Even though the voices demanding stricter laws to deal with violence against women have grown louder across the country, the crime graph, unfortunately, continues to reflect a very grim reality.
For years, Arun Manna had wanted to register his protest against the inhuman way in which women are treated, either in the name of tradition and societal norms or simply as a means of subjugating them. Having grown up in Assam, a state that has faced sectarian clashes and large-scale displacement for decades, Manna, a National Award winning filmmaker, has seen for himself how violence affects local women in the worst possible ways.
Manna finally got the opportunity to express his angst through his latest film. Adhyay, A Chapter, which captures in a hard-hitting manner the social realities of Assamese women. The protagonists are a poor couple living in a remote village. It is their trials and tribulations that make up Manna’s story.
Speaking about his film, Manna says, “Horrific incidents of violence against women have been part of public discourse for some time now. As a filmmaker, I kept asking myself, ‘what can I do?’ That’s when I decided to tell a story. I strongly believe that cinema, as a popular medium of storytelling, has the ability to force viewers to think and then bring about a transformation.”
Viewers are introduced to Taru and her husband, Bhola, portrayed on screen by popular Assamese theatre actors, Tarulata Kutum and Pabitra Rabha, respectively. The couple work as daily wagers, struggling to make ends meet by slogging in a stone quarry. Insurgency in the area makes matters worse for them, as they deal with the highhanded attitude of the security personnel deployed in the region.
When Taru catches the eye of the owner of the quarry, he starts making uninvited advances. Desperate to keep her job, she is unable to take any concrete action against him, and tries to handle the situation by turning him down quietly. He, however, takes offence at being rebuffed and starts making trouble for the couple at work. Tragedy strikes the couple once again, when Taru is cornered by security personnel and raped.
The pain and trauma that Kutum portrays on screen is something that scores of women in the Northeast have undergone. And, as is the case in real life, Taru also becomes a pawn for local leaders who use her misfortune to gain political mileage. Reality bites when the quarry owner too gets his revenge by organising villagers to declare Taru a ‘witch’, which leads to her social boycott and eventual death.
“This is the harsh reality that unfolds every now and then in our state. Even if a few people can be inspired to react differently after watching my film, I will consider it a victory,” says the filmmaker.
Known for his serious, issue-based cinema, it was tough for Manna to put together the capital needed – about Rs 12 lakh – for the project. It took him five years to complete the 90-minute movie. “I would have been able to make a better film if I had some more money. But I’m really glad that people around me came forward to help,” adds Manna, whose earlier film Aideu, too, had received rave reviews.
Adhyay, which has already been screened at the Kerala International Film Festival in Thrissur and the Habitat Film Festival in Delhi, was an unusual experience for the actors as well. Kutum had to draw on varied experiences and observations to honestly portray the female lead with absolute honesty. She says, “Living in Assam, one gets to read about practices like witch hunting in the newspapers very often. But it is altogether different to visualise it as a scene.”
According to official figures, in Assam alone a total of 80 people were killed due to witch-hunting between January 2006 and February 2011. Author and activist Maini Mahanta says, “Films that highlight such horrifying truths, or prominent personalities who raise their voice in support of such causes, can play a significant role in changing the manner women are treated in society.” Films like Manna’s Adhyay, A Chapter are precisely the reality check that the state requires.