“Why are they beating her?”
Over the last ten years, more than 100 women have been killed in incidents of “witch-hunting” in Assam alone. The number of reported cases of witch-hunting in the state has shown a marked increase in the last two decades. The gruesomeness of the “punishment” meted out to victims of witch-hunting is regularly laid bare in all its gory details in local media publications. But National Award-winning film critic and documentary filmmaker Utpal Borpujari’s first feature film, ‘Ishu’, inspired from Manikuntala Bhattacharya’s debut novel of the same name, posits a departure from the norm.
The film, which I saw last year at the Kolkata Film Festival, filters this medieval practice through the eyes of a child, narrating the tale of loyalty, redemption, and courage. Mr. Borpujari has deliberately dialed down the grimness quotient of this dreadful social evil in a stirring folk narrative to present it to the viewers of all ages and make them aware of this evil practice while also keeping the tone realistic.
The film is set in a village dominated by the Rabha tribe in the Gowalpara district of Assam and tells the story of Ishaan ‘Ishu’ Borkotoky, a blithe, carefree 10-year-old boy. Loved by his family, he confides and loves to spend time with his favorite aunt or “Jethi” as he calls her. His Jethi has a vast knowledge in the Ayurvedic, and uses this knowledge to cure people in the village, much to the enragement of the local “Bej” or witch-hunter who deduces that people who fall ill are all possessed by a demon and should be treated with acts of exorcism and not by medicine. The local people have shown to have more trust in this Bej guy’s exorcism compared to the natural medicines provided by Jethi. When this local quack accuses Jethi of being a ‘daini’ (witch), she is severely beaten by the local people in the streets and is banished in the forest much to Ishu’s horror and he is unable to let his mother-figure lapse into oblivion.
The film depicts the evil side of illiteracy and superstitious beliefs with indigenous ditties of a tribe. It shows how the accusations of being a witch are borne out of property ownership disputes and personal grudges. Single women, widows and elderly people are generally preyed upon. Treated like a fairy tale albeit set in today’s times, the film is a sensitive take on how incidents like this impact a child psychologically and gives a clear message to the people that superstitions can be fatal and must be eradicated from society. Ishu’s dilemma after the banishment of his aunt shows a child’s mental state during such incidents. The film’s dialogues (written by the director himself in collaboration with award-winning theatre director Sukracharjya Rabha) emphasizes on how the Rabha people live near Gowalpara area and carries a particular accent throughout. The story-telling session of Ishu’s Jethi, in which she tells historical stories (sometimes her own life story) to Ishu, are magically showed on screen with brilliant sand art which captures both the essence of the story Jethi tells and the bond Ishu and Jethi share. Diganta Madhav Goswami does this sand art with such creativeness that I actually clapped inside the theatre. The sand animation and the film itself gets more flourished by the poetically rustic cinematography Sumon Dowerah and tribal and folk musical arrangements by Anurag Saikia.
The film features a talented cast led by 10 year old Kapil Garo as Ishu and supporting acts by Tonthoingambi Laishangthem Devi, Monuj Borkotoky, Basanta Rabha, Chetana Das, Naba Kumar Baruah, Bishnu Khargoria, Pratibha Choudhury, Dipika Deka, Nibedita Bharali, Dhananjay Rabha, Mahendra Das and Manuj Gogoi. The film has a tweaked ending to show that the change in local mindset can come from within the community, which is rarely done. ‘Ishu’ is a viewing experience for viewers of all ages and carries a strong message around that has never been shown on screen before.