Utpal Borpujari is a renowned film critic and a passionate film maker from Assam, based in New Delhi. His films like Mayong: Myth/Reality and Songs of the Blue Hills have been highly acclaimed worldwide and invited to various international film festivals. A Swarna Kamal awardee, a techie with a strong zeal for cinema, Utpal Borpujari has been ardently writing about films and its impact on society and culture and is an inspiration for many. We got a great opportunity to connect with Utpal Borpujari and catch a quick glimpse of his journey from being a techie to a film maker, his films, and the plight of cinema in the North East.
Thank you so much for taking out time for the interview. You are a film critic and have written prolifically about films and the cultural impacts. Now you have also taken the role of a passionate film maker with films like Mayong and Songs of the Blue Hills. And, you have an M.Tech from University of Roorkee which is currently IIT Roorkee. That seems quite an amazing journey. How did the switch happen… from being a techie to a film critic and then a film maker?
I think it was destined. I had been writing in local newspapers as a school and college student, and that urge to become a professional journalist became stronger towards the end of my M.Tech course. So, I joined The Sentinel newspaper in Guwahati immediately after completion of my studies, obviously at a pittance of a salary as compared to what I would have got as a professional geologist. This was followed by long stints in PTI and Deccan Herald in New Delhi, with a short stint with indiatimes.com in between. As a film critic/journalist, I have written extensively on cinema of all kinds, and was recognised with the Swarna Kamal award given by the President of India for the Best Film Critic at the 50th National Film Awards in 2003. Towards the end of 2010, I strongly felt the urge to make my own films instead of just writing about films by others (which incidentally I still do occasionally). And thus I started my struggle as a filmmaker.
What is the plight of the film makers from North East India? And what do you think is the biggest pain point for film makers from the region?
The biggest disadvantage filmmakers from the region face is the lack of enough cinema halls to screen their films. In fact, for films apart from in Assamese and Manipuri, there are practically no commercial screening opportunities. However, our biggest strength is the ocean of stories, from our literature and folk traditions, for both fiction and documentary films. Sadly, that still remains unexplored. I feel our filmmakers must make films with an eye on the global market. To give you an encouraging example, Crossing Bridges, the first-ever film in the Sherdukpen dialect of Arunachal Pradesh, directed by Sange Dorjee Thongdok, has been acquired by Insomnia Films of France for global distribution. So, even if Sange cannot show his film to his Sherdukpen community commercially (even if he could, it would not have much commercial viability considering that his is a very small tribe), he can have his film reach out to the world, and thus possibly earn his investment back and maybe even make some profit.
What’s your take on the hordes of digital films that are being produced and released all over the region but hardly a handful, like eg. Khawnlung Run and Ri to name a few, that are worth noticeable?
Digital technology has made filmmaking easier, at least financially. However, it has also led to making of substandard films because anyone or everyone without any understanding of cinema as a medium can also make a film. So, we have a lot of ‘films’ which are poor quality products. These films will obviously go nowhere. But films like Khawnlung Run and Ri as examples of how the medium has made it possible for filmmakers from the region to tell stories effectively within their limited budgets. That’s the way to go.
Cinema as a medium to entertain vs cinema as a medium to educate – an age old debate where neither gets a complete stronghold. And cinema being a very powerful medium to educate people and change societies, we still see cinema in our region or for the matter of fact in the country largely centred on mere entertainment. What are your thoughts on this?
India has a strong history of cinema as a medium to make people socially aware. Lot of our filmmakers whether from the past or the present have made films that are educative/socially responsible and entertaining at the same time. Actually, I feel cinema should tell a story, and that story not essentially always have a social message or try to educate the viewer. If the story has a message, fine, and if it just entertains effectively without assaulting the sensibilities of the viewer, fine. Unfortunately, still a majority of our films still are made with the view that to be entertaining one has to have a few set formulae.
Mayong was totally about a fascinating and intriguing practice that has been a part of Assam for ages and yet something that totally went unnoticed for years. What conspired and led you to work on Mayong and the intricacies around sorcery?
Exactly the reason that you state: that it’s a fascinating and intriguing place. It was a story waiting to be told, and that required telling. Whether one believes in the heritage of Mayong’s magic is a different thing, but it is important to visually capture such aspects of our society and its heritage and folk traditions.
Now coming to your recent release ‘Songs of the Blue Hills’, could you please share your experience filming it?
It was a journey of discovery, as I myself had not imagined when I set out to make the film that I would get to meet so many wonderful musicians. From folk exponents to young musicians, I found a passion for music among the Nagas that is very inspiring. And I am really happy that the film has travelled to 9 international film festivals till now, which means people are liking the film and the music. I hope this film will be able to introduce Naga music to the whole world.
Your films are centred on an essence that is deeply rooted to the society and almost unseen and untold corners of our society which we seem to have forgotten or thought better left untouched. How challenging is it to work on topics that are offbeat and predominantly avoided by mainstream audience?
I don’t think in those terms. Maybe such subjects subconsciously attract my mind, because I feel strongly about the need for our filmmakers to tell untold stories from our region. And while it is challenging to work on such subjects, it is also very satisfying that I have been able to take some aspects of Northeast India to the outside world through my films.
Your films have been invited to various international film festivals. How’s the reception when you screen these films during these events? Anything that you would like to share with us from those events?
The experience of an audience watching your film and liking it is great for any filmmaker. But I always look forward to the fascinating interactions with the audiences after the screenings as they get me an immediate reaction and some passionate comments.
After the success of these films, what’s next? We would be delighted to know about your upcoming projects.
I have recently completed another documentary titled “Soccer Queens of Rani”, on how football coach Hem Das from Guwahati is bringing a change in the lives of some underprivileged girls in Rani area of Assam along the Assam-Meghalaya border. This film was commissioned by Rajya Sabha Television channel which has telecast it already. I made another film titled “For a Durbar of the People” for Union Ministry of Panchayati Raj. This film explored the traditional Durbar system of the Khasis and its relevance in the present times and was telecast by Doordarshan and Lok Sabha Television channels. I am currently working on another major documentary project, about which I will inform you hopefully soon. And yes, I am also working on a feature film script.
Kind of a cliché’ but a few words of advice or message you’d like to give the new and upcoming filmmakers from the region?
I would not like to give any “advice” or “message” since I still am at a learning stage as a filmmaker. But I would definitely like to appeal to all the filmmakers from our region to make films that smell of our soil and tell our stories, not make poor, cheap-looking imitations of Bollywood or South Indian masala films. If you want to make a fully commercial film, do it in your own style and without losing the touch with our societies.