By Nita Deshmukh. Posted on October 17, 2015
Writer-director Bhaskar Hazarika ran out of funds after shooting half of his debut Assamese feature film, Kothanodi. He turned to crowdfunding on Wishberry to complete the rest of his film and was able to raise almost Rs 22 lakhs. This is probably the biggest amount any film project in India has raised.
Kothanodi stars Seema Biswas, Adil Hussain, Zerifa Wahid, Urmila Mahanta, Kopil Bora and Asha Bordoloi. The film is based on characters and events described in Burhi Aair Sadhu (Grandma's Tales), a popular compendium of folk stories compiled by Assamese literary giant Lakshminath Bezbaroa. The four fables referenced in the film are Tejimola, Champawati, Ou Kuwori and Tawoir Xadhu.
Kothanodi won the Asian Cinema Fund's Post Production Fund Award for 2015. It was screened at the 20th Busan International Film Festival and is now being screened at the BFI London Film Festival. The film is also scheduled to be screened at the 17th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, and 4th Dharamshala International Film Festival.
This is the first of our series of interviews with the directors whose films are competing in the India Gold section at MAMI this year.
I was born in Jorhat and grew up for a while in Dergaon. I left Assam at the age of 7 for boarding school, and have since mostly been outside the state. I have worked in Bombay and New Delhi after my education in Delhi University and the University of Reading.
I always wanted to do something creative as a teenager. I zeroed in on filmmaking in high school because I figured painting canvases or writing poetry would definitely lead me down the path to penury. Filmmaking seemed like an art that could be pursued with some hope of decent income (I was wrong, of course).
Darkness, morbidity, and general cynicism about humanity are some of the themes I like working on, so I take inspiration from the works of writers like Kafka, Poe, Stephen King; from filmmakers like Herzog and Cronenberg; and from grunge music.
Kothanodi is a fusion of four different folk tales from Assam. It uses events and characters as described in these stories to create a multi-narrative film about four mothers and their struggle to overcome demons within and without.
The film was filmed in locations around Majuli Island and along riverbank settlements in the Dergaon area. I normally do documentaries. This is my first fiction attempt. Instead of a 5-6 member crew on my average documentary project, Kothanodi had a crew of over 50 people and no matter how well prepared you are, if its your first film it is difficult not to be overawed by the scale of production. But I had a kind and experienced team, led by my good friend Vijay Kutty, our Director of Photography, and Monjul Baruah - my ebullient Chief AD. They made me feel really comfortable on set.
Dr. Kalita is an incredible writer and a forceful feminist voice from the North East. She rendered the dialogues of the film into Assamese, and added immense value to the film by her sparse and intelligent use of language. The depth of her knowledge about the Assamese people is truly epic. I have fond memories of sitting on the verandah of her delightful little house in Tangla, surrounded by the most exotic flowers, discussing the script with her.
Working with Seema Biswas was an education. She went beyond her brief in this project and took out time to conduct an acting workshop for our cast, and was most generous and patient with me on set, considering this was my first film. The other experienced actor in our film is Adil Hussain, who is coolly efficient when the camera's rolling and a fun guy to hang out with after pack up.
We decided to crowdfund our second schedule in October 2014 because we were not finding any interest from traditional film investors. The primary hurdle faced by us was in educating people about what crowdfunding really is, and initially the campaign wasn't going anywhere. We realized that instead of banking on strangers, it would be better to focus on personal networks to raise the money. So we sort of re-calibrated our campaign and I personally reached out to almost every person I have met in my life, so did others in the team. It worked out well in the end.
The basic idea is to show the film to as diverse an audience as is possible through festivals, and then explore opportunities for sales and distribution.
Assamese cinema is widely recognized as being in a state of stasis since the last decade. Starting the late 1990s, what was a prolific film industry suffered due to the onslaught of direct-to-VCD films, and the subsequent closure of cinema halls due to lack of business. The box office for Assamese films is consequently pitiful, and that has a direct impact on the kind of budgets available for Assamese filmmakers. So the top creative talent moved out of the state to Bombay and Delhi, leading to a paucity of good content. But times are changing, and crowdfunding in particular is acting as a disruptive force that may well reboot Assamese cinema. We are also catching up to the rest of the world on the changing language of cinema, and going forward many good films are expected to come out of Assam.
We're working it out with our advisors and marketing people. At this point I can only say we shall aim for a pan-India release in early 2016. I'm developing another multi-narrative fiction project based on adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe's tales of terror, and working on a documentary on the imminent technological singularity.