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Thu, 20 Feb 2020

Northeast Today

Zubeen, ‘Kanchanjangha’ and the Impact on the Assamese Film Industry

Zubeen, ‘Kanchanjangha’ and the Impact on the Assamese Film Industry
September 19
13:05 2019

Sooman Mahanta


Flashback twenty years:

Flashback twenty years, on the 25th of February, 2000, to be precise, Munin Baruah’s romantic Assamese drama film ‘Hiya Diya Niya’ was released to a roaring crowd all across the state. Made on a budget of around twenty five lac rupees, the film’s music was composed by Zubeen Garg, and it went on to gross over one crore and proudly flaunted the badge of being a blockbuster in an era that can now be termed as the golden era of Assamese cinema, when it came to mainstream popularity and commercial success.

The Assamese film industry became popular as ‘Jollywood’ within its own circles, a rather cheery term that was actually coined from ‘Jyoti Chitraban Film Studio’ which happened to be the epicenter of the bustling industry during those days. ‘Jyoti Chitraban’ derived its name from the celebrated Jyotiprasad Agarwala, who was a pioneer of the industry, and the first ever person to make an Assamese movie, back in the year 1935. Upon his demise, the government, on request of visionaries like Bhupen Hazarika and Bishnu Prasad Rabha had decided to establish a film studio and thus ‘Jyoti Chitraban Film Studio’, which was later renamed as ‘Jyoti Chitraban Film and Television Institute’ in 1999, had came into being at Kharghuli Guwahati, in his fond memory, in the year 1961.

Since its inception, to the very early 2000s, Jollywood had seen it all. Awards and accolades, ups and downs, compliments and controversies had battle hardened it to face the worse possible adversaries. But with all its experience, and all its mantle, it wasn’t ready for what was in store, and what can now be termed as the fatal blow that not just jeopardized its functioning, but threatened the very existence of the entire Assamese entertainment industry.

In mid 2002, ULFA, (The United Liberation Front of Assam) which then had a significant clout over the political affairs of the state, issued a sudden diktat to ban the screening of Bollywood movies throughout the state of Assam, with a declaration in their mouthpiece that  ‘the Hindi invasion has already contaminated the distinguished base of Assam’s cultural identity’.

With this one incident, common folk started aborting the movie theatres, and some people even forcibly entered cinemas in an attempt to stop the screening of Hindi movies; and ironically enough, amongst these brigades of policing vigilantes, faces of Assamese film personalities were also present.

Now to understand, analyze or debate the socio-political narrative behind this diktat would be a completely separate ball game, but the shallowness of the argument, the gigantic fallacy and self conflicting character within the diktat itself was too obvious to be missed. But it was missed, and that’s where the mockery lies. Something that was designed to curb the flow of radical nationalism through ‘invasion of Hindi’, and in order to protect regionalism by way of ‘Assamese culture’, boomeranged into a Frankenstein that swallowed the film industry of the state, which was supposed to be one of the pillars of its cultural identity.  The pompous revolutionary leaders and their adored sympathizers failed to consider or understand the basic fact that the Assamese film industry was neither capable nor ready to oblige to the needs of the hundreds of movie theatres across the state. Assamese movies until then peacefully co-existed and shared the screens with Bollywood biggies, and through this complementary existence, they were only beginning to learn the crafts of mainstream commercial success.  They were in no way, shape or form ready to fulfill the demand and supply equation, and obviously enough, this whole panic and uncertainty led to bankruptcy and closure of one movie theater after another. Cinema hall ticket counters that were once thronged with boisterous crowds became quiet like deserted ghettos, and within the next few of years, the general public completely shunned the movie theaters to the point that there were only a handful of operational cinemas in the state, and that too largely surviving on cheap ‘B-Grade movies’, catering to the lowest ranks of society.

Amidst this stupidity, chaos and desperation, the CDs (Compact Discs) and VCDs (Video Compact Discs) gained popularity as sources of audio visual entertainment. Cheap VCDs and VCD players were available in the market for purchase, as well as for rent, and as they made way into peoples’ bedrooms, so did Bollywood and Hollywood.  And what was left out, was Assamese movies. Initially a few Assamese film makers also tried marketing low budget musicals and tele-film kind of materials within VCDs, but blatant piracy and copyright infringement issues forced them to close shutters. Simultaneously, a huge number of awfully poor and sub-standard materials packaged into VCDs were flooded into the markets that have until this day, completely ruined whatever was left of the reputation of the Assamese entertainment industry.

Fast forward twenty years:

6th of September, 2019, Zubeen Garg releases his movie ‘Kanchanjangha’ to a roaring crowd, and days later, it is estimated that the first three day’s box office collection of the movie is over one crore. As a well wisher of the Assamese film industry, these figures are not only only staggering and unprecedented, but also heart warming.  To be able to draw crowds, and especially the millennials into the cinemas for an Assamese movie in no sort of a momentous accomplishment.  But with its tremendous success, there are also questions that are being raised, and very apparent questions, like, are people going to the movies just for the sake of Zubeen Garg? Or purely because it is an Assamese movie? Does it qualitatively have what it takes to become a commercial success on its own? Isn’t is jingoistic to expect people of watch a movie just for the sake of it?

At the surface, it does seem jingoistic. But when we dig a little deep and take the historical fallacies into account, then how fair a comparison is it? Since commercial film making today has a lot to do with finances, technology and marketing, in addition to the script, acting and practice, it would be grossly unfair to draw a direct and straight-forward comparison.  It would be like comparing an amateur school level player with a pro level international athlete. An internet generation that consumes Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, or Stephen Spielberg’s classics, and drools over the prowess of Nawazuddin Siddique or Kay Kay Menon, a generation that worships Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Tabu and Vidya Balan will surely find faults with Kanchanjangha, and rightly so, but should that require them to be entirely dismissive about Zubeen’s movie? Because, let’s be honest, without the charisma and star power of Zubeen, if a fresh set of newcomers would have even managed to make a better enough movie with a good enough script, chances of it being a commercial success was next to none. To be further more candid, who would have even dared to venture into a market that has been lifeless for two decades, and whose direct competitions are stronger than ever?

In the hallowed halls of public popularity, stardom dethrones everything, and the cult following enjoyed by Zubeen Garg in Assam can only be compared to the likes of someone like Rajinikant in the south; and by that same logic if there was one person in this current era who could have breathed life in to the languishing Assamese film industry, it had to be him.

This is not some sort of an apology rant, and it does not mean that the movie should not be critically evaluated at all, it certainly should be. But it would be a reasonable proposition, to initially set the benchmark of evaluation against his previous works, and to evaluate how far of an improvement has it made, rather than to critically go full guns blazing upon it. Only then, there will be a day in the near future, when we could get a chance to go all guns blazing. And we would love to see such a day.







(The author is a 30 year old tea planter from Jorhat, Assam, currently sited at Borhat Tea Estate who is also an avid reader, foodie, passionate biker and an aspiring writer. He can be reached at- [email protected])



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