Every year India produces more number of films than any other country in the world. In the year 2016, 1903 feature films were produced in India in over 20 languages. While Hindi cinema is the dominant film industry in the country, it accounts for only about 18 percent of the total number of feature films produced annually, with the remaining 82 percent being produced in a wide variety of languages. Some of these “other” film industries, especially Marathi and Bengali cinema, and the cinemas of the South Indian states, have had a healthy independent existence, while some such as the Bhojpuri film industry produce films directed towards a particular demographic that is always constant. The prevailing states of the cinemas of other languages are subject to a number of factors – social, political and cultural. Assamese cinema as of now belongs to this third category.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, mainstream Assamese cinema was at its peak. Every new release was hyped almost as much as any major Hindi release. Family outings to watch the latest Assamese movie were a ritual, and there were a healthy number of cinema houses dedicated to screening Assamese films alongside the seasonal Hindi release. However, in the first half of the last decade, a series of shifts turned the tide against Assamese cinema. Bombings at some of the major cinema halls and threats against the screening of Hindi films by a terrorist group still struggling to grasp at the last straws of a failed cause instilled fear in the general public of visiting cinema halls. Local cinemas closed down, and the mainstream shifted towards generic mass produced home entertainment. Quality cinema, though few and far between, continued to be made for the art-house/festival circuit. It was against this cultural backdrop that the neo-noir social realist drama Mon Jaai was released, in the year 2008.
Written and directed by Moirangthem Maniram, Mon Jaai (best translated as I Wish) is the story of four unemployed youths in Tinsukia dealing with the frustrations of life while they gradually slide into a life of crime. The film stars Zubeen Garg as Manab, son of a retired school teacher who is at constant loggerheads with the local police due to his listless ways, and who soon becomes an embarrassment for his parents. Tapan, played by Gyanendra Pallab, is entangled in a family feud between his two brothers and sister-in-law, and Akan, played by Nabadeep Borgohain, is a happy-go-lucky person who runs a PCO booth. Nayan, played by Pabitra Margherita, is the most clear-headed among the four, who wants to follow the path of honest hard work to success. The four have grand plans but most of their days and nights are spent in idling away and cursing their rotten luck. As they stagnate in their ennui while not being able to do anything to realize their dreams, crime becomes their most lucrative option. All this takes place against a backdrop of insurgency and terrorism that plays only a tangential role in the plot but was still looming large at the time.
One of the major achievements of the film is that it portrayed the Assamese youth, in all its ragged glory, faithfully for the first time. The film’s refusal to shy away from taboos, which is evident in its frank portrayal of sex and use of suggestive and expletive language, makes its realism refreshingly welcome. It helps that the film’s star is the universally adored singer Zubeen Garg, who proves that given the right film and director, he can be as good an actor as he is a singer. His endearingly honest portrayal of Manab makes us empathize with the character and makes sure we are on his side throughout. Zubeen’s real-life rebel-rockstar persona adds a layer of authenticity to the misfit Manab whose dreams and ambitions are too big for the place he lives in, or for himself, for that matter. Nishita Goswami makes a strong impact in a wordless cameo as the embodiment of Manab’s admiration and the means to his redemption. Musical relief is provided in the form of the soulful title track, composed and sung by Zubeen that acts as a motif throughout the film. The film can be said to be a noir in the classical sense as every noir, at its core, is a morality play on the consequences of a life of crime, while it also presents a perfect snapshot of Assamese society at the time.
Mon Jaai was critically acclaimed and widely watched at the time of its release, getting selected for the Indian Panorama section of the 39th International Film Festival of India in Goa, and winning the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Assamese. Today, mainstream Assamese theatrical cinema is still struggling to keep its head above water, but the independent scene has flourished, as evidenced by the success of films such as Local Kung Fu and Kothanodi. Mon Jaai, with its perfect blend of indie and mainstream sensibilities, remains a cornerstone of quality Assamese cinema which ought to be an inspiration for all aspiring filmmakers.