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Documentary filmmaker Joor Baruah grew up in the Brahmaputra plains. But his inquisitiveness always made him wonder about the life and culture of the unseen “beautiful people” of other northeastern states. Adi: At The Confluence, a documentary on the tribal Adi people residing along the Himalayan border of India and China, is the outcome of his quest.
Born in Assam, Baruah has been deeply influenced by the life and works of his uncle, Dr Bhupen Hazarika. For Baruah, music was in the family. His mother, who was an active member of the IPTA movement and a renowned Assamese singer, also influenced young Baruah’s thoughts. In fact, “I inherit my passion for music from her,” he says.
After MBA, Baruah pursued a career in management consulting. Though he did reasonably well, he felt a void.
Baruah wanted to pursue social and creative projects. In 2012, the year his father died, he dropped out of the rat race, came back, spent time in a monastery in Arunachal Pradesh and then moved to Berkeley California where he studied Buddhism and helped the Nyingma community start a school for mind studies in downtown Berkeley.
“After that I got a fellowship to complete a two-year M.A. in filmmaking from University of California, Santa Cruz and spent an intense two years studying filmmaking. In 2017 I was selected as one of the twelve filmmakers for the Investigative Reporting Program in the School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley,” he said in an email interview.
Now, Baruah is in India to complete the full-length version of Adi as part of a Ministry of Broadcasting and Public Service Broadcasting Trust film fellowship. “I want to continue working for northeastern issues and split my time between northeast India and California.”
Baruah tells The Shillong Times about the beginning of Adi, his other works and platform for documentary makers in India.
Both your parents had a long association with films and filmmaking. Who among the two has influenced you the most? Anyone else other than parents who has influenced you and your work?
My mother Kavita Baruah (Rose) was one of the first few women singers to record Assamese songs like Gadhuli Ahil Tora Jilikil, Radha Sura Phul Guji (tea community folk song) for the label of those times, His Masters Voice (HMV), in their makeshift recording set-up in Guwahati.
She recorded songs for films like Prathama Prohoro Ratri (with Ila Bose for the 1961 film Shakuntala) and All India Radio. She was also closely involved in the making of various Assamese films by Bhupen Hazarika contributing to various aspects of production and music.
Filmed in Assam and Tollygunge, Kolkata — where she lived and studied with her brother, some of these productions include Lotighoti, Pratidhyoni. Chik Mik Bijuli, Erabator Xur and Mon Proja Poti (co-produced by her husband, my father Upendra Kumar Baruah).
My mother also acted in Chik Mik Bijuli, narrated and sang Bihu with Moghai Uja for Pratidhyoni and performed folk dances for Erabator Xur. In her youth, she was an Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) activist and worked alongside luminaries like Hemango Biswas. My mother inspires me to value indigenous culture and use art for social change.
Apart from his contribution to the North East as an architect, my father’s socio-cultural works include production of the early Assamese movie Mon Proja Poti, involvement with the Civil Rights movement in Chicago in the 60’s culminating in authoring of ‘A Portrait of A Gandhian – A Biography of Dr. Martin Luther King’ with foreword from Mrs King and Mrs Gandhi. My father inspires me to pursue projects related to social justice.
I am also inspired by the work of Santiago Alvarez, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Spike Lee, Bhupen Hazarika, Satyajit Ray and Heubert Sauper.
What prompted you to delve into the subject as in Adi?
Though I grew up in the valley I would always engage with and learn about the ways of life of the beautiful people of the surrounding states. I think I developed an interest in tribes and folklore from my mother. I also grew up hearing my uncle, Dr Bhupen Hazarika’s songs like Tirap Ximanto and Koto Juwanor Mrityu Hol about the 1962 Indo-China war. These songs would echo in my mind and I would wonder about the people in the far away villages of Arunachal Pradesh.
When I was trying to finalise a subject for my filmmaking thesis at University of California, I decided to focus on the Adis of Arunachal, especially with the recent developments related to the Indo-China border, the river Siang and intersection of their indigenous culture and modernity.
Essentially a series encounters with the Adis in villages near the old town of Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh, the documentary Adi | At The Confluence (short version) has already been screened in over 30 international film festivals in 10 countries with English, Greek and Spanish subtitles. It has also bagged awards in six festivals, including Best Documentary awards at 15th Santa Cruz, California and 8th Hamilton, New York Film Festival; Edmund Hillary Award at the 10th Mountain Film Festival Sierra Nevada, California; Best Newcomer Award at the International Academic Forum (IAFOR) Documentary Awards, Japan; and Emerging Filmmaker award at the BLUM Center for Emerging Economies. I am now excited to be working on its feature length version.
I am thankful to the Ministry of Broadcasting and the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) for commissioning the feature length version of Adi. The creative treatment and the narrative style of a feature length film are different from a shorter length version. The subject involved is multi-layered with intersections between issues of identity, land (territory) and water (environment).
In the short version I decided to portray the story in the form of a series of encounters. I am still working on finalising my approach for the longer version but I am hopeful that I will get more frames to narrate the story. Also, the feedback that I have received on the short version from juries and audiences of the festivals and the PBS POV as well asUC Berkeley IRP filmmakers workshops has given me new ideas that I want to incorporate.
Adi has a strong political message too. Do you think working as a film fellow under the ministry will dilute the message in the film? Will you be under pressure of making the film in a particular way?
Hopefully not! PSBT (in partnership with the Ford Foundation and Prasar Bharati) has been the flagship organisation providing a platform for documentary filmmakers in India. Led by veterans like Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kiran Karnik, Fali S Nariman, Sunita Narain, Sharmila Tagore and Rajiv Mehrotra, I am confident that PSBT will extend freedom of content and creativity.
Are you writing the script? Who are you planning to cast?
Yes. My script is now being reviewed by experts. I plan to work with the same participants that were involved in my shorter version with perhaps a few new ones. I am privileged that my interlocutors and experts on Arunachal Pradesh and Assam involved in the film include cultural activist Oshang Ering, writer Kalim Borang, environmentalist Pradip Bhuyan, journalist Tongam Rina and political analyst Nani Bath, among others.
Is there any time frame to finish the film? Will you venture into more feature films or continue with documentary?
I aim to complete the film within the first quarter of 2018. I have a dream to work on a fiction film soon. I am sketching out a few probable story ideas and intend to develop them into scripts. Hopefully I will be able to find a producer who will trust and support me.
There are many documentary filmmakers in the NE as well as other parts of India. But good documentaries are hardly screened though there are sincere viewers. What do you think about the market in India?
India has made good progress but can do better to create alternate channels for documentary viewers. Networks need to provide more channels dedicated to documentaries. Leading Indian channels can and should devote more time for documentaries and serious cinema.
Film festivals can create a space for documentaries in addition to films. It is good to see Video of Demand (VOD) platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime getting popular but the content can be better curated to meet regional needs as well. Fortunately, film festivals dedicated to documentaries Full Frame Festival are emerging.
I think India is now going through emergence of documentaries as a serious medium for education, infotainment, activism and social change.
Your mother is a renowned singer. What role has music played in shaping your thoughts or you as a person? What role does music play in your films?
My mother loves folk music. She would learn from and sing with folk artistes like Protima Pandey and Aroop Baruah (son of late Pramathesh Barua). Her personality and music inspire me every day. She decided to stop singing commercially early and hence our new generation does not know much about her originals.
Perhaps I will convince her to record a few songs again. She guided me and my cousin Niyor Hazarika in the making of a musical album ‘Brothers’ where we sang seven songs as a tribute to the work of the famous brothers Bhupen and Jayanta Hazarika. I inherit my passion for music from her.
I feel music or for that matter sounds or silences are integral narrative elements for documentaries and films. I like to use music and sound in a way that is subtle and does not force the audience to feel a certain way. For Adi I have had the privilege to work with Berlin-based Israeli musician Ittai Rosenbaum who composed original pieces inspired by the Adi rhythms and Paul Zahnley who did the sound mix at the famous Disher Music in San Francisco.
I also remember enjoying directing the music for Vanastree (Women of The Forest) a documentary by Kelly Sky and Megan Toth where I used the original compositions of sarod maestro Tarun Kalita from Assam.
You have worked with Dr Bhupen Hazarika. How much influence does he have on you/your work?
My personal relationship apart (as his nephew), I am a fan of Dr Bhupen Hazarika like million others and continue to relish and discover his work every day. Professionally, I got the opportunity to learn from him when I worked with him during the making of the docu-series Glimpses of The Misty East subjects ranging from Mohjuj in Morigaon (Assam’s traditional bull fight) to the Syiems (Khasi judicial system in Meghalaya).
My memory of him during that time was as of a filmmaker (than a musician). I was in awe of the way he would interact with other artistes, make them feel comfortable and get the best interviews or performances out of them. My favourite session was his interaction with Padmashri Helen Giri, Khasi musicologist and historian from Meghalaya over the fireplace of Hemen Baruah’s house in Shillong.
It was an experience of a lifetime. I am sure the years of growing up hearing his music, watching his films and reading his lyrics will have some influence on my creative work. I don’t think about that much. But his life and work (especially in Assam and Kolkata, before he moved to Mumbai) is truly an inspiration for millions of people, including myself.