Assam Assamese cinema

The state of Assam, presently, is caught in its own miasmas, mired as it is in almost all spheres of life. In the political space, one finds that it is more or less driven by power and personality clashes across ideologies and parties. The news media, especially, television news seems to amplify these real and imagined rifts between parties and politicians relentlessly to create a specific political reality.

When it comes to tackling social problems like drug addiction and crime, the current government is facing flak from many quarters for adopting a questionable policy of shooting alleged criminals without a fair trial. The latest Assamese film named Black N White, although it’s an out-and-out popular crime action thriller, becomes interesting as it responds to these realities and situates its story in this very present immediate backdrop.

One is pleasantly surprised too, since the film becomes a more or less entertaining film (going by the rarity of sensible entertaining films in Assam) through its run time of around two odd hours. Stuart Hall, the pioneer of Cultural Studies, held that popular culture is interesting, not because of its artistry, but for the reason that it is an arena of ongoing conflict where the interests of the dominant and marginalised groups get reflected.

Black N White, directed by emerging filmmaker Dhanjit Das, is a more or less conscious exercise in creating an Assamese pulp crime film with a noirish flavour. As stated, the film’s plot and characters are inspired by the headlines of the day and the political grapevine in the region. As a result, it doesn’t take much longer for the local viewer to find an immediate connection with the film. However, the concoction involving shady politicians, manipulative journalists, slimy cops and shadowy drug dealers would have been far from arresting if it didn’t create the right plot and mood.

As far as the plot goes, it’s a decent one while the mood shuffles between darkly comedic and some thrill. Looking at the paucity of genuine crime films in Assam, the film is a relative triumph in current Assamese cinema. If not for the slightly botched-up second half, especially in the climax, Black N White would have surely gone the distance in this regard in a more emphatic way.

The plot involves the murder of two young emerging political leaders from the ruling party, and a continuing drug addiction crisis in the context of a looming critical election in the state. Aspersions and allegations are directed at certain members of the party for having close liaisons with drug dealers with the media highlighting the issue to no end.  The intra-party tensions rise as the party chief Raj Bhushan Pujari (played by Chinmoy Kotoki) publicly announces to deal with the matter squarely. Parallelly, we are introduced to the world of cops and drug peddlers via a lady cop named Gungun Sharma (Swagata Bharali) who is on the trail of a local drug network.

As Gungun seems to join the dots, she is side-tracked on the case by a nutty officer named Pratap (Raju Roy) who comes to the scene thanks to political intervention from the highest quarters in the system. The film offers not much commentary on the drug-politics nexus in the region but is nevertheless able to establish a credible universe involving characters caught in this crossfire. Two things help the proceedings in the film move in a more or less cogent manner.

Firstly, the narrative takes a non-judgmental attitude towards the characters who are all devious, crooked and screwed in varying measures. The character of the escort Maainee played by Darathie Bhardwaj is a case in point. She doesn’t seek an iota of sympathy from anyone including her partner in crime and bed. Secondly, there is no lead or protagonist in the film in the conventional sense. As a result, the core narrative of the film involving multiple characters on both sides of the law emerges more effectively.

In a word, the story is the hero in the film. Looked another way, there is the story of an upright female trapped in a gendered workspace, a tale of a politician’s troubled relationship with his wayward son and the morally compromised dynamic between a cop and his master. In this scheme of things, what gives the film its masala quotient is the extended cameo by star actor Ravi Sharma in a mysterious avatar. He is almost like the deux ex machina in a narrative devoid of any character who can be categorised in simple black-and-white terms.

The film is helped by fine efficient performances from the cast (apart from Ravi Sharma, almost all are relatively new comers) and adds to the overall edginess in the narrative. Swagata Bharali is very good as the plucky cop who is nonchalant about giving extra-judicial killings. NSD graduate Raju Roy shines as the unconventional cop Pratap who has always got an ace up his sleeve. The very reliable Chinmoy Kotoki fits like a glove in the role of the prominent political leader Raj Bhusan Pujari.

In a role which required both slyness and sensitivity, Atanu Mahanta as the journalist Abhi Saikia brings out ample vulnerability which helps in humanising the plot. Darathie Bhardwaj is undoubtedly an actor of some calibre as she has already displayed her versatility in a number of projects she has done so far (in Chanku Niranjan Nath’s Neul, Anupam Bora’s Bornodi Bhotiai).

In the technical aspects, director Dhanjit Das and his team keep things spiffy and lively too. The frames of cinematographer Chandra Kumar Das are engaging and the decision to use a grey tone for all the scenes with occasional reds and other colours in the shots give the film a distinct visual feel. Creative decisions in the department of colour can either give a film a symbolic import or conversely it may help in creating a stronger sense of verisimilitude.

In Black N White, the decision to use a greyish tone clearly veers towards the symbolism and underscores its grey characters and their world. In this respect, it is to be noted that Dahnjit Das in his anthology feature film, Xobdo Nixobdo Kolahol ( 2022) also played with the idea of sound to communicate its themes. The background music score is in itself not exceptional, but familiar tracks are used very innovatively to echo the psychological conflicts in the narrative.

Historically, the film noir genre was a response to the emerging socio-economic tensions in America during and after Second World War as it disturbed established roles of men and women in both the home and the world. Interestingly, the genre continues to evolve in disparate regions and film industries. Perhaps, in its own little way, Black N White attempts to craft a film of this genre in Assamese cinema. However, it is more Bombay masala noir than its American counterpart.    

Dhanjit Das, in making two very different films (Xobdo Nixobdo Kolahol and Black N White), in terms of treatment, theme and vision has displayed his flexibility and capability as a new director to watch out on the horizon of cinema in Assam. In both these films, he has come up with an evolved viewpoint on the subject matter and treatment. Das is indeed a welcome addition to the current crop of young directors animating the film screen in Assam.                 

Ankan Rajkumar

Ankan Rajkumar teaches Mass Communication in Assam Women’s University, Jorhat. He can be reached at: