In the last decade of the previous century when the Department of Traditional Culture and Art Form was established at Tezpur University (a few years after its inception it was being renamed the Department of Cultural Studies) fortunately this author was a student of its first batch. Dr. Jawaharlal Handoo, a renowned folklorist, joined as a guest professor. He taught us various theories of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and other discourses of folk culture.

While we were in the fourth semester, Dr. Handoo taught us extensively about post-modernism. During our university days, we got a lot of opportunities to exchange our thoughts with this scholar on divergent issues of folk culture and cultural studies. Dr. Handoo, a keen critic of Indian cinema, especially Mumbai-centric Hindi films, often told us that most of the films made in Mumbai until the 1990s were repetitions of the original story of the Ramayana.

Referring to several very popular Hindi films, Dr. Handoo said that the main story of such films is always the same. The story is about the hero and the heroine who fall in love and their love story moves through a romantic fantasy. Suddenly, a villain in the form of ‘Ravana’ appears between the heroes and heroines. While the hero is very handsome in appearance, the villain is a man who looks ugly and unattractive.

Almost in every film such a villain himself or with the support of his companions often kidnaps the heroine and eventually the hero of the film by himself or sometimes with the help of others (It is almost mandatory in such films to kill the villain or send him to jail) frees the heroine from the villain. The very last scene of the film ends with a song scene that expresses the beginning of the hero and heroine’s reunion or marriage.

We made an attempt to analyze the phenomenon of why the Indian audience is very much recipient of such stereotype stories and always apprise the same storyline without any hesitation. With our little knowledge we came to the following conclusions:

a. Like any traditional folk performance, the basic theme of modern or contemporary art lasts for a long time in the minds of the audience. Therefore, even if there is a slight difference in the main subject of performing art, it is not easily accepted by the viewer or the listener.

b. The content of such arts changes slowly and it is through a special process that the reader-audience embraces new changes. In a very fanatical, backward country like India, the mind of the common man is easily influenced by the original story or theme of the Ramayana-Mahabharata mentioned above and therefore except for the conventional content, other topics are not easily accepted by the reader, viewer or listener. For that reason, the popularity of films, plays, etc., based on the writing stories of the Ramayana-Mahabharata is still prevalent among the Indian masses.

c. The protagonists of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are presented as very beautiful and Aryan in appearance, while the villains such as thieves, demons and asuras are very ugly in appearance. Therefore, in Hindi films or most other Indian language films, the heroes and heroines must be very beautiful.

d. In contrast, the characters of villains, comedians, domestic servants, etc. are never good-looking people. A few days ago, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a celebrated actor of the contemporary era, openly criticized why black heroes and heroines are not shown in the Indian film industry.

Let’s take a look at Assamese films from this perspective. While the dominant stream of Hindi films continues to make films on these themes, some directors have boldly tried to make films based on new themes. Among such brave directors were Bimal Roy, Khawaz Ahmed Abbas, Chetan Anand, Guru Dutta, V Shantaram, Gulzar, Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Syed Akhtar Mirza, Govind Nihalani, Mahesh Bhatt to name a few.

Significantly, many internationally acclaimed films were made in regional languages of India, especially in Bengali, Malayalam and Tamil, by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Adur Gopalakrishnan, etc. All of them challenged the dominant trend of Hindi films.

In the case of Assamese films, except for a few filmmakers like Padum Barua, Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia, Atul Bardoloi, Jahnu Barua, Gautam Bora, Sanjeev Hazorika, etc., the rest of the filmmakers adopted the dominant trend of Hindi films. Till date, most Assamese films [especially those that have attracted more or less audience attention] are trying to copy this genre. However, currently, a group of young and passionate filmmakers has emerged with new promises and possibilities.

But the problem arises about the gradual contraction of the audience of Assamese films. Until the 1980s, people from remote villages flocked to the theatres to watch Assamese films. There are many people from different tribes, tea plantation workers, immigrant Muslim communities, people from different linguistic minorities of Assam who watched Assamese films as their own films without expressing any kind of linguistic, religious, or community-centric hesitation.

These spectators hired buses and pushed in front of the theatre to watch ‘Ajali Nabau’, ‘Bowari’ etc. However, as ethnic movements started in different parts of Assam along with the Assam movement, the audience of Assamese films began to decline. Therefore, it is important to understand that the position of the heroes and heroines of Assamese films was never left to such tribal, religious and linguistic minorities or backward communities.

The heroes and heroines of Assamese films were played by good-looking caste Hindu actors and actresses [a model copied from Hindi hegemonic films] and such characters had titles like Barua, Goswami, Chaliha, Barthakur, Dutta, etc. It is almost impossible to find some title like Rajbanshi, Bodo, Basumtari, Pegu, Rabha, Tanti, etc that represents the tribal and backward communities of the state in the main characters of any Assamese films, stories, novels, etc.

As a result of the ethnic consciousness created by the identity movement, the above-mentioned backward community that once voluntarily gathered before the cinema halls to watch Assamese films and dramas came out of the ‘Greater Assamese’ circle.

Due to the gradual development of linguistic, ethnic and political consciousness, such people excluded themselves as Assamese and consequently, a large number of people came out from the periphery of Assamese films, books, newspapers etc.

An attempt to prevent such contractions was made in Kenny Basumtari’s film ‘Local Utpat’. Like his previous films ‘Local Kungfo’ [2013], ‘Local Kungfo 2’ [2017] and ‘Suspended Inspector Boro’ [2018], ‘Local Uppat’ is a purely humorous film whose content, production style, acting, etc. are completely free from the Hindi authoritarian film making genre.

Like the previous three films, the language of this film is the language we use in our everyday life. The director has broken the whole idea of being very beautiful, handsome to be an actor and actress and presented us with a film whose theme, production style, language, acting etc. are all ‘local’.

The characters of the film, which was made on a very low budget, were portrayed by almost unknown actors and actresses instead of the so-called established artists. With an impeccable yet so instinctive performance that can provide an uninterrupted laugh for almost two hours, any audience can identify with the characters of this film.

This film can create a new communication between the people of Assam and also can establish the fact that a successful film could be produced with a small budget and with local content and form (which Iranian films have already established in front of the whole world). We are convinced that such type of film, which is easily absorbed by the viewers of all classes, will take the regional language film to a new horizon.

Kishor Kumar Kalita

Kishor Kumar Kalita is a commentator based in Guwahati and can be reached at kishorassam@gmail.com