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What does it take to be Assamese?

- Film’s rejection sparks strong reactions

Calcutta, March 17: An Assamese locale, director, language, National Film Development Corporation and Censor board certificates and a title poem recited by Bhupen Hazarika are not enough to make a film Assamese. This conclusion was arrived at by the jury of the 59th National Awards who had disqualified Ekhon nedekha nadir xhipare as the state’s representative for the top honours this year, evoking strong reactions and more.

The 11-member jury, led by Rohini Hattangadi, rejected this film, which is directed by an Assamese and shot in Assam and in Assamese, as a non-Assamese one.

The film, directed by Bidyut Kotoky, stars Victor Banerjee, Sanjay Suri, Raj Zutshi, Priti Jhangiani and Bidita Bag, among others, and portrays the journey of a young journalist who arrives at Majuli in search of a lost friend. The Brahmaputra, however, flows proudly through the film as the principal protagonist.

Veteran actor Victor Banerjee was indignant at the alleged “high-handedness” and “constipated vision” of the national jury.

“I am flummoxed by the sheer absurdity of a national jury watching an Assamese film directed by an Assamese, shot in Assam and then proclaiming it “not Assamese”.

The actor speaks of the incident as typical of the “ignorance” of the nation about the Northeast. “It is the ridiculous circumstances like the one Bidyut Kotoky is confronting today that helps me understand why the Northeast is up in arms, wanting, for decades, to sever ties with the rest of India,” he said.

He terms it typical of Delhi’s apathetic attitude towards the Northeast. “Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal, and even Sikkim and Darjeeling are just curiosity pieces of primitive tribal peoples who provide a circle of amusement to people in Delhi, who are bogged down by casteism, fodder and tele-scams and the perpetuation of corruption at all levels of sports, politics and now, culture. I am ashamed at the high-handedness of a jury that has no business calling itself national. As the River Flows is an important Assamese film with a message for all to ponder upon.”

The film deals with insurgency and loss in Assam. Among the reasons for its dismissal were the facts that a part of the film was “shot in Mumbai” and that it had “Hindi film actors”.

After the rejection of Kotoky’s bilingual directorial debut on a story born of the shores of Brahmaputra, the director, Kotoky, said, “I am not questioning the decision of the national award jury by any stretch of the imagination. However, what I am reacting to is the public statement of one of the jury members that Ekhon nedekha nadir xhipare was not considered for the award as the jury members thought it was not an Assamese film!”

He speaks of the apparent contradictions. “The film is being produced by the National Film Development Corporation and the censor board has also deemed it an Assamese film. And now the jury says it is not an Assamese film!” He raises a vital question, “Is it the job of the jury to judge the language of a film? Or are they supposed to judge the quality of the film?”

Amused by the contradictions, he said, “Moreover, by the logic that the jury members have put forward, Zindagi na Milegi Dobara would be a Spanish film and Slumdog Millionaire a Hindi film!” he said.

Filmmaker Jahnu Barua of Maine Gandhi ko Nahin Maara fame confesses to be astonished at the jury’s decision to dismiss the film, which he describes as “out and out Assamese”. “I have watched the film myself. There are a few Hindi dialogues in the movie but 70 per cent of the movie is in Assamese. What is surprising is that it is not for the jury to judge the language of a film,” he said.

Moreover, As the River Flows is yet to be released by the NFDC and is still to see the light of day.

Actor Sanjay Suri, is also “totally foxed” by the controversy. “We spent 28 days there in Majuli. I am surprised at the jury’s refusal to term the film Assamese. As to the claim that there are Hindi actors in the movie, we are free to act in any language. Almost 85 per cent of Ekhon nedekha nadir xhipare is in Assamese. It is definitely an Assamese movie. I am glad I acted in the film, as it took me to a beautiful place like Majuli,” he said.