And the Big River Flows
Silhouettes of rural folk move across the screen, carrying small transistor radios playing the news, ‘read by Niren Dutta’. Among other news of national and international significance, the news relating to the antics of Moukon (Dorothi Bhardwaj) is also broadcast. Welcome to Majuli, where the Bornodi is the all-engulfing presence, but then, so is Moukon, for very diverse reasons, all rooted unambiguously in the politics, everyday life and gossip of this riparian space of Anupam Kaushik Borah’s Bornodi Bhotiai.
Four young, educated and talented friends played by Rajib Nath, Kaushik Nath, Himanshu Gogoi, Sonmoni Sarma share stories and their love for this young lady of the black tongue. If she has uttered it, it will come to pass. Or so the angry villagers have come to believe. They are either wary of her or are hopelessly in love with her. Either way, Moukon fights her loneliness with embroidery or knitting, all the while ranting to herself while the four boys pine for her as they set up a goat farm and debate on ideas to make a fast buck. Life moves at its own pace on the island, when the change of seasons will bring in the floods, or the changing banner for the latest singing sensation that will come and go.
But indeed, a knight in shining armour does arrive at her doorstep in the form of government officer Kushal Kakoty (Kenny Basumatary) whose proposal is quickly accepted, and preparations for the grand wedding begin – with the pre-wedding video shoot! Completely quirky and idiomatically absurd, the audience is now thrown into a superb pastiche – Moukon in an over-the-top lacy ball gown with a train (!), rehearsing and filming the video. And of course there is the narrative seen through the eyes of the four friends, and the young man tellingly named Luit (Anupam Kaushik Borah) selling insurance in a place where nothing is ensured.
So far so good – the marriage goes off without a hitch, although there is always the expectation that something ominous is to happen, because of the way the film symbolically builds up the character of Moukon. Among these are the curious cases of death by sneezing: Moukon herself will become prey to this pandemic. Marriage doesn’t change much for her, her husband has joined forces with the four friends and spends long hours drinking with them while she goes back to her loneliness and knitting until one day when the husband sneezes – and you guessed it – dies.
What is to become of her now? Will she become a pariah once more, back at her parents’ place? She even loses her baby. Her in-laws make off with everything, including the insurance. Were it not for the tight and objective handling of the piece, there are ample opportunities for the film to descend into the maudlin. But it doesn’t. This is what is so fascinating about the film: the deft and complete control over the tonal texture of the film that almost always manages to stay true to its timbre – that of black and sometimes farcical humour, bordering on the absurd. In true absurd fashion, the sneeze becomes a kind of trope that is used to connect the many strands; the wise Baba observes that Luit’s incurable “paani loga” is actually a sign of a deeper malaise that is yet to run its course. No system of medication works, until Moukon begins to work her magic. The absurd, we know, has very distinctive connections with the existential. Surrounded by the big river that is forever bountiful, but forever the nemesis, too, the film is almost an organic representation of the tenuous flow of the human condition specific to its location.
While the film is by no means of the usual run-of-the-mill realistic oeuvre, it comments with Brechtian irony on the time, the place and the people. The single, lonely, angry girl who also has a sense of humour, the educated youth who while away their time planning the correct way to cheat the system, the glamour-struck wealthy who contrive ridiculously to show off their wealth, and umpteen other instances through which the film documents contemporary life, but skirts clear of didacticism. Indeed, it is easy to relate to the film as a comedy – the uproarious laughter of the audience is testimony to that – but the embedded symbolisms the director uses are hard to miss. The deft cinematography (Prayash Sharma Tamuly) works without romanticizing Majuli; the music by Tarali Sarma enhances the narrative poignantly and Joy Barua’s ‘Xuhuri’ is beautiful too.
We are now in a blessed place with Assamese cinema with these talented young directors who keep delivering astonishingly different pieces that are both rooted and irreverent. They are blazing their own experimental paths and are surely but steadily changing the canvas and the cinegoer’s sensibility with their understanding of the medium.