Rustle of Spring, Whiff of Gunpowder:
Documentaries from Northeast India
D. Song Forever
The Sasakawa Peace Foundation
Why watch documentaries from the Northeast of India?
- One way to begin thinking about documentaries from the Northeastern region of India, would be to think of the geography itself—the great river valleys of Brahmaputra and Barak, the Himalayan hills which skirt it, innumerable ancient communities who transform the space into networks of lived memories, their loves and songs, and their struggles. But can this grand vision locate the documentary imagemaking of the region, without mentioning the modern narratives of colonial state structures that created “curious strangers” out of their subjects?
- Curiosities we were. Among cartographically-obsessed prophets of colonial and post-colonial imagemaking, the lens they had was an administrative one of primitivism, exoticism, and development. A documentary here on the famed Assam Tea or there on the ethnographic description of primitive tribes waiting for missionary or developmental salvation . . . Documentary practice arrived in the region on the vehicle of British imperial ideologies which continued to exercise their power beyond 15th August 1947, Indian Independence Day.
Even in post-colonial popular Indian consciousness, documentaries continue to exist as an adjunct of the Indian State apparatus which treats the region as a space to be pacified. Documentaries about the Northeast attested to Indian national unity, where lives of smaller linguistic communities would merely be cultural decorations in the grand march to development.
- In the Northeastern regions, Indian Independence Day was not embraced with excitement. Some indigenous communities decided to resist the new Indian political arrangements. This resistance was met with the “whiff of gunpowder” from armed forces of the newly independent State. Others decided to exist in a tenuous acceptance of political reality. The filmmakers of the region, hampered by a lack of production apparatus (and funds), have had to negotiate this dialectic of resistance and domination. It is on this fragile and accidental stage that the documentary program of Rustle of Spring, Whiff of Gunpowder is situated.
- The program does not show a representational collection of films from Northeast India like a tourist brochure, but weaves the presence of films and filmmakers from the region into a stance and constructs a way to look at the history and struggles by filmmakers from the region to take control of (or disrupt) the ideological narrative that the Indian state wants the people of the region to embrace. Further, resistance is not the only story of the program.
- If there is a propaganda film telling Indian citizens that all is well on their Northeastern frontiers (New Rhythms in Nagaland), there is also an excavation of the histories which mainland India wants to forget (MNF: The Mizo Uprising).
With so many different histories coursing through the region, what history of this landscape is proposed (In the Forest Hangs a Bridge, Old Man River)? What cultures defy the fading of memory (Orchids of Manipur, Yelhou Jagoi: The Dances of Lai Haraoba, The Monpas of Arunachal)?
Is it all going to be sepia tint of nostalgia, or are we going to enter the archive of the present with its dirty linen (Floating Life, Prayers for New Gods, When the Hens Crow, Not Allowed)?
What to do with the contentious burden of historical violence (Tales from Our Childhood, What the Fields Remember)?
Amidst the march of all-obliterating modernity, can the tunes still be heard (An Autumn Fable, The Broken Song, Songs of Mashangva)?
The films which constitute this program are thematic signposts on pathways recording encounters with the region and its people, conversations that are provisional and yet revelatory, allowing us to know, not the strangeness but inherent possibilities of friendships across boundaries of history.
Uncovering the Hidden Face of Northeast India
Looking at a map of India, you may have wondered about the area protruding oddly to the northeast from the inverted triangle that forms the largest section of the South Asian subcontinent. Surrounded by Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, this region consisting of seven states has been called the “Seven Sisters” (Sikkim joined in the first decade of the 21st century, making it eight), with Assam at its center.
Northeast India is known as where south and southeast Asia meet. Mountain dwellers who share much in common with the hill tribes in Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam encountered plains-dwelling people of Assam, with connections to neighboring Bengal. A unique culture was fostered through an atmosphere of mutual cultural respect, interaction and intermarriage between the two groups. In the colonial era, Nepalese and indigenous peoples from other parts of India migrated here as workers on tea plantations, while many Muslim farmers from neighboring Bengali areas moved in to cultivate the land. Because of this history, the region has become a true mosaic of diversity, even in comparison to the rest of India.
Adding to the cultural richness is abundance in nature and geography. In the basin of the massive Brahmaputra River, flowing through the centrally located Assam State, dwell those who rely on the tributary for their livelihoods. Their land is surrounded by mountainous areas, where a distinct culture and way of living has been established around slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting-andgathering. One of the allures of the Northeast is this contrast between the plains, which spread around great rivers, and the mountains.
Until recently, few who visited India ever made it to this region. This is not surprising, since through the late 1990s it was treated as a military conflict zone, and strict laws regulated the admittance of foreigners. It was only in 2011 that individual travelers were allowed in Nagaland, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh—areas of conflict and tension with China. In recent years, the region has gained more attention as part of the Asian Highway Network that aims, among other things, to connect to southeast Asia and China via land; this has resulted in an increasing number of visitors from abroad.
The history of the Northeast, which has seen independence movements of tribal people in the mountainous region since the 1940s, is complicated, and still widely unappreciated, not only outside India, but among people in other parts of the country. For the Japanese, the area is recognized as the site of the Battle of Imphal, when Japanese military advanced into what is now Nagaland and Manipur during World War II and caused much affliction. I hope that through this special program at YIDFF, appreciation for Northeast India will become widespread in Japan.