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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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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