During the 1990s, insurgency was rampant in Assam as a result of which the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was imposed in Assam at the time. Bomb blasts, curfews, midnight raids, young boys being picked up randomly were some of the many horrific incidents that marked that period. The violent exchange between the state and non-state actors uprooted thousands of families across the state. Jwlwi: The Seed, a film by Rajni Basumatary, tells the story of one such family.
Born in Silapathar and brought up in Assam’s Rangapara, the Bodo filmmaker was inspired by her own family’s loss in addition to those of others in Northeast India to direct and produce the feature film more than 20 years after the turbulent period.
The 90-minute film narrates the story of Alaari, played by Basumatary herself, who loses her husband to a crossfire between militants and security personnel. This follows her doing everything in her bid to protect her only son. Most of the filming was shot in Assam’s Dimakuchi and Udalguri areas while a small portion was shot in Chiang Mai in Thailand.
Jwlwi is Basumatary’s second directorial film. Her first was the 2014 Assamese film, Raag: The Rhythm of Love, which received several nominations for the Prag Cine Awards. The Handique Girls’ College alumna had been writing short stories from a young age and many of her stories were picked by directors in Assam for TV shows.
Her first production Anurag (2004), which was also written by her, won many accolades. Her acting debut was marked by her portrayal of Indian Olympic boxer Mary Kom’s mother in the eponymous biopic starring Priyanka Chopra.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview with VibesMojo:
Q. What is the significance of the story behind Jwlwi: The Seed?
A. To me, the story behind Jwlwi is significant because it is a personal account yet can be about many other people who have been victims of the horrors of insurgency in our region. I was studying in Guwahati and subsequently in Delhi but whenever I visited home I would see the army raiding houses. I lost my own nephews and cousins during that time, and later one of my brothers went missing. It was important because there are not many mainstream films made on the subject, especially in Bodo language. Being a victim myself, I thought no one could tell this story better than me. The film has also proved to be a catharsis for me.
Q. What is the one thing you’d want the viewers to take back from the movie?
A. That gun power is not real power. It can only uproot families and people should formulate better ways to express emotions rather than being impulsive. I want people to see how in the name of nabbing insurgents the armed forces had terrorised the people in the state. Being the law keepers, they should be more understanding of the collateral damage and handle these situations more responsibly. The fact that they have failed to do so has proved them no different from the insurgents.
Q. Which scene was the most difficult to shoot – emotionally and technically?
A. Since we had limited resources due to a limited budget we couldn’t acquire technically all that we had wanted and preferred to. Emotionally, many scenes were difficult, not just for me but for many of the cast and crew as we had all been victims of insurgency some way or the other. It was difficult as acting out some of the scenes replayed the past. But on the bright side, it made the scenes authentic. It was fulfilling to see it executed beautifully on screen.
Q. What is your take on insurgency and how has it changed in the past two decades?
A. In the initial days of formations of those organisations involved in armed-struggle, I remember admiring their ideologies and their commitment to what they thought was right. It is a different matter that I was later disillusioned by their activities and their act of violence. Insurgency was in the peak in the 1990s in Assam and though it is waning, it still exists. I think it is the responsibility of the government to negotiate with the rebels through dialogue and not by perpetration of gun power. Sincerity should come from both parties to make peace leading to prosperity.
Q. In Raag: The Rhythm of Love, you worked with professional actors, the likes of Adil Hussain and Zerifa Wahid. What has been the difference in experience working with a non-professional cast ensemble in Jwlwi?
A. Working with a cast where majority of them were not professional actors was a truly enriching experience. I personally think it was a plus point because they were ready to learn. They became the ‘director’s actor’. Professional actors come with their own style of acting and experience, which is not always in sync of a director’s vision. The cast of Jwlwi was fresh yet very talented and very eager. In the process we could explore together as team.
Q. You took the help of crowdfunding for the post-production of the film. Would you suggest crowdfunding to other independent filmmakers? How should they go about it?
A. Crowdfunding is a very good option for independent filmmakers. Because most indie filmmakers start with a low budget, crowdfunding really helps. Wishberry is the crowdfunding platform I approached and I would recommend it. It was founded by two inspirational young women who had great jobs abroad but came back to India and created this platform. They are transparent, professional, empathetic towards the film maker’s story and professional in handling finance.
Q. What has been the biggest challenge in the entire course of making the film?
A. Funding was the biggest challenge but only initially. I hadn’t approached producers for Jwlwi and had rather approached a few influential people in our community. Sadly, they hadn’t shown interest to collaborate, some didn’t even respond. But once I began there was no looking back. I couldn’t be more grateful for my spouse, Shirish Jain who provided the financial support for the greater part of the film. At 70%, the film production had come to a halt. That is when I took to crowdfunding. Many large-hearted friends including Krishna Nanduri, Sano Mainao and Roon Bhuyan became major crowd funders. When the funding by crowdfunders was not enough I received support from Jani Viswanath who became my co-producer. She approved of the film when I showed her the first cut and readily agreed to help me complete the film. She is a Dubai based philanthropist, involved in activities that heals and enriches lives in several regions Africa and India.
Q. Which director has influenced your work the most?
A. One of the most notable directors whose work has inspired me the most is Satyajit Ray. His Pather Panchali was absolutely brilliant! I could always relate to his stories. His style is simple yet so impactful. Among the contemporary directors I absolutely love Vishal Bhardwaj’s work. He has a panache for storytelling. Of course, I don’t relate to the dark side of his stories but his skill and mastery of dealing with subjects is commendable.
Q. Which other Bodo film do you suggest must be watched by viewers?
A. Unfortunately, there has been no Bodo feature film made in the last 24 years by a Bodo filmmaker. There are video films which are largely made for entertainment purposes. A feature film of national repute that I saw last was Rape in the Virgin Forest by Jwngdao Bodosa. Today, of course, there are some ambitious young filmmakers. Raja Narzary is one such filmmaker. His short films have been very promising.
Jwlwi: The Seed is currently anticipating its screening at the film festival circuits before making a commercial release.