“ Representation sets in play certain relations of power through which, among other things, discourses around sexual difference and subjects in and for those discourses are ongoingly produced. In this sense, representation may be regarded as a strategy of the normalization. Representation participates in the various relations of power with which we are surrounded and in which we are always in one way or another implicated. Representation can be understood, then, as a form of regulation.”— Annette Kuhan (“The Body and Cinema: Some Problems for Feminism”. Grafts : Feminist Cultural Criticism. Ed. Susan Sheridan, 11-13,. London: Verso,1988)
The connoisseurs of Cinema across the globe have not an iota of doubt that cinema has loomed large as an undisputed mediator of socio-realities and personal dreams, collective concerns and individual aspirations over the last one century. This essence of cinema makes it assume a seminal and polysemous dimension as a humanistic discourse which has a massive potential to redirect the cultural and material fabric of our everyday lives. It is from this perspective that one needs to bring under scrutiny and interpret the dissonances and discrepancies inherent to the representation of women’s position ,both in popular and the so-termed alternative cinema, to appreciate and conjure up an authentic microcosm of the life women live on screen in India and , of course , in Assam. Again the historically proven fact that the art and craft of representation have always played a pivotal role in the perpetuation of and resistance to power relations calls for a close analysis of the cinematic image of woman as a mere spectacle or an object of dominant cultural discourse. One can thus hardly disagree with Annette Kuhan that the representation of woman image, whether through the cinematic, literary or artistic media, is distinctly a gendered narrative . The contemporary Assamese cinema is no exception. Few will deny many of the award winning films of contemporary Assamese filmmakers are a veracious portrayal and cerebral critique of the psyche and predicament of the archetypal Indian woman in a predominantly patriarchal society although certain other crucial , socially relevant themes are also juxtaposed in these films. Almost all of the women protagonists in these films teeter on the edges of an ‘inessentialistic identity’ which they are forced to embrace by the traditional patriarchal hegemony . Paradoxically enough, most of these talented filmmakers ,irrespective of gender, explore both the inner and outer worlds of their women with an extraordinary insight into the female psyche inexorably caught up in the throes of an essentially patriarchal value-system . Their attitude is one of compassion and understanding. True that their women are not always Saint Joans or Noras. But true to their real life , they always struggle to reconcile to their fate in their reel life, sometimes suffering meekly, at other times compromising with their debilitating circumtances, and at yet other times rebelling against the system. Consequently there flares up a series of woman protagonists in these films who at once catch our attention and make us introspect. They provoke us to probe into the lacunae of the predominantly patriarchal socio-cultural system in which they operate or are forced to operate.
A seasoned filmmaker Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia had a predilection for the portrayal of the predicament of woman as an individual in his films . And all his women are inexorably trapped in a world of tainted , fractured identities, alienation, and subjugation—–a world controlled by a well-structured male hegemony, a world that is meant for males than females. Menoka, Laxmi, Kiran, Jayanti are all victims and sufferers , and the dynamics of the social machinery always have a crucial role as the perpetrator although the nature and form of this role vary from milieu to milieu, from character to character. Sometimes it takes the form of callous , insensitive, or unfaithful husbands ; sometimes it is the atrocious, devitalizing customs and traditions; at certain other times it could be merely the inability of the woman to understand and assert her own ‘essentiality’ in an essentially male-oriented social framework. Menoka is the central character in Dr. Saikia’s much talked about film ‘Agnisnan’ (The Ordeal). The film is a haunting tale of a woman’s ‘inessentialistic Identity’ and her daredevil attitude to assert her own independent will in a traditional society controlled by male hegemony. Menoka is a successful housewife who leaves no stone unturned to fit into the role her family and her society expect her to do. But then her husband Mohikanta suddenly brings in a young girl, marries her and starts making love to her all before the eyes of Menoka totally ignoring her. He does all that as if he were privileged to do such an act. Menoka feels her world shattered, her essence, her pride as a conventionally successful woman badly tainted. She can never justify Mohikanta’s act, and resolves to set things right in her own way. She establishes a rapport with Modan, a thief but compassionate and respectful to her, and goes physical with him. Kiran is the other important woman character in ‘Agnisnan’. A meek, mild, frail, shadowlike character, Kiran is redolent of a typical conformist woman in a male-dominated society. She is as it were born to be the victim of the ‘Male Gaze’. She has not much of a choice about what happens to her. She has to be the so-called second wife , almost a concubine of an influential male member of the society. But Menoka , in Dr. Bhabendranath Saikia’s ‘Agnisnan’ (The Ordeal) definitely emerges as a ‘New Woman’. The film is a critique of an archetypal Indian woman’s ‘Inessentialistic Identity’. Menoka’s rebellion is a valiant attempt to assert her individual identity in a society and against a socio cultural value system controlled and determined by patriarchal forces. On the other hand her counterpart Kiran is portrayed as a hapless victim to that system.
Dr. B.N. Saikia’s Kiran in ‘Kolahal’ (The Turmoil)) is a typical average woman whose world is shaped and moulded by what dominates the world of such a woman in a conventional society—-a husband, a house and her children. She is happy in her own way with her husband and her son , Moti, in spite of a pretty humble life. But then her husband suddenly disappears with the promise that he would be back soon. Credulous Kiran waits for her husband’s return, and all but Kiran know that he is not going to return. Consequently Kiran faces all that a lonely, young and attractive woman does in a patriarchal society. Quite a few tries to woo and seduce her . Some tease and harass her. A few even proposes to live in with her. She takes recourse to Moti, her adolescent son, as a psychological shelter. All of a sudden ,Moti is killed in an accident. She totally breaks down. The handyman who was responsible for Moti’s killing tries to get close to Kiran .She ,at first, connives at his advances, but gradually can see his differences from other males she has encountered in her life. She decides to take a chance, not out of any amorous feelings or biological needs, but out of an innate desire to mother forth another Moti and to regain a sense of security.
Jahnu Barua, perhaps the most canonised of the Assamese filmmakers, interestingly made his directorial debut with a film that centred round the unconventional psyche of a conventional woman. His maiden venture ‘Aparoopa’, released in 1982, was not only the first ever Assamese film financed by National Film Development Corporation, but also brought its director the first of his many prestigious National/ International awards. Set in the colonial period in Assam, the film deals with a young woman who has to give up her university education for her arranged marriage with a rich tea-planter. While plantation and its monotonous social routine become a prison for her, her workaholic husband’s indifference to her adds fuel to her misery . Things get worse when she discovers, outraged, that her marriage was an outcome of a humiliating compulsion for the sake of wiping off a huge debt owed by her father. Deeply humiliated and tormented at heart, she feels herself a commodity . Then one day an old classmate and her old flame, now an army officer, suddenly arrives on the scene. Already depressed to the core, she gets drawn to her ex-lover from whom she seeks fulfillment. In Jahnu barua’s maiden venture ‘Aparoopa’ thus emerges a strong willed, headstrong woman who had the fortitude to exorcise herself from the archetypal mould of a typical Indian woman and assert her will. A middle class woman , she gathers all the courage and confidence to search for and identify her inner world and what it desires from her. Unlike most of her counterparts, she tries to achieve it rebelling against the established conventions.
Jahnu Barua’s 1992 film ‘Firingoti’( The Splinter) again depicts a woman protagonist in the form of Ritu. Though the focus is on its protagonist as a social crusader, the subtle nuances of her essentially feminine dispositions are aptly highlighted. The story is set in 1962, the time of Sino-Indian War. It revolves around a widowed teacher named Ritu who is transferred to Koronga, a small Assamese village. The school here was destroyed by fire ten years earlier. Ritu takes on the challenge of rebuilding the school and starts campaigning among the villagers. Ritu manages to build a school. It starts functioning under a large village-tree. Then comes a supposedly ‘son of the soil’ who, having lost his job there, wants to take over the school. When Ritu fights back against the threats and even physical assault, the man falls back on goons who set the school house on fire. She has to return with a heavy heart. However, she is comforted by the promise of the inhabitants of reconstructing the school so that no one can suppress the spark of knowledge. Through Ritu, Jahnu Borua convincingly portrayed the gusts and diehard positive energy of a middle class conventional woman who far transcends her personal tragedy and socio-cultural impediments to emerge as a knowledge-giver in a patriarchal society in which even none of her socially privileged male counterparts had the gusts to do that.
Physician turned theatre personality Dr. Santwana Bardoloi’s directorial debut ‘Adajya’ ( 1996) is based on a novel by Jnanpith Awardee Indira Goswami. The narrative of ‘Datal Hatir Uwne Khowa Howdah’ (The Moth-Eaten Howdah of the Tusker ) which the film is based on , is a story of widows, a saga of the tenant-landowner conflict, a spectacle of the relationship between man and woman with all the attendant complications of caste and social hierarchies. Indira Goswami powerfully exposes the hypocrisy of Brahmins, their greed and their lop-sided values, and the many ambivalences of their attitudes towards the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. But ‘Adajya’ is , above all, a harrowing tale of the plight and untold sufferings of young Brahmin widows in a patriarchal society that stifles the spirit of the woman in the name of customs and traditions . There are three widows in the film. Durga, the elderly widowed sister of the Adhikar, is an unhappy woman harassed and rejected by her husband’s family as an inauspicious woman. She scrupulously observes the restrictions imposed on widows, quarrels with her sister-in-law, the senior Gossainee and mistress of the Sattra, over trivial matters and broods over her misfortunes. Saru Gossainee is the young and beautiful widow of Indranath’s uncle who was banished from the Sattra by his father for daring to object to his dissolute ways. When her husband was alive they used to get enough revenue from their lands and offerings from the disciples but with the communists inciting the peasants in the countryside, she has fallen on bad days. Yet she carries on bravely, relying on the support of Mahidhar Bapu, a brahmin from Haramdo who has become her trusted agent and estate manager. Though she scrupulously maintains a proper distance from him and he is indifferent towards her, he gradually becomes an integral part of her dreams and fantasies. Giribala is the third widow in the film. A beautiful and headstrong young woman, she protests strongly, albeit ineffectively, against the social conventions which oppress her and ossify her life. When she finds no respite , she ends herself. Set in colonial Assam, the film is a statement on the systematic, institutionalized and cruel oppression of women in general and upper caste widows in particular.
Now a leading woman filmmaker of the country, Manju Borah’s much acclaimed , multi award winning film, ‘Akashi Torar Kothare’(A Tale Told Thousand Times, 2003) is centred around the atrocious gender bias that refuses to go in a patriarchal society even today. The film subtly depicts the age-old suppression of woman despite her vital role in the upbringing of the family and well-being of the society at large. It is about the inordinate pains and pangs of the archetypal woman in a traditional society defined and controlled by a well-structured male hegemony. The story is about Akashitora, a jovial young scholar doing research on the status of woman through the folklores of Assam. Thus she comes to know how the womenfolk down the ages have been subjected to a multitude of tyrannical experiences . Traditions reveal to her that the young girls were forced to become Devadasis to entertain the rich and the powerful. Even old women were made to dance nude to propitiate the gods to shower benevolence on human beings. Visibly ruffled up Akashitora finds an apparently liberal and compassionate friend in Raghaba who wishes to help her every possible way in her research. But once they get married, the stubborn male chauvinist in Raghaba manifests itself shattering Akashitora’s world. She has to abandon not only her passion, her own self ,but is forbidden to meet her old acquaintances. Devastated at heart , she virtually surrenders to her fate with little of visible resistance . But her passive protest gains some semblance of a voice in her ultimate refusal to succumb to the archetypal house wife’s happy–go-lucky kind of conformism .
‘Aideu’(2006), by Arup Manna, is the story of Aideu Handique — the eponymous heroine of Assam’s first film, ‘Joymoti’. Aideu had to bear with a painful, pathetic, ostracised existence for long seven decades for having called an actor her “husband” on screen. Aideu Handique sacrificed her youth, her happiness to make way for the succeeding generations of womenfolk in Assam to act in films. During her times females were not even allowed to watch theatre. When the news of her acting in ‘Joymoti’ spread in the village, her family was socially boycotted. After she returned from the shooting schedule, she had to pass the rest of her life in a separate hut alone, away from the members of her family. When one of her younger brothers, who was an active freedom fighter, died, no one came to assist her father in cremation. Her matrimonial proposal was called off and, thereafter, no one had the audacity to marry her and she remained a spinster till her death. But more than anything else, it is the deserved recognition which eluded her till her death. While showers of honours and praises were heaped on Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla and his epoch-making ‘Joymoti’, the woman who brought alive the character of the tortured ‘Ahom’ princess lapsed into oblivion.
Finally a quick glance at the technical quality of the films in question. After all, cinema is a modicum of aesthetics which becomes what it is thanks to a subtle blend of theme, thought and technology. An auteur and an Internationally canonised filmmaker Jahnu Barua definitely stands out among all of them . Most of his films bear testimony to the credentials of a technically accomplished director although he seems to falter a bit in giving impeccable details and lack innovations . ‘Firingoti’, a later and matured work , naturally scores over ‘Aparoopa’, his maiden Assamese film in technical finesse. Tight scripts, a rare ability to motivate his cast to deliver a flawless performance and a subtle dexterity to depict impressive visual details were Dr. Bhabendra Nath Saikia’s forte as a director. In other technical aspects, he always worked within his limitations . He, however, managed to give rise to the desired effects in most of his films. While their films have a lot to compensate for it, both Manju Borah and Arup Manna are far from being technically impeccable in cinematic treatment of their stuff. Their films are marred by a number of technical blemishes glaring enough to vitiate cinematic appeal. However, Arup Manna, a trained cinematographer himself, saw to it that the lenses were wielded decently to capture the hues and pathos his ‘Adieu’ called for. But Dr. Santwana Bardoloi’s ‘Adajya’ definitely epitomises an exquisite film in its technical finesse. I have not a shadow of doubt to concede it is one of the few technically flawless Assamese films produced till date. Having said all that, one must appreciate that Assamese filmmakers stumble upon a series of formidable challenges —- awfully shoestring budgets , poor quality infrastructure and dearth of quality technicians to name a few.
Although none of the above filmmakers seems to consciously show allegiance to any contemporary postcolonial feminist critical theory, they seem to be well aware of the ‘inessentiality’ of the woman in the traditional Indian society. For, their films are palpably infested with women who again and again confront their marginalized identity as ‘Other’ and its traumatic and tantalizing effect. Quite tangibly, one of the central concerns of most of the above films is the need for and the importance of the emancipation of the woman. The world of women as depicted in their films is mostly a regressive, chaotic, demeaning and depressing one which constantly thwarts the liberating process of women and offers them little to relish. Majority of their woman characters strive to squeeze some meaning out of their dismal existence in their own ways so that they can make their living meaningful or, at least, bearable . Most of them – Kiran( Agnisnan), Giribala, Durga, Saru Gosanee, Aideu, Akashitora —succumb or are made to succumb to the pressures. But a couple of them– Menoka, Aparoopa, Kiran( Kolahal) rebelled to have their ways go and could withstand the onslaught of an essentially patriarchal society to a certain extent. They perhaps epitomize the essence of ‘New Woman’ in a new wave of metamorphosis. They seem to try to assert that the woman can mould a new destiny for herself only when she becomes aware of the need to know her true self and understand her ‘essentiality’ in society—a conviction instantly reminiscent of the contemporary postcolonial feminist stance.
The world of women in these contemporary Assamese cinema is tangibly a world of shattered dreams, thwarted hopes, tainted identity and morbid existences, and also the ‘flipper of hope’ . These films unveil before us the familiar world of Indian women—-a world that relegates woman to a marginalized entity, a world marked by acute gender bias, a world which often turns out to be nothing less than a hell for her——a world where life continues, but living ends . It is a male world , the callousness of which often shatters and thwarts the dreams and aspirations of Menoka, Kiran, Laxmi, Ritu, Akashitora , Jayanti and Aideu, but it is where they are fated to fend for themselves or perish.
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1.Kolahal ( The Turmoil)
2.Agnisnan ( The Ordeal)
4. Firingoti( The Splinter)
5.Adjya( The Flight)
6.Akashi Torar Kothare( A Tale told a Thousand Time)