Know about the director
Q. What is Ishu all about and how did it happen?
A. Ishu is an adaptation of an Assamese novel which is also named Ishu, written by a very famous Assamese writer named Manikuntala Bhattacharya. The backdrop of the story is the problem of witch hunting which is very much prevalent in Assam, and tribal areas of many states like Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Chattisgarh, and even Maharastra. So I thought this could be a unique way to look at the problem of witch hunting because here, the whole issue is being observed from the point of view of a small child. Usually, it’s very easy to talk about such serious problems from an adult’s point of view. When you look at the same thing from a child’s perspective, sometimes you get to see a totally new perspective. And the innocence of children is something which could lead to solutions of many problems because they don’t have hatred towards anybody. They are the purest forms of human being. That’s how I got attracted to the story and in all my documentaries so far, the subjects are always picked from the North-East region. So my whole effort has been to bring out unknown and untold stories from North-East. That’s the reason I felt this could be a good story that I could tell the world.
Q. As your movie is from the perspective of a child, who is an untrained actor. As a filmmaker, how tough was it for you to bring out the required emotions from such untrained actors?
A. Children are natural and instinctive, and you cannot train a child to do something the way you want them to do. So you have to go with the flow, and that’s how I approached the whole thing. My idea was that I should find somebody who looked very natural in the environment of a very remote tribal village of Assam. Initially, I had looked for some children from upper Assam but I found that their accent could be a problem because my film is set near Goalpara which is a Rabha tribal village. So they speak with a particular accent. That accent can only be picked up by children from areas in lower Assam. I met a lot of children from various places in lower Assam, particularly from rural areas. Then I had shortlisted other kids also but then I finally met him one day.
We have not dubbed a single dialogue, everything was what was spoken on location. That’s not done in Northeast cinema very often.
Initially, he was very shy and he would not talk but he started opening up slowly and I found out that he has this natural instinct of responding to situations. I instinctively chose him to play Ishu. I also have some senior and famous actors like Bishnu Kharghoria from Assam. He is a legend in the state. He has been acting for almost 40-45 years and another two-time National Award Winner for best jury mention for best actor. And I have Tonthoi Devi from Manipur, who is again a National Award-winning actress. I also have veteran actresses like Chetana Das, Pratibha Chaudhury from Assam. I also found a very talented actor called Dipika Deka and this is her first film. She is brilliant and very natural. So those four were the only set of professional actors.
Q. What’s the period of time you invested in the making of this film, right from pre-production to post-production?
A. Almost 5 years. Scripting took a lot of time. What I shot was the 13th draft of the script. I rewrote the script many times because every time I looked at it, I felt like something could be improved.
Q. CFSI has a history of not releasing their films in the theatre. In their history of 55 years, the last film released was GATTU, a 2015 film. So will we get to see Ishu in theatres or will it make festival rounds?
A. I hope CFSI will release Ishu in theatres. Recently as per the media reports, the CFSI chairman and the CEO in Hyderabad’s golden elephant festival said that they have plans to release films. CFSI actually has a different model of taking cinema to the people. They hold year-long festivals across the country in collaboration with District Admins, where they screen the films for free for children all over the nation. Lakhs and lakhs of children watch those films.
Shiv Prasad Thakur, who was one of the most successful mainstream filmmakers of Assam during those days, made 2-3 blockbuster films with starred great actors like Biju Phukan and Binoy Shankar of Assam. I would feel happy that he is my uncle and a top filmmaker.
If you monetize that, say if you charge 30-50 rupees per ticket, it’s a big amount of money for a regional movie. Their mandate is to make good cinema and make children aware of good cinema so that’s how they follow the screening method. But I hope that according to the comments made by the bosses of CFSI, all the films soon get their release in theatres too. Films should be released but at the same time, the movie viewing criteria are changing. It’s not necessary to release a film in a proper commercial theatre, you can release it in Netflix, or have a different model like they have in a lot of rural theatres and travelling theatre which is happening in various parts of the country specifically in Goa and Odisha. They carry tents and LCD with 5.1 sound system in small buses or trucks to the rural areas. We have a mobile theatre model in Assam. We can utilize these models for our films too. Even if I release my film in Assam I will hardly get 50-60 screens. Ishu is not a mainstream blockbuster film like Mission China where you get over 150 screens. Those 40-50 screens will be only in the urban areas of the state. What about the rural populations who are also ardent film viewers? We have to take cinema to them. Assamese and Manipuri cinema at least has an industry but what about somebody making a film in say, Monpa, or in some hilly tribal languages like Tangkhul-Naga. There is no cinema theatre in those places. That’s why there are various models of taking cinema to people these days.
Q. Other than SIFFCY, which other film festivals is Ishu doing the rounds of?
A. Ishu has till date, gone to the Canada Kids Festival, Kolkata International Film Festival, Third Eye Film Festival in Mumbai, another film festival in France but since they haven’t officially announced so I can’t take the name. Then it will be screened at Guwahati on the 17th of December in Guwahati International Film Festival and few other festivals. Most of the film festivals for which entries have been sent will happen in the coming year so hopefully, it will travel more.
After writing for almost two decades about cinema I thought that probably now I can make my own film and try out my hand.
Q. What are the technical aspects of the movie?
A. We used Arri Alexa XT which we rented from Jyoti Chitraban Film Society studio in Guwahati. And the sound is totally sync sound. Amrit Pritam did sound designing and Debojit who is a talented young sound designer, helped with the location sound. Hengul Medhi did the final mixing. We have not dubbed a single dialogue, everything was what was spoken on location. That’s not done in Northeast cinema very often.
Q. This is your debut feature film. How did filmmaking happen to you?
A. Since childhood, I used to watch movies, started when my parents took me out to watch films. We had a very good film society movement in Guwahati. Guwahati Cine Club was set up in 1947, then there was also an Assam Cineart Society when we were in college that was very active in Guwahati. They would bring films from all over the world. I watched the original version of Roja in the Tamil version in one of the Assam Cineart Festivals in Guwahati. So all those movies influenced me then. Luckily, as a young kid, I got in touch with a lot of people from the film fraternity. My father was in a transferable job, so we moved from place to place as per his posting.
In my Vth standard, we shifted to Guwahati where we stayed in a rented house. My neighbour, there was a very famous writer called Nirad Choudhuri, he was the writer of stories from popular films like Chameli Memsaab. So as a kid, I would see someone like Bhupen Hazarika coming and visiting him. One of my father’s cousin, Shiv Prasad Thakur, who was one of the most successful mainstream filmmakers of Assam during those days, made 2-3 blockbuster films with starred great actors like Biju Phukan and Binoy Shankar of Assam. I would feel happy that he is my uncle and a top filmmaker. After coming to Delhi, I became a journalist by choice and started attending film festivals. In 1996, I attended IFFI, and since then, I have attended almost every edition of IFFI barring one or two. So I have watched good cinema and as a film critic, I would actively write and meet people from the film fraternity. After writing for almost two decades about cinema I thought that probably now I can make my own film and try out my hand. That is how I shifted to filmmaking.
Watch: Trailer of ISHU: