Film

The devastating impact of climate change on rural villagers is explored in two films from India’s border regions. By Shaheen Ahmed.

Indian Film Festival of Melbourne

Maitri Das as Bengi and Deep Jyoti Kalita as Benga in Boroxun (Songs for Rain).
Credit: Saj Entertainment

How does a poor borderland region in South Asia cope with climate change? Two films from Assam, a state in the north-east of India, have their Australian premieres at this year’s Indian Film Festival of Melbourne (IFFM). Boroxun (Songs for Rain) and Bridge – both debut features scripted in the Assamese language – look at the climate crisis and its drastic effects on Assam’s Indigenous communities.

Krrishna Kt Borah’s Boroxun (2021) is set during a drought in a region known for its excess rainfall, while Kripal Kalita’s Bridge (2020) looks at the devastation that follows flooding. The Brahmaputra River, which crosses the borders of India, Tibet and Bangladesh, forms one of the major valleys in Assam. Both Boroxun and Bridge were filmed in Upper Assam in the Brahmaputra Valley.

Borah’s film explores in languid detail the destruction of drought in a nameless village. The villagers are reduced to penury and near starvation, and their personal and communal lives are wrecked. Boroxun foregrounds the lives of two young people with learning difficulties who are nicknamed Benga (Deep Jyoti Kalita) and Bengi (Maitri Das), because they are considered to be the village simpletons. We never learn Benga’s real name, although we hear Bengi’s name Lakhimi – an Assamese variant on Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth – called out a couple of times. The nicknames have multiple meanings, but as the film shows they are used as slurs: both are mocked by the villagers and exploited for their labour.

Boroxun begins with the low splash of water. We see a man standing in mud with a sharp bamboo spear in hand, poking the ground  as Benga and Bengi walk into frame carrying firewood on their heads. The camera slowly tracks the two youngsters walking up to chat to the villager, and this is when we learn that the man is trying to fish in a dry riverbed. It’s a clear image of how the lack of rain affects a community that depends mostly on agriculture or fishing for sustenance.

Bridge foregrounds devastation caused by perennial floods in Assam through the life of its protagonist, Jonaki Gogoi (Shiva Rani Kalita), a young girl who farms the fields to support her widowed mother and young brother. The narrative of the film is driven by the physical and emotional toll on the villagers, because there is no bridge over the river that separates Jonaki’s island village from the mainland. Kalita’s fly-on-the-wall narrative immerses viewers in the everyday hardship and life of a subsistence farmer. Waking up at the break of dawn, she drinks a cup of black tea made in a blackened kettle on a wood stove before hurrying to the fields with a plough and two oxen. Like most of the villagers, Jonaki’s family lives in a mud house with a thatched roof, keeping a goat for milk, a banana tree and a small kitchen garden.

Rural and urban life collide when images of Jonaki toiling in the fields go viral, after her cousin uploads them to social media. A news channel based in Guwahati, the biggest city in the region, picks up the story, portraying Jonaki as a young girl of marriageable age toiling like a man under harsh conditions to provide for her family. The television coverage brings her to the notice of many and then a reporter, Parag (Kripal Kalita), in a moment of being a saviour, proposes marriage to her. The remote village – reachable only through a crude raft made of banana tree trunks called a bhur in Assamese – stands as a metaphor of the spatial and imaginative distance between the urban and the rural.

Boroxun and Bridge highlight the complex nature of communities and kinship. Both films dispel the urban naivety that sees rural life as a place of immanent innocence and simplicity, as they present a complex weave of patriarchy, sexuality, class and caste that shapes the lives of people who live in these borderland regions.

Throughout Boroxun, we hear the refrain: “This has never happened in our village.” Borah focuses on the absurd to show how the villagers deal with this unthinkable drought. They firstly marry off two frogs, with full Hindu rituals. Frog marriages are popular in many parts of India, including Assam, as a means to appease the rain gods. When this fails, on the suggestion of a Brahmin priest they force Benga to marry another man. This absurdity is driven by vindictive class and sexual politics – a widowed mother and her simpleton son cannot dissent against the powerful men in the village.

Bridge likewise highlights how women are crushed by patriarchal mores. Powerful men in the village upend Jonaki’s life when they force her to pay a large sum of money or face excommunication after she is falsely accused of seduction by Manik, the son of the village headman, who tried to molest her.

Shiva Rani Kalita gives a powerful and realistic performance as Jonaki in her debut film. Kalita’s methodical preparation for the role is visible in her expert ploughing of the muddy fields with her oxen and her use of quotidian objects such as the dao (traditional machete) to split bamboo poles for constructing her hut. Debut actors Deep Jyoti Kalita and Maitri Das breathe life into their rustic characters.

As with other states in north-eastern India, Assam has been the site of intense conflict and violence. The history of the state, both colonial and postcolonial, cannot be divorced from issues such as floods and drought. Access to resources and aid is intricately connected to state policy and the exploitation of the region’s natural resources, which has led to much violence between the various Indigenous communities and the Indian state.

The illusory bridge in Kalita’s Bridge isn’t simply a metaphor – it reflects the realities of many communities, including the people of Majuli, who live on one of the world’s largest riverine islands. Fatal ferry accidents occur regularly: one earlier this month killed three people. For many years, politicians have promised a bridge to connect the island with the mainland. Ministers have come and gone, but the bridge remains unbuilt.

Boroxun and Bridge offer us a peek into life in the poorly understood borderland regions. The expansive landscapes captured in Boroxun transport us to a lived reality tucked away in a corner of South Asia, dramatising ordinary lives in a region that remains shamefully neglected. 

The Indian Film Festival of Melbourne is streaming until September 27.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 25, 2021 as "Fringe existence".

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Shaheen Ahmed is a PhD candidate in cultural studies at Monash University.