
7. Baideu, tell us something about your film Akasitorar Kathare.
: The film is based on a story of mine, called ‘Naimittik Pralai’, where the protagonist had a stroke and she was confined to the bed. When she was well, she had taken care of the whole household, but now she is unattended and uncared for.
I have incorporated the devadasi dance in this film as these customs are nothing but pretences for exploiting women in the name of religion.
8. Despite its distinct feminine overtones, you have not portrayed the character of Akasitora as a dissenter. Rather, you have made her accept the unjust laws of the patriarchal system. What is the reason for this?
: After watching the film, many people have asked me the same question. Had I portrayed Akasitora as a voice of protest, she would have been remembered as a remarkable woman. But I did not want to do that. Because despite being highly educated, Akasitora is an ordinary human being, like numerous other women, she too is a part of this social structure.
9. What according to you are the reasons for the sorry state Assamese film industry?
: There are many factors involved in it. Apart from the towns and cities, most of the remote places do not have one single movie theatre. Though Guwahati has many cinema halls, it is a linguistically diverse place. Because of this or some other reasons, people are more interested in Hindi films rather than Assamese films. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to open cinema halls in Assamese majority areas. And then, the Hindi films have much more larger budgets than the Assamese movies. But even if someone makes a big budget Assamese film, where will the audience come from? For the lake of an adequate budget, the Assamese film-makers have to forgo many of the advanced technologies. Therefore, it is not surprising that some people do not find these low budget Assamese films to their taste.
10. Do you feel that the VCD films have any impact upon the full-length films?
: Yes, in a positive way, they have. These films have created a new batch of actors in Assam, which in turn helps the film directors to choose their artists from amongst them. Moreover, it has also improved their acting skills.
11. Do you feel that our increasing obsession for an English medium education has resulted in a neglect of our own language and culture, and has thus indirectly affected the regional film industry as well?
: If English medium schools put equal emphasis on Assamese, it would not harm the Assamese culture. But in reality, in those schools, the Assamese language is always treated with negligence. At first, we may feel proud of our knowledge of English, but ultimately, ignorance of our own languages would make us rootless and despicable. In fact, people who neglect their own mother-tongue are not real human-resource.
12. Tell us something about the audience response that your films have got.
: Many of films, right from Baibhav to Jaimati were aimed at a handful of audience. As for, Jaimati, I feel that only people related to film-studies would like it. And is they do, then my purpose will fulfilled.
On the other hand, some other films like Anya Ek Jatra, Laaj have received very warm response from the audience. People still come to me asking for CDs of Laaj.
13. How do you negotiate the question of the budget and business in your films?
: It is very difficult, especially in the present condition of the Assamese film-industry. Till now I have cut my cloth according to the coat. Basically, it’s the demand of the story that decides the budget. Though there has not been much income from the films, the various awards that I have received have been a source of great financial relief. Moreover, selling the royalties of the films to Doordarshan and other television channels has also helped in striking a balance in the equation of the expenditure and income.
14. What should be the marketing policy of a film-maker?
: That was a good question. The present age is of the electronic media. Therefore, many producers, overemphasizing the role of the media, spend huge sums of money on marketing and promotion. But I personally consider it meaningless, because if a film possesses a good storyline, tight script and access to adequate. Therefore, instead of spending large amounts of money in advertisement, the directors should rely on positive words of mouth and of course on the quality of the film, so that it can stand the test of time. But that does not mean that I completely rule out the role of marketing. A minimum account of marketing is of course necessary for the promotion of a film.
15. Baideu, what do you feel are the expectations of today’s audience from a film-maker?
: A fast paced story, intense conflict, novelty, etc. Therefore, every film-maker who wants commercial success of his or her films should always look for novelty in his or her films.
16. Tell us something about your future projects.
: Presently, I am planning to make a film based on Syed Abdul Malik’s Ruptirthar Jatri. We’ll start its shooting from March, 2012.
17. Would you like to say something to the youth of Tezpur University and Assam?
: I would request them not to forget their roots. Whatever they go in this world, they should not hesitate to introduce themselves as Assamese. In order to know others, one has to know oneself first. If one wants to learn Western music, first of all they have to be acquainted with the musical legacy of Jyotiprasad, Bishnu Rabha, Bhupen Hazarika. Therefore, all that I would like to tell them is “know your people, know your land”.