A Land Beyond the River Wide
We are on an exclusive train journey: it is the sole Rajdhani that runs to a non-capital city in India. The journey to Dibrugarh is very long, close to thirty six hours, or one and a half days. It takes you from the north of the country to its eastern extremes and the consequences of this transition become palpable gradually. The landscapes are greener, the sky clearer. The air feels different too – it is an effect similar to wiping a skin of dust from on top of old, unused furniture. The fields are lush, endless.
The train entered the platform at Dibrugarh at six in the morning, perhaps half an hour after it. It was raining too, and we tried, as most tourists most, a cup of Assam's home-grown brand of tea. We set out then from Dibrugarh towards our ultimate destination, the village of Jonai. To this this, we chose to travel from within the city market to reach a point where we could catch a winger that would help us reach the banks of Brahmaputra. The fact of the river's immenseness has been propagated for centuries through local folklore and mythology. As one sails on it, it feels like a giant sea, with only a small, minor strip of land visible in the distance. The ferries that cut through its heart are massive too: they can house, filled to the rafters, a hundred men and women, alongwith three to four large vehicles.
The river's sovereign majesty reveals itself slowly: a number of islands lay scattered across its surface – the river the propeller of their ecosystems. On one of these, I spotted a rail road bridge which as it turned out, has been in construction over the last decade and a half.
Fellow travelers on the ferry, Sarju and Bishu were residents from the adjoining islands who earn their bread by working at local tea plantations. Sarju developed a strange fascination towards the styling of my moustache, using it to build a hypothesis that I was infact, an emerging star in Bollywood. He also proudly declared his preference of marriage over matriculation, a major achievement in his life.
We disembarked from the ferry on the other side, where we were received by Rinku our local host – with her, we began driving towards Jonai. We realised later that the option of a train from Dibrugarh to Jonai does infact exist – but in hindsight, the brief journey atop the Brahmaputra was well worth all of our personal inconveniences. She had assembled a fantastic, lavish dinner in our welcome – over which we contemplated and planned our activities for the days of the project.
The next day, we set out to learn about Jonai, its local habits and its history with cinema. We started off with an exploration of its interiors, where we found a government-run school in a dilapidated condition. Despite this, the local teachers and its principal exhibited an excellent, collective vigour for its running. 'We are less teachers and more parents to the children who study here', one teacher remarked.
The standard classroom in the school used – primarily – bamboo and wood as the primary material for construction. We also discovered that the school has been operational for close to three decades, with negligible support from the local administration and government. Half the student population reaches school by crossing the Brahmaputra to-and-fro. There are also others who cycle for more than three hours, from the other end of Jonia, to attend classes. The frequent floods and rain only worsen the situation further, we were informed – despite which, the teachers remain very motivated to forge ahead and sustain their efforts. This, including other factors, helped us finalise the school as the venue for our screenings.
I: THE LAND THAT LEVITATES
We ventured ahead to visit various local, smaller houses where we had the chance to observe at great proximity the day-to-day mores of the average citizen of Jonai. The structures of the houses are made almost entirely out of wood. Slilts hold them above the ground to act as a safeguard from floods. The houses in the region own a wide variety of farm animals: pigs, a hen, etc. In general, the space accorded to the houses in the villages is not meager: they are infact, large enough to host a small pond in the backgarden. Or perhaps, a fishery.
We were invited to lunch at one such house – the owner claimed with great pride that each and every item on our plate was homegrown. The rice, especially, is unusually sticky and lumpy but very sweet and filling. The rest of the day was spent wandering in the local market, talking to the locals and trying different food.
II: LEFT POWERLESS
It is on the final day of our journey that we had planned to screen the films. We started, therefore, a bit early towards the school, in order to make arrangements for the screening. It was a useful exercise for us to gauge the enthusiasm of the local attendees before the screening. One realised it did not infact require an enormous effort to ensure an audience – a large number of spectators, curious and eager, had already registered their presence at the venue.
It is but anticipated of course that each Cinema Project will throw up its own brand of challenges – in Jonai too, an hour before the screening, we discovered a situation that threatened to throw the ambitions of the project into serious jeopardy: there was, as we realised, no power in the area. No backup too, for the generator begins to die on us as soon we run the projector. We decided, very swiftly, to procure a replacement generator and accompanying it, a mechanic who can run it. No luck, however.
We are three hours behind schedule and one can discern the increasing impatience of the crowd. The screening begins and we hope it is without any further surprises – until the speakers begin to malfunction. We are screening Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) and we notice people do not protest, nor register the absent sound. The screening proceeds therefore in complete silence – children applaud, women peep from the windows, men whistle – and Chaplin, as always, salvages the day. Once the audiences acquired a collective enthusiasm for the exercise, we screened Pushpa Rawat and Anupama Srinivasan's Nirnay (2014) - the film was met with rapt attention from a large group comprised of children, the local women and the men.
Our accompanying researcher and host, Rinku Arda Pegu, conducted a series of elaborate post-film interviews with members of the audience. She communicated to us how an observant section of the audience - mainly women - discerned very useful nuances and details in the film, such as the manner in which the women in the film drape the corner of their pallu across their face and how such a practice was indeed, alien to the local habits of costume and clothes. While a lot is often written about how cinema can essentialise the similarities in cultures across the world, a well-made film invests itself instead in the observation of differences, of systems of codes that help erect a 'culture' in the first place.