The ultimate glory of cinema as an art form lies on the interior meaning of any object present in a frame— a notion that is regarded as the most important premise of the auteur theory. Renowned film critic Andrew Sarris, who breathed his last very recently, said, ‘The three premises of the auteur theory may be visualized as three concentric circles: the outer circle is technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning. The corresponding roles of the director may be designated as those of a technician, a stylist, and an auteur.’ Whenever a basic element of life, human civilization or a natural resource appears in a film, its presence sometimes goes beyond objectivity. Water is such an element that embraces the very aesthetic and philosophical terms the filmmaker endorses. 

A quick look at the present-day condition reveals an unpleasant picture which indicates fierce competitions over water resources which have prompted fears that water issues contain seeds of violent conflicts. Litterateurs, artists and filmmakers engage with this hyper-reality from their own perspectives. Look at Ritwik Ghatak’s film Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River named Titas, 1973). It was a film of mythic realism based on an epic novel on the tragic lives of a fishing community in the valley of Titas in Bangladesh. The community which flourished had to face a major socio-cultural shift as the society was uprooted due to the river that dried up. The visionary in Ghatak ended the film with a fantasy— the last sequence shows a dying woman who is searching for water, but instead sees visions of a child playing a flute in a corn field.  Can the same optimism, under present circumstances, be retained after decades, one can only wonder.

This kind of doubt has been generated in the backdrop of present turmoil surrounding construction of big river dams in many places that has serious regional repercussions, environmental, demographic and socio-economic impact. The North-east India has recently been witnessing tremendous anxiety, disquiet, fear and resentment among the downstream people due to a proposed network of 168 mega dams across Arunachal Pradesh, on the foothills of eastern Himalaya, one of the world’s six most seismically active regions. The project is thought to be India’s largest ever hydro-power adventure, but the government is behaving in a strange and unprecedented manner of ignoring the inhabitants of effected areas, the civil society and even experts on the issue. This is an issue no sensitive individual, including filmmakers, can remain indifferent to. It is indeed heartening to note that filmmakers are addressing to this subject with great insight, we can cite examples from other regions too.

Well-known director Girish Kasarravalli’s film Dweepa (The Island, 2002) is a masterpiece in this respect. The film was shot on the banks of the river Sharavati in Karnataka and mostly during monsoon season. There are two dams in the area, one dam was a pickup dam and the other one a reservoir. With this backdrop, the film deals with the raging issue of building dams and the displacement of natives. There is a river island called Sita’s Peak or Sita Parvata located in the backwaters of a dam as shown in the film. The island is slowly submerging due to the dam overflowing with the rain water. The government succeeds in evacuating the inmates of the island by giving them compensation. But the family of the village temple priest find it impossible to leave their homeland. The priest thinks that the government money can give them food and shelter, but cannot compensate for the love and respect of their people. Ultimately in the end they manage to continue life on the island, narrowly escaping submersion, but not without tragic demise of the aging priest and not without their beliefs and convictions crumbling under stress.

Laden with rich visual imagery, rain plays a critical role in Dweepa, the director himself telling that along with four main characters, rain was the fifth character in the film as it provided the backdrop which added to the tension of the family and the rising water level of the river becoming a metaphor of life of the native people threatened by outside interference. The island not only refers to the geography of the story or to the situation that the priest family finds itself in, but also to the impossibility of consensus and to the narratives of minorities being abandoned in favour of those of existing technocratic and paternal institutions, thereby leaving the central character realising that each and every person remains a dweepa, an island, as there is no human warmth and a bonding between them. Kasaravalli did not propose a solution, but he suggested a response to the emerging situation– that was of perpetual resistance. 

Another film worth mentioning here is Yarwng (Roots, 2008) in Kokborok language directed by Joseph Pulinthanath. While exposing the effects of construction of a river dam on the people of a submerged land, it depends heavily on the subtle images of cultural ethos gradually coming under threat of getting extinct. The film has the marks of skill and restraint in the handling of the characters and in the formation of drama. The story of this 95-minute feature film revolves around large-scale displacement in Tripura when the newly-built Dumbur dam submerged huge tracts of arable land in the fertile Riama valley about 40 years ago. It was shot on actual locations and many of the people who act in the film are real life victims of displacement. The Mising language film Turgat (2010) directed by Dr Bhupendra Kaman is yet another tale of suffering people due to havoc caused by flood in riverine areas of north bank of Brahmaputra in upper Assam. It is a fact that in recent years, in a drastic change of topography, the green landscape of flood-prone Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts has gradually given way to dried up rivers and sandy floodplains due to massive sand deposition in the lower reaches of these swirling rivers. Owing to deforestation and the changing course of the rivers, farmlands amounting to thousands of hectares were buried in heavy soil erosion and thousands of people rendered homeless causing their migration. While a river in spate and erosion on its bank formed the images, Turgat narrates the story of such a small family which encountered natural calamity inside their traditional habitat and human hostility outside it. 

This kind of suffering is elaborately dealt with in a documentary film made very recently by Maulee Senapati. The documentary is produced by the Films Division of the Government of India and titled as A River Story: Of Hope and Despair (2011). Look at what statistics it provides. It focuses on the havoc wrecked by the mighty Brahmaputra along its 650 kilometers trail across Assam, already 4,000 sq kms of landmass lost forever, nearly 5 million people in 2,500 villages in 12 districts uprooted, a large section of the population displaced due to foods and erosion. There are haunting images of how the effected people have to lead their lives under untold miseries. They will never get back their lives of yesteryear. Many among them have no option for livelihood other than becoming daily wage earners like rickshaw-pullers, plumbers and labourers in nearby towns. The government help is almost negligible, a fact divulged by the locals in Dhemaji. Not even the minimal cloth was given to them, as alleged by an old  woman. The devastation caused by the floods left the croplands barren, even the thick forest with tall trees have died down, disintegration started within the social folds, the community ties are no longer as strong as before and this change has led to gradual erosion of human values as well. The most welcome aspect of this documentary is an open criticism of the government failure to tackle the situation arising out of this perennial river-born problem.

A river symbolizes the flow of life. If it dries up the life depending on it evaporates with it. This can be seen allegorically in an Assamese poem ‘Iyat Nadi Asil’ (Here was a River) by Navakanta Barua. The poem is a warning of a gradual depletion of the riverbed. The renowned poet has visualized a magnificent river turning to rivulet and rivulets turning to empty rock-beds, eventually expanding into a desert. Such literary works suggest that water-related crisis finds semantic expression, but the image of water in cinema can be deceptive and ever so often only add to the aesthetic sensibility. The pioneering Assamese films of earlier decades never attempted to depict water as a focal theme or as a metaphor. The first ever Assamese film Joymoti (1935) directed by Jyotiprasad Agarwala had shown the river Brahmaputra in the closing sequence with a heart-rendering background score ‘Lohitore Pani Jabi O Boi’ (Ye the waters of Lohit will flow on). This scene held with it the nationalist fervour that had taken over the whole sub-continent during the freedom struggle.

It was in 1978 that Atul Bordoloi’s Kollol announced an assertive arrival of a genre film with water in focus. With a strong narrative the film deals with peasants and fishermen who struggle against the feudal lord. There is no doubt that the struggle is an overstressed thematic exploit of contemporary Indian realistic cinema. The direction however made the outcome a visual delight. The river plays a significant role throughout the film and water plays an integral part of the narrative. There exists an oppressive feudal system, but the villagers are apprehensive to rise against the feudal lord and his accomplices fearing the consequences. As if to add to the troubles, a shark appears in the river to only make matters worse. The naive and oppressed villagers find twin threats to their livelihood. The protagonist, a young peasant, ultimately kills the shark and the inspired village folk revolt against the exploitation. A long sequence in this film has the young man on a boat, along with a sharp weapon fighting the shark in moonlight: this kind of a lyrical quality can hardly be found in the contemporary regional cinema. 

Long after this endeavour, a newcomer explored with water as a subject for his film Tathapio Nadi (Yet the River, 1989) and he realized this film with a non-narrative construct. The movie depicted a community of boatmen and their plight against the  backdrop of modernization. The director Hemanta Das concentrated on the psyche of the community who felt threatened after construction of a bridge and introduction of a steamer service on the river Brahmaputra. The community helplessly witnesses their own economic deterioration. The imagery illustrates the contradictions of the river; on one side is the flowing river and on the other side is the barren crack-ridden river bank. The film depicts shattered hopes and does not indulge in false fantasies. Never before in an Assamese film has the mighty river formed as big a backdrop as in this film. 

Jahnu Baruah’s much acclaimed film Hkhagaraloi Bahu Door (It’s a Long Way to the Sea, 1995) also deals with lost hopes and a threatened traditional life style against the backdrop of modernity and socio-economic development. The premise was again a construction of a bridge— a wooden bridge over a remote river which resulted in a local boatman losing his only source of sustenance. This film was based on the director’s own story using the bridge as a metaphor of the Assamese society undergoing a transitional phase. The river in all its subliminal existence plays a mute witness to what is overtaking the society at large. The bridge symbolizes rapid connectivity between the people on both sides of the river as well as the existential crisis of the village boatman. When the protagonist attempted to destroy the bridge, his action, though fell short of fulfilling his ulterior motive, betrayed the aspirations of a community the man himself was a part of. However, after his failed bid to destroy the bridge, he breaks down with remorse.  The catharsis was thus complete in this movie which was actually the first among a trilogy made by Jahnu Barua exploring grandfather-grandchild relationship.

There are two other films in Assamese dealing with water and life in the modern times. One is Matsyagandha (2000) by Sanjeev Hazarika.  It exposes a caste-ridden rural ambiance in Assam which depicted the plight of a fishermen community. They live in absolute poverty and squalor. The rivers provide them their traditional and only source of living. The other feature film is Juye Poora Sone (The Self Triumphs, 2003) which dealt with flood havoc and land erosion in the river. Directed by Sanjib Sabhapandit, this film was given the National Award for Best Film on Environment. However, the film also touches upon some other burning problems such as infiltration of migrants and unemployment.  In his bid to fictionalize many events of contemporary Assam, the director employed a few actual footage of erosion of river bank during floods. The story revolved around a young man whose elder brother perished in the swirling flood along with their riverside house. The young man is a good social worker and does a yeoman’s service at the relief camp of the flood victims. The nail biting line-up of events unfold many facets of suffering of common people in a flood-prone region.

It is however strange a fact that in spite of being in a flood affected area, very few filmmakers in Assam actually have chosen water issues as a focal theme. These issues are already taking alarming turns— not in the context of Assam alone, but in its adjoining areas. Assam is a land of water with Brahmaputra and Barak being two main streams along with many of their tributaries. The origin of Brahmaputra is in Tibet and in its long course the river crosses through the hills of Arunachal Pradesh before coming down to the plains of Assam and finally goes down into the Bay of Bengal. Naturally the waters of this mighty river caught attention of the polity as well as creative artists. An important documentary that took account of the river’s journey across the three countries was A River’s Story : The Quest for the Brahmaputra (2002) directed by Jahnu Barua, Throughout this 54-minute film, the Brahmaputra plays the main role. The visuals show the life and culture of people along the river,  with passing time and existing spaces. There was an unmistakable stress on the ecosystem of the river and of those along the riverbanks. 

It is difficult to resist a temptation to speak in political terms when the issue concerns water, even if the discourse is limited to art and culture. That is why the line between ‘art journalism’ and ‘investigative journalism’ blurs in certain documentary films. An instance in this regard may be Gautam Bora’s film Tale of a River (1995). The 58-minute-long documentary exposes the ill effects of a hydro-electricity power project in North Cachar Hills District of Assam through interviews. The project was built on the Kopili river which was a source of life for the local populace comprising Karbi, Jayantiya and Dimasa tribes. These people were rehabilitated, but the very nature of compensation actually spelt doom for them which in turn led to deforestation. On the other side, a new, alien township had grown in the vicinity of the power project which also accounted for loss of local agricultural productivity, drying up of the river and further loss of water bodies, while the heavy industries of lime stone, cement and coal mining polluted the whole area. The visual construct of the film was captivating to the hilt. Another film by Gautam Bora Sons of Abotani— the Misings (1991) is an authentic portrayal of the Mising tribe who lived by the river valleys in Upper Assam and had to face the brunt of the devastating floods every year. Traditionally these people co-existed with flood waters, their homes also built on a raised bamboo structure. But amidst recurring floods and changes in seasonal cycles, their land becomes totally unfit for farming as a sand layer is deposited after the floods.

Maulee Senapati crafted a documentary on the endangered species of river dolphins, locally called Xihu. Children of the River : the Xihus of Assam  (2007) is 29 minutes of scenic exploits and polemics looking at how humans and dolphins have coexisted; but the latter is endangered due to the economic compulsions of local people. There are only three species of river dolphins in the world now— among which only 250 Gangetic dolphins remain in Assam. The film has excellent audiography and drives home many useful facts. It captures for the first time the secret process of catching fish with the help of dolphin oil. Large scale pollution and uses of insecticides causes extensive damage to the river’s ecosystem and it further pushes the dolphins away from its previous habitat. Journalist Mrinal Talukdar has made a very short documentary on Majuli (2004). This is the name of the largest inhabited river island on the surface of the earth. The documentary focuses on continuous neglect and apathy towards the river island as recurring flood and erosion have pushed it to the brink, having already reduced the island to less than half it’s original size within 20 years. It has no dialogue, no commentary, the visuals say it all. Altaf Mazid’s documentary film Crazy on the Rocks (2007) is about raising embankments at the source of the river Pagladiya, a northern tributary of the Brahmaputra. There is no commentary, nor any sublime dialogues. Only in the end there appears a few tags telling that in total 6,50,000 people provided their labour. The visuals ostensibly repeat scenes of preparation and taking of food in the working sites, but then it notifies how long the hard labour and leisure took in the entire process. 

It is not without reason that in the course of time this river has become tragic not owing to the  natural phenomenon but to various man-made causes. No longer can the water of this great river  sustain life in every space it goes through. There is a small district consisting of a group of tiny river islands in northern part of Bangladesh. During the heavy rains of monsoon the place floods and people are left stranded, and in winter the same place turns into a desert like landscape where cultivation becomes difficult. Same phenomenon is being witnessed in upper riparian places of Assam. This is a compelling situation where people are losing the love for the river. With it, the innocence of a virgin  fertile land has gone into oblivion. This sort of problem is aptly and vividly dealt, by Shaheen Dil Riaz of Bangladesh in a 84-minute documentary Sand and Water (2001). As a matter of fact, people of Bangladesh have been victims of drying up of tributaries, setbacks to agriculture and fisheries mainly due to rationing of the Ganges flow from across the border in the dry season i.e. the most productive season in a flood-prone nation, while excess water of Farakka barrage is released during the monsoon. According to a study, this situation has resulted in some two million people being displaced over the past two decades. The issue of water is utterly sensitive as in most cases it involves land, ecology and economics of more than one country because big rivers are essentially continental.

It may be mentioned here that the integral basics of regional perspectives in cinema remain intact even in post-modern times. The filmmakers cannot turn a blind eye to the symbiotic links with society, no matter whatever they have to sacrifice for it. The market forces in a far greater open economy make their task more difficult. A close look at how water issues are making inroads into our living being is thus extremely apt.

(The article is an edited version of a paper submitted by the writer at National Seminar on cinema and society ‘Understanding Cinema of North East in Historical Perspective’ organised by Department of History, Dibrugarh University on 5th March, 2012.)