Haanduk Assamese Movie

The movie starts with a still shot of a woman strolling amidst a bamboo grove. She looks for a tall bamboo tree, cuts one down and drags it with her out of the shot. This first shot is 3 minutes long. 3 minutes of a woman chopping a bamboo tree, a shot without a single cut or camera movement. Now, a shot that long seems tedious in times of fast cutting action films. In fact, it is not the only sequence in the film that is atypically still. However, a peculiar sensation starts crawling up your spine with the soft steps of the woman, the rustling of the bamboo leaves or the high-pitched singing of the cicadas. You can’t help but wonder who are these people and what happens next. Next thing you know, you’re hooked to the story. 

Haanduk or The Hidden Corner is the first feature film of director Jaicheng Jai Dohutia, a filmmaker from Tinsukia, Assam. Jaicheng’s second film Baghjan, alongside Biswajeet Bora’s Boomba Ride, was screened at the 75th Cannes film festival 2022 in the ‘Goes to Cannes’ section. Jaicheng belongs to the late 2010s batch of filmmakers who have sparked a new wave of filmmaking in Assam. Devoid of the immutable drive for commerce, but a crusade for an original and multifaceted style of storytelling. This article is an effort to deconstruct one of the best films to come out of Assam in recent times. 

Haanduk in the native Moran language, the language in which the film is based, means ‘a very dark or remote place’. Rightly so, the film revolves around the socio-political turmoil of the Northeastern region of India during the Assam separatist movements and the clashes between the ULFA and the Indian army. The director needs to be highly commended for his treatment of the theme. There have been several movies made on this topic, but only a few have come close to being as multidimensional as Haanduk. The fact that the film contains the least drama, little to no dialogue and shows no physical fight scenes or bloodshed between the army and the ULFA makes the experience far more ambiguous. Moreover, this type of storytelling does not come easy

to a creator. This shows the earnestness of the director and his deep knowledge of the craft. 

The film reminded me of the great minimalistic French director Robert Bresson, who above all else believed in elevating the art of the craft. Fragments of Bresson, known for his use of non-professional actors and elliptical narratives, can be picked up in Haanduk. Or of the Japanese tatsujin Yasujir? Ozu whose films portray a wide range of emotions with the least drama. Or of the Latin American Third Cinema directors whose prime dogma was to wean off the ‘neocolonialist’ Hollywood ‘money-mongering’ model of filmmaking. 

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Haanduk shows the struggle of an elderly single mother Hermoni who questions whether a bullet-ridden body, she just did the last rites on, is truly her only son Mukti. And that of Sewali, Mukti’s childhood companion and one true love, who counts her days waiting for Mukti. Or of Biplob who leaves the separatist outfit to lead a normal life, but finds himself in a feud with his past. Another character Oikya leads his life escaping hostilities but finds himself caught up in the crossfire of two ‘conflicting’ ideologies. 

The names of the characters are in effect ironic to the native ear. Mukti meaning freedom in Assamese is nowhere to be found. Biplob which means a revolution is in a constant whirlpool, having lost in the translation of his ideals. And Oikya meaning unity ironically fails to keep the lives of a distraught mother and a deserted lover intact. 

Haanduk was shot in 19 days, with a shoestring budget, and a non-professional cast. The director can again be commended for his command of the excellent performances from his ‘first time acting’ cast. Hermoni’s pain is subtly visible throughout the film even though she rarely speaks a word and not once sheds a tear. In fact from the major cast members to even the most minuscule characters, everyone had justified their screentime with the umpteenth distinction. It is hard to imagine another actor playing Hermoni than Bandoi Chetia, or some other actor might not be able to justify the pain Sewali goes through as much as Nivedita Baruah did. The same goes for Biplob and Oikya played by Bishal Anurag and Jitu Moran. The remote village where our characters live is devoid of the basic joy of laughter so much so that children are rarely visible in the film. The director explicitly depicts the stress the people of the region had to endure during those times of turmoil. 

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Moreover, the colloquial Moran language used in the film enriches the experience. Being the first film made in the local language, it unveiled to the world the forest-dwelling, nature-loving Moran people of Assam. Above all else, the film vividly painted the lack of attention they have received from their government, for example, the

absence of the most basic needs such as electricity or roads. The minimalistic acting along with the characters’ colloquial tongue enhances the authenticity of the story all the more. 

The technicality of the film was spot-on. The cinematography made the best use of natural light, evident from the outdoor and night scenes. The storytelling of the camera was also striking. It successfully depicted the remoteness of the region or the animistic religion of the people. The sound was perhaps the best technical attribute of the film, winning the designer two awards on the film festival circuit. It is surprising how the audiographer was able to capture even the microscopic details of distant footsteps or the splashing of water, that too with sync sound. The editing in this film is complex. The director and the editor use an elliptical form of storytelling while maintaining a rhythmic structure. This requires the highest possible knowledge of the craft and the utmost attention. Director Jaicheng managed to keep the film neutral despite working on a highly disputed and polarised theme. 

Haanduk got its world premiere at the 18th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in 2016. But is still awaiting a theatrical release. Jaicheng Jai Dohutia started working on the project back in 2007 when he read a real-life news report about a mother who was given the dead body of her son twice due to some police mismatch. No story is simple. Towards the end of the film, Biplob receives a letter of Mukti’s whereabouts from his former militia in arms. He doesn’t read the letter and leaves it at Hermoni’s doorsteps. We never know what happened to Mukti. But we do know what his disappearance had cost. True, Mukti or freedom comes at a cost, but at whose stake? 

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