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A 10-year-old boy witnesses the horrors of witch-hunting in Assam

After a nasty quarrel between his relatives over bamboo fencing on their property, the 10-year-old protagonist in Utpal Borpujari’s Assamese feature film Ishu is ticked off. “Adults always behave strangely. I don’t really understand them,” declares Ishwar Prasad Rabha to his three friends as he walks off to school. Ishu provides the boy with many more opportunities to witness the dangerously immature ways of adults.

Produced by the Children’s Film Society India, Borpujari’s debut feature examines witch-hunting practices in Assam through the eyes of a child. Set in a remote village in Goalpara district Ishu examines the banned practice through Ishu’s battle for his aunt, who is wrongly accused of being a witch.

“A gruesome image is often associated with the concept of witch-hunting, a one with broken bones and evil spells.” Borpujari told Scroll.in in an interview. “It is always easy to showcase such kind of violence from an adult’s point of view. But if you look at it from a child’s point of view, you will be able to see it in a completely new perspective because of their innocence.”

Ishu (2017).
Ishu (2017).

The film critic-turned-filmmaker has focused on the Northeastern region in his documentaries, including Mayong: Myth/Reality (2012), Songs of the Blue Hills (2013) and Memories of a Forgotten War (2016). Ishu is based on Assamese writer Manikuntala Bhattacharya’s novel of the same name. “There are so many stories in the Northeast which have gone untold,” Borpujari said. “The idea is to bring all of these interesting concepts on film. Also when you talk about Northeast, there is often a negative image that comes to one’s mind. I try to pick up subjects that haven’t been handled before.”

The movie stars Kapil Garo as the titular character, alongside Bishnu Khargharia and Tonthoingambi Leishangthem Devi. Like Ishu, Garo too is a 10-year-old boy from a village in Assam. He was chosen from 300-odd children for the part. Garo’s innocence was what made him a perfect fit for the role, according to Borpujari.

“Garo is a natural,” Borpujari said. “Ishu’s character was a village kid, so I tried to avoid looking at children from towns like Guwahati because the body language would be very different. Garo gave only two retakes in the film, which was only because he felt sleepy.”

Ishu emerged out of a script laboratory conducted by CFSI. “Our script committee found it to be very suitable not just for the Northeast region, but also for the children from all parts of India,” Shravan Kumar, CEO of the organisation, said.

The organisation’s productions are rarely released in theatres. They are usually screened at schools or cultural institutions and circulate through film festivals. An exception was Rajan Khosa’s Gattu (2011), which traced a boy’s passion for kites. Gattu was the first film to be released in CFSI’s 57-year history.

Distribution is the biggest bottleneck. “Productions of children’s films in our country are hindered because people think there is no return of investment,” Kumar said. “As a result, very few filmmakers take a chance in making children’s films. It is a cycle. As the filmmakers make fewer films, the theatical release is also less.”

Borpujari agrees with Kumar’s assessment. “The distribution lobby caters more towards mainstream films,” he said. “This is the same case with independent films as well. Very few children’s films are actually made in India. If you look at the private production space, except for a few films like Kaaka Muttai and Stanley Ka Dabba, there are not many films for children. When the number is less, it adds to the problem of fewer theatrical releases.”

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