Assam’s Rampur village, surrounded by thick sal forests and vast paddy fields, has long been a symbol of the state’s rich rural tradition. Part of Goalpara district, the village is inhabited by the ethnic Rabha community, which is known for its reverence for nature.
So when Assamese documentary director Utpal Borpujari decided to make his first feature film, he turned to the village, located around 250 km from the capital Guwahati, for inspiration. It also helped that Rampur had a lively theatre of its own. More importantly, the Badungduppa Kala Kendra, the local theatre group, was at the forefront of fighting the brutal branding of rural women as witches, the subject of Borpujari’s movie. “I was drawn by the courage of the community, which is fighting battles on several fronts like witch hunting and the preservation of nature,” says Borpujari, who has directed documentaries such as Mayong: Myth/Reality (2012) on black magic practised by a village in Assam and Memories of a Forgotten War (2016) on the surviving soldiers of World War II who fought in Nagaland and Manipur.
Ishu, the director’s debut feature film, is about a young boy’s determination to save his aunt, who is branded a witch by the village community. Adapted from Assamese writer Manikuntala Bhattacharjya’s novel of the same name, the film was shot in Rampur, with many of its theatre group members filling in the roles.
“We have to resensitise ourselves to society’s problems,” says Sukracharjya Rabha, an award-winning theatre director and founder of the Badungduppa Kala Kendra. Several hundreds of Rampur’s residents came to watch a screening of Ishu during the Under the Sal Tree theatre festival in Rampur last month. The theatre festival was the stage for the return of the film (which premiered at the Kolkata International Film Festival in November) to the place of its shooting. “Our civilisation is changing our lives, but our resources, emotions and senses are conditional to times,” says Rabha, explaining the reason behind showing a film at the theatre festival for the first time since it started eight years ago.
The lofty ambition of the theatre festival to fight social issues, as well as preserve the planet attracted Borpujari to Rampur, he says. “The village provided the ideal location for the film, which is the story of all those women who are branded as witches across many villages in Assam and the rest of eastern India,” says Borpujari. Rampur and its neighbouring villages have witnessed several cases of witch hunting in the past. A children’s theatre workshop, organised by the Badungduppa Kala Kendra, was in session when the filmmaker came to Rampur for research six years ago. “I met the children and was impressed by their acting skills,” says Borpujari, an alumnus of IIT-Roorkee.
Ishu, produced by the Children’s Film Society of India, aligned with the theatre festival’s objectives, so festival director Rabha joined Borpujari to write the dialogues for the film. “Whenever society is faced with a problem, it’s seen through an adult’s point of view,” says Borpujari, adding, “It’s important to see it through the eyes of a child who will be an agent of change in the future.” As many as 12 children from Badungduppa Kala Kendra have acted in Ishu, which will have its theatrical release later this year.
In the film, Ishwar Prasad Rabha, or Ishu, is a 10-year-old boy whose world turns upside down after his aunt Ambika is branded a witch by the village’s scheming quack. Ishu soon gathers his friends to question the situation and convince the community that his aunt isn’t a witch. Ishu, screened on the second day of the four-day theatre festival, joined nine plays that highlighted issues like atrocities against women, workers’ rights and common people’s aspirations. But the issue of witch hunting dominated discussions.
“This barbaric practice undermines women’s fight for empowerment and puts society back by centuries,” says Birubala Rabha, who heads the movement to fight witch hunting in Assam and other states. Mission Birubala Rabha, founded by her in 2000, has so far rescued over 500 women who were branded as witches. “Our awareness campaign has today been joined even by college students,” says Birubala, who came to watch Ishu at Under the Sal Tree festival. Branded a witch herself by her village near Rampur in 1996, Birubala fought the male-dominated village committee to save herself before launching the movement against witch hunting.
Badungduppa Kala Kendra, whose minimalist theatre attracts stage productions from around the world, organises the festival in a sal tree forest. It discourages lighting, sound and set equipment for staging plays and encourages the use of trees as part of the set. The plays are held during the day, each performance attended by an audience of nearly 2,000 from Rampur and nearby villages who walk and pedal to the venue. “Theatre is a communal art, which calls for collective participation,” says Kannada poet and playwright HS Shiva Prasad. “It’s the last ritual that mankind is left with. It’s important that theatre should be based on, and promote, co-existence and respect for nature,” explains Prasad, who teaches theatre studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “The Sal Tree festival is a non-exploitative kind of theatre. It’s an exercise in ecology,” says Prasad, who has been supporting the festival from its first edition.
Festival director Rabha is setting his ambitions even higher. After organising eight editions of Under the Sal Tree festival, he is now moving towards creating a residential academy for sustainable theatre to broaden the sensitisation of society. “It will be a different theatre academy,” says Rabha, winner of the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar in 2009. “The participants will do farming, and local art and craft. These are also part of theatre,” he says.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer