Assamese filmmaker Jahnu Baruah’s 1991 feature film Firingoti is about a woman’s journey from the point of personal loss to a new ideological gain and political awakening.
The protagonist is Ritu Baruah who is introduced in the film through the opening shots of a train journey as she starts a new phase in her life, leaving behind her old one where she grappled with the loss of her husband and family. In train journeys captured on film, characters gaze out of the window and collect their thoughts in rhythm with the bustle of the wheels.
Ritu looks back at her journey so far, from her childhood to becoming a woman and then a wife. Ritu lost her mother when she was a child and she struggles to check her tears as she feels the pangs of that loss. As a grown woman she loses her husband, whose place in a woman’s life is considered paramount in our society. Despite being stripped from the protective sphere of the family and marital bliss, she refuses to succumb to her circumstances and decides to embark on a new voyage.
This is when the film merges Ritu’s personal journey with her larger community purpose- the latter of the two becoming the mission of her life. Ritu has taken the work of a school teacher in Koronga village, a remote and secluded rural community of Assam at the onset of the Indo-Sino War of 1961, 14 years after India gained national sovereignty. Upon arriving in Koronga, she learns that there is no trace of any school there because it was burnt down 12 years ago and children here have no route of gaining literacy or knowledge.
Heartbroken at first, Ritu pulls herself from the ground and inspires the collective spirit of the community by beginning to teach the children of Koronga under a Banayan tree, which is emblematic of Lord Buddha’s spiritual awakening. Eventually, she helps in building a very humble space for the school made of bamboo and thatch, with the cooperation of every household in the community.
During this undertaking, Ritu comes face to face with several key characters who add something to the narrative to contribute greater meaning to the larger import of the story. For example, Moina is a novelist who was born and raised in Koronga. After gaining an education he moves to the city and becomes an acclaimed artist. The primary source of inspiration for his stories is his birthplace and its people. He laments the fact that the people who have fuelled his imagination are themselves not in a position to be able to comprehend his merit and inner life. Ritu gently rebukes Moina when they first encounter each other near the open-air school for taking photographs.
The atmosphere which Moina claims to be worthy of a good composition hides behind its surface poverty, suffering, and squalor. And, to garner profit and praise from someone else’s plight is in some sense portrayed as being unethical and downright insensitive because Ritu is herself part of those circumstances now, being one with Koronga’s people. And she, more than anyone else perhaps recognizes the need for empathy and a revolutionary spirit from the people instead of blind subservience to an unwritten fate.
Ritu takes her destiny and that of Koronga’s in her own hands as a leader and diligently fulfills the duties of a teacher. Dalimi’s character becomes Ritu’s surrogate sister in the narrative who stands by her and together they help the school take small leaps of progress.
But their contentment is short-lived as the sacred space of Ritu’s school is intruded upon by Chandra, a delinquent youth of the village who is vindictive towards Ritu not only because she is an outsider but also for the fact that is a woman. In a crucial scene, Chandra and his friends barge into the school and intimidate Ritu to leave Koronga immediately.
Upon hearing this, Ritu stands her ground firmly and refuses to budge, at which point the men threaten to destroy the school. In a spine-chilling moment, we witness Ritu raise a hack and release a passionate outburst of emotions, as she strikes out at them in a profound declaration of unwavering resolution of staying in Koronga as a teacher and being there for her children and the people.
Then there is Dalimi’s brother Lachit who is a fugitive, as he was falsely implicated in the murder of a government official and branded as a terrorist. In a scathing monologue in Ritu’s presence, Lachit brings to light the inherent corruption and injustice of our society. “If you keep quiet, they neglect you but when you speak out, they vilify you…In a democratic society, every citizen should be able to exist with dignity without giving up their identity and morals. Just because we do not live in the vicinity of the national capital, that does not mean that our suffering can be denied.”
Firingoti ends with an image of destruction; Ritu’s school is burnt to the ground with flames consuming everything she had created from her sweat and tears. As a devastated Ritu sits by the river bank the next morning, Koronga’s people urge her not to leave and promise her that they would rebuild the school every time someone destroys it again. And Ritu turns around and in her face, we see the hope for a new tomorrow awaken again.
Firingoti, loosely translated means ‘sparks’ which emanate from burning flames. Those sparks which are so minute to the bare eye that they are considered as being almost insignificant and powerless, are capable not only of immense destruction but through that destruction, of giving birth to new life and enlightenment. Symbolically, Ritu rises from the ashes that tried to invalidate her struggle, and with the firm resolve and conviction of the community to fight back, she finds a new lease to her life, which she dedicates to the upliftment of society.