‘It will not work as background. It engages you…images are projected at you. You are the screen’, thus goaded the cultural theorist Marshal McLuhan in the heady 1960s while elaborating on the communicative and aesthetic possibilities about the new technology of television then.
The new Assamese film Bornodi Bhotiai is also a kind of invitation for the local audience to engage and participate with the images while it teases and entertain them at the same time. The film is a rare and novel attempt in terms of its artistic form and structure in Assamese cinema as it does away with conventional narrative patterns and cues. Instead it uses a Brechtian model of distance or alienation effect which makes the viewers observe and interrogate the narrative actions in lieu of straight identification.
At the level of plot, the film narrates the story of four youths in the river island of Majuli in the present day whereby they face socio-economic and existential challenges. Their longings and ambitions are also circumscribed by the isolated physical space to which they belong as it is ravaged by yearly floods and frequent erosions to its landmass.
The physical predicament of the place which is exacerbated by a perennially expanding Brahmaputra river, it seems, is percolated to the physiologies of the lead characters as they are also time and again infected by an irresistible strange drive to sneeze along with intense headache which can prove to be fatal. Apparently plausible situations, thus, go the absurd way and make for a viewing experience which verges on the black humour.
In fact, the antagonist and the nemesis of the four youths, the sly government animal husbandry officer Kushal Kakoti (played with relish by actor/director Kenny Basumatary) dies in one such sneeze attack after an evening of revelry with the four youths. When the educated but unemployed Joi, Simanta, Tapan and Bhaskar decide to meet the concerned government department official Kakoti for starting a goat farming project, they had no inkling that he would turn out to be guy who would go on to marry their collective love interest Moukon (played by Dorothi Bhardwaj).
In an equation borne out of a need for mutual benefit both Kakoti and the four youths decide to siphon off the sum meant for the project and indulge in booze and merry making. The incident is a wry comment on the networks of corruption at the grassroots which stifles the development process in quite invisible ways in mofussil and rural locales such as Majuli.
Amidst all quiet hullabaloo that is Majuli, the serene determined girl next-door Moukon is the central pivot which drives the narrative. She is loved and lusted after by all the five male leads and yet she has to face social ostracization for her supposed tendency to bring in ill fortune in and around her family. That perception of her is reinforced when after her marriage, her husband Kakoti passes away leaving her a widow with nowhere to go. Luit, her childhood friend and also a part of the gang of the four youths is the character who sneaks in here to act as a catalyser to effect a closure and a resolution to the sad and bitter sweet realities and experiences brought forth in the film.
Interestingly, Luit plays an insurance agent and this role of him is ironic since the physical vicissitudes of Majuli never guarantees the endurability of its people and things. Luit is also another name for the river Brahmaputra, thereby making the point that whatever comes the great Luit will take care of Majuli. But as it turns out, the insurer himself may not be able to guarantee security as his own future is in peril on many accounts. The character of Moukon is, in many ways, symbolic of Majuli. A handful of loafers may be her suitors but she is a social pariah; in fact a ‘witch’ in the local community’s view.
Likewise, Majuli may be the world’s largest river island and may attract foreign tourists, but in reality its condition is fragile and vulnerable while institutional apathy is pushing it towards a very uncertain future. Other main characters like Joi, Samir, Tapan and Simanta represent the vortex of youth and its talent and energy going increasingly alienated in a socially straitjacketed place. They may belong to Majuli which is the cultural heartbeat and mainstream of Assam but socio-economically they are subalterns who may have to eke out living elsewhere for their sustenance.
The performances of the actors are authentic and lean never allowing a wrong step. In fact, the actors (Rajib Nath, Kaushik Nath, Himanshu Gogoi, Sonmoni Sarma) and the director (Anupam Kaushik Borah who also plays the role of Luit in the film) himself are theatre graduates and it shows in the surety with which they express the material at hand. The music by Tarali Sharma is soothing and situational and is like a comment on the narrative proceedings. The cinematography by Prayash Sharma Tamuly is handy and effectively captures the actions and their implications the film tries to convey.
The early 2000s Star TV television series called ‘Star Bestsellers’ which used to broadcast hour length TV films (those were relatively good days of cable television where it had some space for sensible content) contained an episode called ‘Bhoron ne Khilaya Phool’ directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia (of Hindi film Paan Singh Tomar fame). It was about the misadventures of a group of friends in a small town where they pursue the same girl with comical results. Whereas Dhulia’s purpose was to paint a faithful picture of a locality in a North Indian small town through a realist framework, Anupam Kaushik Baruah’s Bornodi Bhotiai surpasses as a work of art as it successfully creates a postmodern narrative with magic realist elements while staying anchored in the soil and water of a place it speaks about. In expressing its themes, the film juxtaposes techniques of the Epic theatre of Brecht (e.g. here the same person playing a doctor, quack, healer who is treating Luit’s incessant sneezing disorder/cold) and that of avant-garde documentary filmmaking (viz. in the mid close up shots of people of Majuli looking at the audience where they have no link as such to the basic plot).
Add to it, the film is a comedy which is really a wonder considering the grave and harsh issues it handles. Thus the film is definitely pushing the envelope of the Assamese film in going to places and directions where no film of Assam in the past probably had gone. The noteworthy aspect here is that the film’s approach towards Majuli and its people evokes both distance and involvement which make it a mature work. Deviating entirely from the popular Indian film narrative style, Bornodi Bhotiai is a more or less well-thought out attempt in contemporary Indian cinema at creating a formally innovative and experimental film while articulating local issues and concerns (one is reminded of Kamal Swaroop’s trailblazing postmodernist flick Om Dar-B-Dar).
The film was warmly received at last year’s Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI’18) and now joins a couple of other celebrated contemporary films from Assam ( for instance Village Rockstars, Kothanodi) where they enjoyed festival recognition first and theatrical release later. These present bunch of films and filmmakers definitely mark the arrival of an important moment in the social and cultural trajectory of the state if not a ‘new wave’ in the local cinema yet.