It's not very often that a piece of cinematic art stirs up your soul and makes you look at life afresh reinstalling the faith in the dreams you had as a youth. Bombarded with the so-called sleek, programmed, overdone visuals of Hollywood and Mumbai films you begin to wonder whether your appreciation for those sober, realistic films of the 1950s and 1960s was a mere indulgence and fallacy of your youthful days. And as this thought begins to settle down in your being, a small film appears -- a film from a small town, a film made by simple people -- and by god! it jolts you out of your slumber and reinstalls your belief in a genre of filmmaking that can be much more powerful than a lavishly mounted Rs 20 crore worth Hollywood or Mumbai film.
I had the privilege to watch Arup Manna's Aideu (Behind the Screen) in a special screening at the Jyoti Chitraban studios recently. Shot in 16 mm format with a modest budget of Rs 16 lakh, Aideu depicts the tragic life and times of the first Assamese film actress Aideu Handique -- her tryst with Rupkonwar, making of Joymoti and the subsequent social boycott and poverty she faced till her death. Aideu Handique sacrificed her youth, her happiness to make way for the succeeding generations of womenfolk in Assam to act in films. During her times females were not even allowed to watch theatre. When the news of her acting in Joymoti spread in the village, her family was socially boycotted. After she returned from the shooting schedule, she had to pass the rest of her life in a separate hut alone, away from her family members. When one of her younger brothers, who was an active freedom fighter, died, no one came to assist her father in cremation. Her matrimonial proposal was called off and, thereafter, no one had the audacity to marry her and she remained a spinster till her death. But more than anything else, it is the deserved recognition which eluded her till her death and that speaks volumes about the tragedy of the queen of Assamese films.
Shot over a period of almost six years (2000-2006), the story and the screenplay of the film is based on intimate conversations the director had with the ailing actress. Arup cleverly fuses his imagination to tell his audience Aideu's story avoiding elements that could have otherwise given the film the impression of a docu-drama or a biographical portrayal. Mind it, he tells the story within 81 minutes. And what a splendid and engrossing tale he tells. The film hits you right below your belt -- it vividly describes the nasty, hypocritical and chauvinistic society that we live in and how insensitive we can be towards our fellow human beings. Two things come out starkly at the end of the film: the Assamese society has miles to go to be called an egalitarian one and the Rupkonwar was very insensitive towards his distressed heroine. He never enquired about her well being once the shooting was completed.
The film starts with a commercial film director deciding to make a film on Aideu Handique after he reads a news report about Aideu's illness. He visits Aideu at her residence. Aideu touches and feels the camera and we cut to a close-up of Aideu Handique who tells the director: "In those days girls were not even allowed to watch a play or a bhaona -- leave alone acting in films. At that time, Jyoti Kakaideo wanted to make a talkie. The name of the talkie was Joymoti."
Cut to a mid shot of Jyotiprasad Agarwalla throwing the script of Joymoti on the table in frustration because he can't get an actress for the main role. Thereafter, the film goes on a flashback -- the team trying to get an actress and being chased by villagers who think them to be women traffickers, appearance of Dimba Gohain and the manner in which he brings Aideu to Rupkonwar, filming of Joymoti, the protests and accusations the parents face from the villagers and the village council, return of Aideu to the village, her social boycott, passing away of her dearest younger brother, father and mother, Aideu's transition from a youthful lady to a haggard old woman. With every passing frame the audience gets involved with the life of the protagonist and by the time the film ends, Aideu's being merges with that of the audience and every spectator comes of the hall a different man.
Since the director had to cover a long period of time period, he uses jump cuts more often and to avoid jerk in narration he keeps the preceding and succeeding shots in such a cut in the same frame like that of a 'stop block shot'. Instead of using the dissolve, which would be expensive, to denote change of a scene or a location he meticulously uses the soundtrack superimposing the sound in the succeeding shot with that of the preceding one thus telling you to be ready for the next visual. Despite the 'flashback within flashback' technique the narration doesn't falter -- it flows like a serene river. The film's outdoor locations have been based in Nagaon, Tezpur, Golaghat, Guwahati and indoor shootings have been done at Dhekialgaon of Golaghat district.
The director had told me that he had avoided shot variations because he wanted to keep the realism in the treatment intact. But that is debatable. In Charulata, Ray uses maximum shot variations and minimum dialogues and yet effectively portrays the loneliness of the protagonist. However, it is the end that justifies the means. With simple cut-to-cut narrative, a clever use of the soundtrack and a tight screenplay, Arup holds you in your seat from the first to the last frame. As the cinematographer, he uses the required light sources to lit up his compositions avoiding exaggerated lighting and uses the normal lens to capture the moods of his characters. Treatment is important for Arup and he does it in his own way. And that I think is very important for a film director to grow.
Arup's actors perform like matured film artistes avoiding projection in speech and manner. It comes out very clear that Arup has kept his actors on a leash fully knowing that they had never faced a camera before and their experience in the stage may mar instead of make their performance. Chandana Sarma in the role of Aideu is simply superb -- totally in control of her expressions and movements. She is a director's actress and will be able to go a long way if she keeps her feet firmly on the ground. Other actors like Sapunti Bordoloi playing Dimba Gohain, Pithuraj as Aideu's brother Keshab, Prasanta as Jyotiprasad Agarwala, Dulan Bora as Aideu's father, Nabamika as Aideu's mother contributes substantially to the success of the film.
Aideu Handique, then almost 80, who herself appears in about 10 frames, before the flashback begins, looks divine. It's a pity that she couldn't see for herself the tributes paid to her by a young director. She would have died a lot more happier. She died on December 17, 2002 and the film was released in February 2007.
Music director Manash Hazarika has been very discreet with the background score. In the non-incidental track he uses traditional instruments to catch and support the mood in the frame and avoids electronic instruments. Moreover, he uses Jyoti Sangeet as background score. There is no unnecessary background music in the visuals and silence is used very discreetly.
First released in Mumbai International Film Festival in February 8, 2007, Aideu (Behind the Screen) has already done the rounds in Pune International Film Festival, Delhi Habitat Film Fest and Munich International Film Fest. The film received the Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Make-up awards in the recently held State Film Festival. The film will be in the competition section titled "The New Film Makers" at the Sao Paolo Film Fest in Brazil on October 19. Irony is that it can't be released in the State cinema halls since that will mean shelling out more bucks from the producer's pocket. He has to pay the hall owner, give certain percentage to the distributor, etc etc -- the same old story. Arup now plans to involve some NGOs which could show it to the people of the state.
Nagaon-based organization Trinayan Media Foundation, under whose banner the film has been produced and released, deserves a pat in the back for providing the necessary support and encouragement to Arup's endeavour. It's for their support and promotion that the film has seen the light of the day. People and government alike must encourage such organizations.
Aideu (Behind the Screen) is dynamite of a film and is bound to go down in the history of Assamese films as one of the most powerful portrayal of tragic human existence. With every scene full of pathos it will make your heart bleed. A must see for all film buffs.