The Story Of How Bhupen Hazarika’s Tele-Films ‘Miri Jiyori’ And ‘Assam’ Came To Be

On a busy Delhi day in the month of October of 1989, an offer was forwarded to Bhupen Hazarika by Doordarshan – an initiative to video document some of the classic literary pieces of 19th century India; to which Hazarika readily accepted. Several stalwarts of the then cinema world were offered the task, for instance, in order to document the Bengali literature, the responsibility was handed over to none other than Satyajit Ray himself, for Malayalam, it was Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and the list went on.

Hazarika was first told to document a Munsi Premchand piece called Agni Pariksha; to which, Hazarika straightforwardly declined. Instead, Hazarika proposed that he would undertake the task on an Assamese novel, or if possible, on a sub-regional or a tribal literary piece that demanded preservation in such format for the posterity.

Original version of Rajanikanta Bordoloi’s Miri Jiyori.

A shocking reply to this came from Doordarshan, in which, they clarified their suspicion regarding whether Hazarika was pondering on the idea of a Bodo based story or not; as that was a time when the Bodo agitation was at its zenith, along with several Bodo insurgency groups gaining momentum in India’s northeast.

Hazarika countered this argument by clarifying that had there been a good literary plot or a novel based on Bodos, provided, it was written in Assamese – the lingua franca the previous decade, he would have undoubtedly proceeded on that idea. But, due to scarce literary resources on Bodos, Hazarika now opted for Rajanikanta Bordoloi’s magnum opus – Miri Jiyori (1894); a simple love story based on the lifestyle and culture of the Mising people, who were referred to as Miri, by the non-Misings.

There were a series of events that preceded the videography of the Miri Jiyori Project. These incidents were noted and written by Bhupen Hazarika in an editorial column called Mur Dex: Mur Monor Kotha in a newspaper called Amar Dex, which was in circulation during that time. Though these incidents took place thirty years ago, they do bear utter significance in the current geopolitical and socio-cultural aspects of northeast India in general and Assam in specific.

A pivotal incident took place when Hazarika was going to Dibrugarh for the initial work of the film. He decided beforehand, that the documentary shall be christened Mising Konya, which means a young Mising lady, as he had serious apprehensions regarding the Mising community’s reaction to the Miri word, as it was, and still is, considered alien and derogatory by some sections of Mising intellectuals.

But, there was a turn in the scene. The Mising intellectuals and the Gao-Burhas (village headmen) of Mising villages convinced Bhupen Hazarika to not change the title, and keep it as it was in the novel. They informed Hazarika that the entire Mising community, acknowledged its authenticity despite the terminological debates associated with it.

Hazarika was overwhelmed.

A second incident occurred in Gogamukh – the place where a few scenes of the film were shot. Hazarika asked the public that spontaneously gathered around the sets in the number of thousands, regarding the medium in which the film should be made. While Bhupen Hazarika expected the native Mising language to be the obvious answer, the unanimous answer that came from the crowd was nothing but Assamese!

Hazarika remained stunned.

Bhupen Hazarika in the 1980s.

After the initial work for the film was successfully completed, a critical juncture in the process sprouted. The exact same hurdle was the reason why Hazarika couldn’t materialise his personal project of Miri Jiyori two decades earlier. This issue of contention was an economic one, a financial crisis. However, this time, there was a difference.

It was the local and the tribal people who came forward for help. Two young Mising lads, Bikram Singh Iyen and Gajiram Mili, started a crowdfunding initiative in Disangmukh. Hazarika was determined to fund the project from his own pocket, by organising musical tours and drives across Assam for collecting fund.

He had even made a fund-collecting forum, of which, Parag Chaliha was made the chairman. Hazarika called out for interested ‘additional producers’ too, but none gave a prompt reply. The reason for it was that Miri Jiyori was a documentary, that too, an ‘experiment’ undertaken by a music director. Had it been a commercial one, with ample number of distributors, the producers would have extended their help. But here, the case wasn’t so.

The current condition of the Assamese film industry links its declining graph since early times. The lack of variety in story-line, along with scarcity of good production in case of an experiment, along with the dilapidated condition of cinema halls, and even absence of halls in several parts, requires urgent public attention and practical remedies. An unconventional story-line, its viable production, and its public acceptance – are three things that seldom coincide in the Assamese context. But to our utmost delight, in the last year, there have been films which were unconventional as well as experimental in nature, and yet, were successful in box office collections; thus, implying new dawn for the cinematic world of Assam.

In the Miri Jiyori process, a doubt loomed in the mind of Hazarika regarding the cultural correctness and the authentic representation of the tribal traditions in the film. He invited renowned bureaucrat and educationalist, Mr Tabu Ram Taid, who was also by passion, a reputed linguist, to the sets of Miri Jiyori. Hazarika requested him to be his shadow during the entire process, so as to correct him and his crew from committing any ethnic mistake.

Tabu Ram Taid, renowned bureaucrat and linguist.

Taid readily agreed despite his ill health. Both Hazarika and Taid travelled through unmetalled roads of Majuli, and through the banks and swamps of Brahmaputra for getting specific shots for the project. Hazarika noted that had this film been a generic and a conventional household drama, he would have done it entirely in Guwahati. But Miri Jiyori was an exception. It demanded commitment. It demanded no silly mistakes.

And Hazarika couldn’t compromise on that.

Going by Hazarika’s writings, the most significant episode of the entire Miri Jiyori Process was perhaps, the acceptability and the acknowledgement that came from the local Mising population. There were several incidents that showcased the deep-rooted bond of friendship and brotherhood that every ethnic community living in the region shared, and which still is, being shared and cherished.

The Mising diaspora of Sivsagar, when informed about Hazarika’s project, offered Hazarika jewelries and ornaments that were about a century old, for maintaining the correctness in the film with respect to the time frame in which the novel was set.  A clear contrast can now be seen between the attitude of the local people and the professional film producers, of whom I have already mentioned. The solution to the dismal state of Assamese cinematic industry perhaps lies not in new laws and legislation, but in self-regarding actions of the stakeholders who are directly associated with it.

A Directorate of Cultural Affairs was set up in Dhemaji by the Assam government for preserving the cultural varieties of tribes living in the hills and plains of Assam. Hazarika, in search of certain now-lost local musical instruments, tried to contact the Directorate. He even made a visit to it. But to his utter disappointment, not a single instrument in usable condition was found. An ethnic variant of flute, called the lao-banhi, was to be used in the film. The directorate had a schedule for organizing workshops for the same, but it seldom took place. Then, after a rigorous search, only one living man fluent in lao-banhi, was discovered in all of Assam!

This brings up a significant question regarding the possible threat of extinction of age-old heritage of small ethnic groups and tribes. If such is the condition of the Misings, which is, by large, a ‘big’ tribe in terms of the census count, the danger that looms for other small tribes is more horrifying.

Bhupen Hazarika in the Assam Agitation.

Hazarika writes that not only did the previous governments took a departure from attention on cultural preservation, but the then running AGP government of the students that came into power after a 6-year-long agitation, too, took the same route of ignoring ‘cultural’ aspects. This is something, that he found, needed immediate rectification.

The aspirations of the Assamese people were with them. Resorting to the age-old route of ignorance would be a breach of trust of the people. The irony is of utmost attention, as the same leaders agitated for cultural preservation, and drafted the Clause 6 of the Accord thereafter.

This pertains a significant question on the self-implementation of the values that drove the agitation, and how the same values were valued by the leaders post-Accord, or, in a generic way, after coming into power.

One heavily unlighted part of the Miri Jiyori project was the final shootings on the sandbanks of the Ghunaxuti river, which is, a fast-flowing tributary of the Subansiri river. Subansiri, on the other hand, is a tributary of the Brahmaputra.

A scenic sunset by the banks of the Ghunaxuti.

A significant problem of these fast-flowing upstream rivers is the erosion that they cause on its both flanks throughout their meandering passage. This erosion has been the main reason for the fast disappearance of several regions of the greater Majuli island, and has also eroded several villages in its vicinity, especially in the Lakhimpur district.

Hazarika mentions how the eroded banks of Ghunaxuti posed a serious challenge for capturing certain critical shots. Currently, the erstwhile Ghunaxuti village is in ruins. Most of it was eroded after the big earthquake of 1950, and therefore, by subsequent erosion.

Metaphorically, the same is the problem of Assam in today’s time. The erosion of non-rectified and non-repaired mistakes, along with less emphasis on pragmatic issues and more on sentimental arenas have seriously degraded the bond of unity among various tribes; which, along with catalysts like Delhi-Dispur apprehensiveness has led to a questionable future for the people of Assam. This perhaps demands an immediate self-introspection, on the part of every Assamese.

Miri Jiyori, which was Hazarika’s last venture as a director, was perhaps, to some, an ordinary documentary on an ethnic tribe; but it was a whole social experiment that re-defined the cultural diversity of Assam and the deep-rooted unity that existed within the people of the region. It was the unification of Jonki and Panoi, that Bordoloi wanted a quarter and a century ago!

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