Rubbing in the “Rabba Rabba …”

Contrary to popular expectations, several prominent personalities from the Assamese film industry have spoken out against the ban on Hindi films by several north-eastern militant organisations. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), along with six other militant organisations had sometime ago warned the state's film distributors that screening of Hindi films in the region had to stop from November 15 this year. The threat was made on the basis of the “bad influence that Hindi cinema could pose culturally”, something that the film artistes of Assam have refused to accept.

"There is a lot to learn from Bollywood. The ban is unacceptable," said Jayanta Baruah, actor. "Why don't they go to people's homes and switch off the TV channels in that case," said Indra Bonia, winner of the best actor award for his role in Jahnu Baruah's Halodhiya Soraye Bawdhan Khai, adjudged best film at India International Film Festival some years back. Even as the deadline set by the militant outfits to stop screening of Hindi films in the theatres of the region draws closer, Bollywood has found an unlikely ally in the Assamese fraternity, long known for a stand not quite so friendly so far as the Hindi film industry goes.

While many said the militants’ ban amounts to plain cultural policing, not many, however, are willing to talk about the economic clash between commercial Assamese cinema and Bollywood lobby in the region, particularly Assam, at least not so openly. An exception perhaps was Munna Ahmed, a young Assamese director with a number of hits under his belt who spoke out against the Hindi film industry. At a public function last year, Ahmed alleged that a Bollywood organisation in Guwahati that had offices in Kolkata and required all filmmakers and producers of the region to sign up and make mandatory payments, was siphoning away crores of rupees every year without making any contribution to the Assamese film industry. This in a situation where the local industry, had, one step at a time, come of age, providing employment to thousands of people, Ahmed said. The ire was evident when Assamese actors, in one instance, tore off posters from a hall that had replaced the Assamese film that was being screened, with a Hindi one. The theatre’s action, local artistes alleged, was part of a larger conspiracy that was meant to throttle the nascent Assamese commercial cinema industry that was beginning to give Hindi films a run for its money.

Commercial cinema in Assam has over the years witnessed a boom, beginning with Raja Bixoya’s bubble-gum pink and a little oomphy Joubone Aamoni Kore (jouban is the Assamese for jawani), becoming the only film in the country to have celebrated a silver jubilee in the year 2000. Borrowing heavily from Bollywood, the winning formula seems meticulously worked out, between exotic locales of Goa and Guwahati’s Chandmari flyover, a prominent city landmark. So much so that when a Mumbai director wanted to make music videos of his songs, Dr Bhupen Hazarika turned down the offer saying that “ten scantily clad girls dancing to my songs is not acceptable”. The trend, said the music maestro and director of path-breaking films such as the black and white Era Bator Xur (Melodies from and Abandoned Path), that showcased traditional culture, was catching on.

Adding her own flavour to the ban controversy was Bollywood’s Raveena Tandon who, while on a visit to Assam lashed out at the ULFA and its diktat, only to be left asked by the outfit later to elaborate on the cultural merits of Hindi cinema. Delhi-based North-east Media Forum, an organisation comprising journalists from the region in the capital, too recently decried the ban on Hindi cinema in Assam.

Whatever that may be, Assamese commercial cinema seems to be close to pulling it off, with rain on a chiffon-saree sequence, the occasional swim-suit (one piece so far), and the elaborate dance number in the exotic out-of-state locale, where the nymphets dance before the sea and a smoke screen, now normal fare. The clinching factor: it’s not a Celina Jaitley and Fardeen Khan doing their spunky thing in Janasheen. It’s a Jatin Bora and Prostuti Parashar, very well the folks next door, touching your heart, tickling your brains, and more. Add to that the bad man of the industry, and it’s all there, the cool Assamese movie, the mania, and the moolah.

Little wonder then many cinema theatres in the Brahmaputra Valley now prefer to run Assamese films, quite often to packed houses. Last year alone, the industry launched 13 music directors and 12 new directors. That in a land where a lady called Aideu Handique, the lead actor of Joymoti, the first Assamese film made in the 1930s, recently died a spinster because she, playing the role of the Ahom queen, had called her co-star “Mongohordeu”, or “lord of my flesh”, on screen.

Not that the magic mountain has been scaled, not as yet. It would probably be years before one could hope to see ‘Gollywood’ be written across the Narakaxur Hills of Guwahati. “While Assamese film industry produces only 20 films per year, to continue in business, a theatre needs at least 300 films,” says Raj Kakoti, Tips Cinema distributor in Guwahati. And hence the scare. “If the ban is imposed the theatres will have no option but to down their shutters,” says Kakoti. The competition, though, is hotting up, enough for even the militants to get involved. As of now though, the people of the industry seem to have said a firm no to the cultural policing, with a not so unwilling public in tow. Raveena’s “Rabba rabba …” it seems will continue to reign, at least for while …

By Monalisa Gogoi and Pranab Bora