The term ‘Northeast film’ might put the audience into confusion. It disturbs the filmmakers from the Northeast too. The term ‘Northeast’, geographically defining the northeastern part of India, continues to be one of the stereotyped regions of India – a conflict zone. Though Northeast has eight states, it is always regarded as ‘one’, and thus it often loses its geographical, cultural, social and political distinctiveness.
The misrepresentation of Northeast in popular Hindi films is evident. Mani Shankar’s Hindi film Tango Charlie (2005) shows NDFB militants in Manipur. In Mani Ratnam’s Hindi film Dil Se (1998), Northeast militants were seen attacking Delhi with a suicide bomber during the Republic Day. History says that militancy in the region has have never gone out to the mainland, and thus, these filmmakers missed a number of inner stories of the respective states.
Though the filmmakers from the Northeast do not want to call themselves as Northeast filmmakers, yet it is undeniably true that consciously or unconsciously, they are often looked at as ‘one’. In 1990s, filmmakers like Jahnu Barua, Aribam Syam Sarma and Dr Bhabendra Nath Saikia were called together for a press meet at Indian Panorama, terming them as filmmakers from the Northeast. But they protested it vehemently saying that each state in the Northeast is distinct with its own issues and problems. In another instance, Aribam Syam Sarma showed his displeasure for calling his film Ishanou by a journalist as a “Manipuri film” rather than “an Indian Film”. Interestingly, Ishanou was the first film from the Northeast to be selected at the prestigious Cannes Festival in 1991.
The filmmakers from Northeast have raised numerous local issues, folktales, myth and popular beliefs in their films, which remain unexplored in the larger context of Indian cinema or in Bollywood. This phenomenon proves that Northeast films does exist, a genre much different from the films made in mainland India.
Since the inception of the first Assamese film, and also the first film in Northeast – Joymoti (1935), by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, the films in the Northeast has a tremendous growth with a distinctive identity of its own. To have a holistic understanding of the local problems and issues of the Northeast that has historical and contemporary dimensions, it is key to assess the filmmakers of the Northeast to study them separately.
The films of the Northeast do not reflect the endless quest for the establishment of separate identity, but their films do show that they have distinct features as far as the themes of their films are concerned.
Historically speaking, Assam Movement and China’s invasion through Assam in 1962 are socio-politically significant chapters in Assam, and Jahnu Barua’s Assamese film Papori (1986) and Firingati (1990) are made at the backdrop of these events. While Manju Borah’s Bodo language film Dau Huduni Methai (2015) explores the socio-political problems faced by the indigenous Bodo community in Assam, Handuk by Jaicheng Dahutia and Orang by Suraj Duwarah are some of the films made at the backdrop of insurgency. While Aribam Syam Sarma’s films address a wide range of themes that help to understand the socio-political and cultural milieu of Manipur. Haobam Paban Kumar’s film Loktak Lairembee is set on Manipur’s Loktak Lake, that talks about the tragedy of the local fishermen, who are driven from their homes. Filmmaker from Arunachal Pradesh Sange Dorjee Thongdok’s feature film Crossing Bridges (2013) focuses on the social and economic displacement of indigenous people. Mapuia Chawngthu’s Mizo-language feature film Khawnglung Run (2012) narrates the significant historical massacres of Khawnglung during 1856-1859. More recently, filmmakers from Meghalaya Pradip Kurba and Dominic Sangma have made a niche in the world cinema.
These films can be taken as instance to prove that Northeast films do have an existence that tells distinctive stories. However, they tell stories which transcend the geographical boundary and therefore they should be rather called “Indian filmmakers”.