Throughout the history of world cinema, there have been examples that the prerequisite discipline of being a good critic, as well as the skills regularly exercised in the course of critical work, has often implied that film critics make good filmmakers. So, after spending years as a film critic, when noted Assamese film critic Utpal Borpujari decided to don the hat of a film director it was a gradual advancement. At the 65th National Film Awards, 2018 the filmmaker had won his second award for his debut feature film Ishu in the category of Best Assamese film. Here is an excerpt from an interview with the filmmaker.
Q1. Tell us about your childhood and educational background?
A: I was born and most brought up in Guwahati. My father was on a transferable job in the judiciary, I had my pre-primary education from Golaghat Model Primary School and primary education from Latasil Primary School, Guwahati, and Sadar Axamiya Prathamik Vidyalaya in Silchar. From Class V onwards I studied in Cotton Collegiate Higher Secondary School in Guwahati and then did my higher secondary and graduation from Cotton College. Guwahati, where I stood 1st class 1st with honours in Geology in my B.Sc examination held under Gauhati University. After that, I did my M.Tech in Applied Geology from IIT-Roorkee (then University of Roorkee) in 1993, where I got 1st class 2nd position.
Q2. How did you develop your interest towards cinema?
A: As a child, I and my brother regularly used to watch cinema in halls. From 11th standard onwards, I started attending film festivals organized by various film societies in Guwahati, such as Assam Cine Art Society and Gauhati Cine Club. That’s where my interest in cinema slowly grew, especially world and Indian cinema in various languages. In addition, my maternal grandfather Suresh Chandra Goswami had made Runumi, the 9th Assamese feature film, in 1952, and my father’s cousin Siba Prasad Thakur was one of Assam’s most-successful mainstream filmmakers and also a National Awardee. Thus, there was always a respect for cinema at home.
Q3. How did the transition from IIT to journalism take place?
A: I used to write in newspapers and magazines published from Assam, such as the Assam Tribune, The Sentinel, North East Times, Prantik, etc., as also North East Sun published from Delhi, even while I was in college. I continued that habit while in IIT-Roorkee, and also contributed to newspapers like Indian Express, Hindustan Times and Sunday Observer. By the time I was doing my final semester in Roorkee, I had decided to become a journalist.
Q4. You have been a former Staff Reporter at The Sentinel (Guwahati). What are your memories regarding the kind of reportage you were involved with?
A: The Sentinel, under the leadership of editor Dhirendranath Bezboruah, was a great learning ground. I joined there as a staff reporter and covered politics, state Assembly, cinema & culture, sports, business and what not!
Q5. How did your interest in film direction develop?
A: While working in Delhi as a journalist in PTI and then Deccan Herald, I used to regularly write on cinema, culture, literature, art despite being a political reporter. In 2003, at the 50th National Film Awards, I was fortunate to be given the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic. That was a huge boost to my confidence and though I continued doing political reporting and covering ministries and Parliament, slowly I arrived at the decision that cinema is where my calling lies. So, in end-2010, I quit my job to pursue my dream of making films.
Q6. Your first documentary was Mayong: Myth/Reality (2012). How did you collaborate with your producer? Share the process of shooting the film from research to production as a debutant?
A: Mayong as a place always fascinated me because of all the legends and myths associated with it. I thought it would be a fascinating subject to tackle in a documentary. My childhood friend and neighbor in Guwahati, Jayanta Goswami, who is the producer of the National Award-winning cult Assamese film “Mon Jai”, came forward to produce “Mayong: Myth/Reality”, and I made the film with a small but talented crew. It was a great learning experience for me. During my research for the film, I received immense help from Lokendra Hazarika, a teacher in Mayong Government Higher Secondary School, and Utpal Nath, a local college lecturer. Both of them have done a lot of research and documentation work in Mayong and they guided me a lot during the making of the film. They also appeared in my film.
Q7. How did the idea of making your second documentary film, Songs of the Blue Hills (2013), a feature-length documentary on contemporary Naga folk music, occur to you?
A: The Nagas are a conglomeration of a number of tribes who are hugely rich in folk culture and traditions. Each tribe has a tradition of folk music and oral storytelling, which are very, very interesting in their musicality. I had heard a Naga choir in Delhi, whose music was rooted in their tradition and yet was modern. I was intrigued by this and thought it could be interesting to explore how young and contemporary musicians in Nagaland are practicing their traditional folk music. The fact that Nagaland is the only state in the country to have a department to exclusively promote music further raised my interest. During that time, I happened to meet senior officials of Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT) at an event and just off the cuff asked if they would be interested in making a documentary on the subject. And they asked me to submit a proposal. That’s how it happened.
Q8. As a filmmaker why did you fell that it was necessary to make a cinematic documentation of a chapter from the crucial chapter of the Second World War in the form a documentary titled Memories Of A Forgotten War (2012)?
A: As someone from North East India, I always feel strongly that the rest of the country hardly knows anything about our region. As a journalist also, I wrote as much as possible on various aspects of the North East. And as a filmmaker, I want to continue that. If you see, all my films have been about certain unexplored and unknown aspects of the region (though that does not mean that I would not deal with subjects from elsewhere). I have watched so many films on 2nd World War from various countries over the years but had not watched anything exhaustive on the tremendous battles that were fought in Manipur and Nagaland except for one or two documentaries from Britain that extolled on the Allied Army stories. I wanted to explore this fascinating history from the point of view of surviving veterans from both sides as well as villagers who had witnessed those battles. That is how I ended up making this film. My junior from Cotton College and noted defense and cyber security expert Subimal Bhattacharjee, who is equally passionate about our region, backed the project as the producer, and his unstinting support made the film possible.
Q9. Your first feature film was an adaption of a novel by the popular Assamese writer Manikuntala Bhattacharya. How did you adapt the material from text to screen?
A:When I approached Manikuntala Bhattacharya requesting permission to develop a screenplay from her children’s novel Ishu, my only condition was that she would also have to agree – if she chose to give the permission – that it would be my visual interpretation of her words. She readily agreed, perhaps because of the fact that we know each other for a long time and she had to confidence in my abilities or intentions or both. My script is an adaptation of her novel, but with a lot of additions and subtractions without affecting the core of the story and its spirit and message. She never even asked me once to see the script and watched the film for the first time at the Kolkata International Film Festival. And her response was extremely positive.
Q10. Can you throw some light on the subject of the film?
A: Witch-hunting is an abominable practice, borne out of superstition of villagers and exploited by unscrupulous individuals like quacks or people who want to settle scores with someone. While there have been films that have dealt with the subject, I was struck by the novel’s way of dealing it from the point of view of a child.
Q11. What kind of treatment did you opt for telling the story?
A:It’s a simple narrative structure that I have adopted keeping in mind that the target audience is young kids. I have ensured that one gets to see real people, real situations, real locations and real life of the society where it is set in. Even the Assamese my characters speak is the way it is spoken in that area, and not the formal style one gets to hear in usual Assamese films. The novel is set in the Rabha tribal society and to keep that backdrop authentic; I shot the film in several Rabha villages near Agia in Goalpara district of Assam. I have only a few professional actors in the film, and much of the cast comprises highly-talented actors from the rural theatre group Badungduppa Kala Kendra established by internationally-acclaimed theatre activist Sukracharjya Rabha, whose immense contribution in making the film feel authentic cannot be described in mere words.
Q12.How was your experience regarding the production and postproduction of the film, while working with the team members?
A:I have been very lucky to get to work with crew and cast who are highly dedicated to making good cinema in Assam. From seasoned film actors like Bishnu Kharghoria, Tonthoingambi Leishangthem Devi (from Manipur), Pratibha Choudhury and Chetana Das, to several young actors, including quite a few theatre actors who are making their first screen appearance in life, and from legends like A.Sreekar Prasad (who very graciously accepted to edit the film) and highly-experienced cinematographer Sumon Dowerah to successful Bollywood technicians like Amrit Pritam Dutta (sound designer) and Anurag Saikia (Composer), everyone have given their best to make the film come alive. A special word for my associate director Monjul Baruah, who was a pillar of support to me, and for executive producer Jitendra Mishra, who handled the project the way it needed to be. I have to admit that among all the crew and cast, perhaps I am the least qualified technically in cinema.
Q13. How would you like to describe the journey of life from a student of IIT to a two-time national film award as a film critic as well as a director?
A: Well, I would say that I am still a student