A few days before the release of the film Kanchanjangha, its maker and lead actor Zubeen Garg in a television interview told a prominent journalist that the idea for the film had been brewing in his mind for quite a long time.
More interestingly, he revealed that he did not complete his BSc degree as he found it increasingly pointless in relation to his creative calling as a musician. His gut call paid rich dividends as he overnight became a music sensation after the release of his first album in the early 1990s.
Going back to his childhood, he narrated how as a kid he moved across both Barak and Brahmaputra valley because of his civil servant father’s frequent transfers. As a result, he did his schooling in three languages: Assamese, Bengali and English.
This aspect, probably, partly explains Zubeen’s felicity as a singer in all these three languages and more. Hailing from a genteel upper caste family from Jorhat, he was always a kind of a restless spirit.
Accordingly, his musical sensibility and lyrical imagination had been mongrel to an extent, accommodating ethnic beats, classical rhythm, Western pop and Bollywood.
In the interview, he appeared a tired musician, as he narrated about the breakneck speed at which he had been recording songs for various labels for more than two decades now, which of course, included his own compositions.
The moot point made was that his artistic call was not limited to music and he was determined to make a mark as a film personality. As is apparent from his other public interactions and a few songs, Zubeen sees himself as an artist in the tradition of great Assamese polymaths of the past like Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Bishnu Prasad Rabha.
His latest film is also an acknowledgement to this legacy, where Zubeen and his co-creators have framed their film as a tribute to the Roopkonwar. The very title of the film, is, in fact derived from a poem by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala titled, ‘Kanchanjanghar Buranji’ (History of Kanchanjangha) which celebrates the interrelationship between destruction and creativity in an ode to India’s highest peak and the indomitable human spirit.
But this is hardly the kind of tribute which befits the erstwhile cultural stalwart’s stature and message. Moulded on an outdated Bollywood form, the film falters from frame one itself. As the lead character Anirban (Zubeen) struggles amidst a pool of mud and recovers himself to rise, one is reminded of the images of Rekha as vigilante from that hoary Bollywood film of the 1980s called Khoon Bhari Maang.
The scene does very little to establish the premise of the plot or the protagonist, and rather relies on a blaring background music to drive home its point. In a series of flashbacks, Anirban’s past is narrated which consists of an almost idyllic small town existence with his parents, friends and a lover.
The pressures are typical of a middle class milieu in that he urgently needs a job so that he could marry his sweetheart. He appears in the state public service examination and is confident of passing it as he has done extremely well.
Things, however, don’t go smoothly as alleged corruption in the recruitment process debars him from a job. Add to it, in a fiasco with a land mafia his father (played by seasoned Sanjeev Hazarika) is killed.
Anirban also loses his lady love as she is married off by her father to a more well off groom. Frustrated and led to utter despair at the circumstances, he decides to strip off his religious and caste identity.
He vows to rise like the mountain Kanchangjangha and obliterate every element which had stopped from achieving his dreams. Building a rag tag team consisting of him and his three friends, they decide to target their collective bête noire who is a land mafia (who also blackmails Anirban’s friends) named Talukdar.
So the plot, like most popular films in India, taps into common socio-political tensions and angst of the average citizen but is ultimately unsatisfying because of its failure to offer a nuanced treatment of the issues raised.
For instance, here the land mafia’s character is modeled on the villains of commercial South Indian cinema instead of an authentic portrayal of a character located in the local society. He is represented as an Assamese but appears and speaks more like a cunning Marwari tradesman (not to say that there are no cunning Assamese businessmen).
Very often, these land sharks springing up in urban centres of Assam operate by forming nexuses with administrative officials, strongmen, fixers and builders. The issue of the recent Assam Public Service Commission (APSC) job scam is there but again is expressed in an utterly simplistic way.
The protagonist Aniraban Bhattacharya is an Assamese Brahmin who fumes against the reservation policy because he feels it discriminates against a fair and free recruitment process. The film, here, however, takes a very contradictory stand to one of the most controversial issues in current Indian society.
While the lead character declares himself to be casteless in order to be truly free, this decision is backed up by only blaming the reservation policy of the government. He squarely fails to see the socio-historical roots of the caste system in India. So the dialogue repeated through the second half of the film: ‘Mur kunu jati nai, dharma nai, moi mukta, moi Kanchanjangha (I have no caste, no religion, I am free, I am Kanchanjangha) becomes hollow in the process.
In terms of its genre too, Kanchanjangha appears confused. Although it is designed like a revenge drama cum social thriller, it becomes neither as its scenes are handled in a ham-handed manner and relies too much on gory violence.
If the director’s purpose was to create a kind of an agitprop film, here too, it falters as there is a complete absence of interesting and radical ideas. For their intellectual education, Aniraban and his friends rely on a drifter who is a former insurgent (read ULFA).
He is equally clueless to the current situation as he only propels them to be a real man and take up violence to wipe out evil from society. Thus the film’s message is finally incommensurate with the ideals of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala as he never encouraged mindless violence for social change.
Even the great Kalaguru who was a hardcore communist revolutionary focused more on cultural weapons than on rifles. Zubeen and most of the other casts’ acting is mostly ham and melodramatic which also does not help the proceedings.
The evening show of the film was full in Jorhat even after two weeks of its release. But the audience, it seemed, was not very moved by the film, as they neither laughed at the supposed funny moments nor they gushed after the lights came on.
The local audience is susceptible to forgive their favourite star for an end number of times for his antics on and off stage, and now it seems on screen too ( Garg’s last outing as star/director in Mission China was an embarrassment in the name of a genuine action film, not to speak of the dampener Underworld).
It now seems, other big male lead stars like Jatin Bora is too in a way banking on the singular star prowess of Zubeen Garg for turning around things for the better in commercial Assamese cinema.
Kanchanjnagha is a huge hit by now, thanks to the relentless publicity and the presence of the biggest superstar of the region in its frames. But one wonders, if it is a good popular film, since its pleasures are so few and far, like in the couple of the song sequences.
The film may have been addressed to the audience in the language and code of the conventional Indian popular film vis-à-vis as a conflict between good and evil, but it appears to have denaturalized those very codes, although completely unintentionally.
The characters, the conflict, the fights or the situations are too contrived and stereotypical to stimulate involvement. The mainstream Hindi film on which many popular Assamese films in the past were modeled on is an artefact which is going through a mutation to a more anglophone version of itself in the wake of globalization. Kanchanjangha is attendant neither to any of these cross-currents, nor, for that matter, with the new wave blowing in current Assamese cinema.