Cultural elites may scoff, but making popular films is a challenge and entertaining all sections of people is serious business

The success of the recent film Local Utpaat is indicative of quite a few things in the local film production, business and audience cultures of Assam. In terms of production, it can be safely said that this new band of directors like Kenny Deori Basumtary are adept in conceptualizing and executing low-budget flicks.

They display a keen business sense and plan in the face of a local exhibition system which is tilted towards popular fare from Bombay cinema for various reasons. Bypassing this logjam is critical for Assamese film producers and directors, and particularly Basumatary, it seems, have cracked a way to remain alive and relevant in the current media and social climate.

What is implied here is that these days audiences have become picky, and major OTT platforms are leaving no stone unturned to tap into the burgeoning viewer bases in India’s small towns and villages. The recent success of Amazon Prime’s web series Panchayat is a pointer to this development.

It is precisely here that a film like Local Utpaat scores, because it is able to communicate to the youth directly sans the baggage of popular film conventions and celebrate themes closer to the young generation like friendship and individuality.

Kenny Deori Basumatari burst into the film scene of Assam almost ten years ago with the cheeky Local Kung Fu. This film contained all the types of jokes and action sequences with which Basumatari has come to be associated with. For a regional film industry like Assam which was and is still struggling to make successful films as well as finding it difficult to connect with the masses, Local Kung Fu seemed to point towards a model of sustainable filmmaking in the context of Assam.

In fact, Kenny Deori Basumatary can be termed an independent filmmaker in the present day Assamese film industry for at least two-three reasons. First, he mostly crowd funds his films, and thanks to his years as an actor in Hindi film, he is able to generate a buzz around his films nationally with noted Mumbai film professionals endorsing them.

Secondly, he is doing away with formulaic casting and themes usually associated with popular Assamese films by placing his stories in the local ethnic mosaic. Thirdly, his filmmaking has contributed to the popular film form and culture in Assam as it has challenged the usual assumptions of the audiences and the industry.

Additionally, his overall strategy as a filmmaker as already mentioned, reveals a keen understanding of the local film business and audience psyche, or rather one would say, he has a found a way to subvert them successfully. For these reasons alone, Basumatary emerges as a fresh innovative director, capable as he is in combing action comedy with snide/smart social commentary consistently.

Thus, he is not exactly an avant-garde or neither an independent filmmaker nor a conventional commercial filmmaker as it is generally understood. To pin him down, one may say he is a local filmmaker of Assam with the awkward energy of independent filmmaking who has the nose for the commerce of a B film director.

Kenny Deori Basumatry’s first film as a director Local Kung Fu (2012) turned out to be a sleeper hit as word-of-mouth publicity and the genuine slap dash humour on display helped the film connect with a cross-section of viewers in Assam and parts of metropolitan India where it had a limited theatrical release.

Over time, the film has developed a cult following in Assam with its characters and dialogues becoming the stuff of social media memes and thus a part of youth culture in Assam. The maker has not let the euphoria around his sophomore venture go waste as the film had a sequel (Local Kung Fu 2, 2017) which too proved to be a hit. Helping the momentum were the short video skits with the characteristic Kenny brand of humour via the popular YouTube channel ‘Heavy Budget’ (a pun on his own low budget films) which is run by his talented family relatives and friends.

It is interesting to note that Kenny Deori Basumatary has cleverly used and appropriated the term ‘local’ in his films. It is a kind of self-referential vis-à-vis postmodern play, yet also an indication of smart film branding (probably going toward franchise development) in a parched market. The 1970s saw the trend of ‘exploitation films’ in America and parts of Europe wherein a talented group of filmmakers milked plots and themes centre around tense social issues of the times like racial identity, crime, sex and other deviant aspects.

The unique thing about these bunch of films was that they were able to successfully address specific groups of audiences like, for instance, the youth with topical and risqué narratives. Made on low budget and consequently having low production values, films of this category like Shaft (1971) and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) have influenced filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, who reveals and celebrates such cult films in his own creations.

Kenny Deori Basumatary’s ‘local’ films seem to have taken a leaf out of this generic topography albeit via Hong Kong action cinema. All his four films have displayed an instinctive feel for the action, situational humour and smart lines which have been laid out with relatable character types and outlandish bad guys while relaying progressive sexual politics.

For example, if Local Kung Fu-2 highlighted the need for the destigmatization of homosexuality, Local Utpaat celebrates an unconventional heterosexual couple. The template may not make for great looking frames and great cinematic flair but has so far resulted in a medley which is distinctively Kenny’s own.

Probably, more important are the issues and anxieties of the current young generation which are mirrored than these filmic matters. At a time when insurgency of various hues have shown a decline, and a sizeable portion of youth from the region have emigrated to urban centres of India in search of jobs and opportunities, the current youth culture of Assam is finding expression in myriad ways in the cyberspace and showing trends like cultural hybridization.

Broader socio-economic changes wrought by globalization have produced a kind of disjuncture in the subjective experiences of the youth with the indigenous folk and ethnic cultural practices in the region. Kenny Deori Basumatary’s films seem to reflect and express this dimension in a light-hearted manner rather than portraying a specific social reality.

Although at times reminiscent of the feel of video films and reality TV gags, Basumatary has been able to explore the world of the local youth culture in a manner not yet mastered by the mainstream Assamese literary and cultural narratives like the ever-popular mobile theatre or the local television serials.

Kenny Deori Basumatary is a gifted and sincere writer-actor-filmmaker who has a mind of his own and knows what he is doing. Cultural elites may scoff, but making popular films is a challenge and entertaining all sections of people is serious business. In an interaction on a YouTube podcast channel, Basumatary has expressed his desire to make cop dramas and murder mysteries in the tradition of Agatha Christie.

With no stars, and in a market where action comedies have hardly been attempted, Basumatary’s films are also an affront to the general film industry and audience assumptions about what exactly makes a film commercially viable and popular. With the Bhaskar Hazarika (of Aamis fame) produced Emuthi Puthi (where Kenny Deori Basumatary is one of the leads) around the corner, these are mildly exciting times for cinema in Assam.

Ankan Rajkumar

Ankan Rajkumar teaches Mass Communication in Assam Women’s University, Jorhat. He can be reached at: ankan_9@rediffmail.com