AKANSHYA BHAGABATI’S SON OF THE SOIL : A beautiful Short Film on Assam

Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji provides an interview with AKANSHYA BHAGABATI about her second short film from Assam which is called SON OF THE SOIL.

Jun 14, 2024 - 00:06
Jun 14, 2024 - 00:31
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AKANSHYA BHAGABATI’S SON OF THE SOIL : A beautiful Short Film on Assam
AKANSHYA BHAGABATI’S SON OF THE SOIL : A beautiful Short Film on Assam
AKANSHYA BHAGABATI’S SON OF THE SOIL : A beautiful Short Film on Assam

Akanshya Bhagabati is a young and talented filmmaker from Assam. Her debut fillm Kumu,threw up a touching, emotionally moving story of an Adivasi girl Kumu, and what Life denies her for being poor, an Adivasi and burdened with a little sister to take care of.  'Kumu - The Song Of A Wingless Bird' bagged the prestigious John Abraham National Award for Best Short Feature at the 15th edition of the renowned SiGNS Film Festival in Kerala. In 2023, the film also bagged the Best Director Award bestowed on Akanshya Bhagabati by the Bengal Chamber of Commerce in Films and Television, 2022.

Her second short film Son of the Soil is again based in Assam and on the conflict between two protagonists around the ownership/lease of a small plot of farm land. Son of the Soil was premiered at International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, 2023. It won the Best Film at Kelvin Cinema Festival, Shillong, the Best Film at NEFVTA Film Festival, Gauhati, the Third Best at Siliguri Short and Documentary Film Festival. It was also in competition section at Bengal International Short Film Festival and has been selected for the upcoming 7th South Asian Short Film Festival (SASFF) to be held at NANDAN, the Film Center in Kolkata, from 7 to 13 July 2024. Akanshya talks about her second film Son of the Soil in a detailed interview.

You are very much a modern, urban woman. How did this rural-based story that is tragic pull you to make a film on it?

The answer lies on what I want to do as a filmmaker, or which spaces I want to explore in my practice of this art. I have always had a great fascination towards rural life, the issues that plague the people living in those areas, and their life in general. In Son of the Soil, the subject of the film also contributes greatly to the choice of the location and setup. The larger issue of immigrants’ vs natives has many facets to it, some of which can be seen in urban spaces too. However, the closest glimpse is possible only in rural spaces, where the struggle for identity and belonging from both ends, is real.

Was the story already there? Or did you write it for the film?

I wrote the story myself, but it is inspired by many events that I have seen, read or heard about.

Where did you shoot the film and how long did it take from conception to censor board?

The film was shot in two villages, Rangolu and Kosupith, near Nagaon. Initially, I had locked another location for shoot, this area was close to the river, somewhere near Dhing. But two days before the shoot, because of heavy rainfall, the whole area submerged under water; the routes to reach that place were under water. I somehow managed to go there, walking with water up to my knees but it was not convenient for the final shoot. So, in a day’s time, we had to find another location, take permissions and revise the whole plan.

The timeline?

We shot the film in mid September,2022. The pre-production was probably around 2 months long, so July 2022. The film was complete in April 2023 and we got the censor done in May, 2023. So, it took 10 months.

You have suggested the communal strife that arises between Ali and Haren not by themselves but raised by others such as Haren's friend and the heads of the respective communal groups. How far is this true in Assam?

Considering the relationship between Haren and Ali, and also their nature as individuals in the story, this seemed accurate. Haren, a young Hindu with a widowed mother who lives in the village, is Hindu. Ali, is an old farmer and a Bangladeshi immigrant and Muslim. There is no personal enmity between them.

What is your directorial statement?

Land contributes significantly to one’s sense of belonging to a place and on one’s cultural identity. In Assam, land has been at the center of tension between the natives and the Bangladeshi immigrants. It is somewhat a trend that when the natives move to the city in search of jobs and a better life, the farm lands are often leased to laborers, who many a time are the poor yet hard-working Bangladeshi immigrants. With time, the evolving role and position of the immigrant class in the socio-economic dynamics of contemporary Assamese society as prominent farming community has simultaneously contributed to the tension of the natives losing their land to the immigrants. Many feel that the "Assamese" stand threatened today of losing what belongs to them- their resources, culture, language and overall identity. The theme of SON OF THE SOIL is inspired by the significant and sensitive reality of Assam today.

The sad song sung in the end on the sound track has the line "whose pain did you see?" Are you referring to both Ali and Haren because both of them are victims of circumstances? Or, are you referring to something else?

“O lord, tell me whose pain did you see?.for me this was an attempt to raise a question to the audience, for them to decide who is the perpetrator and who is the victim in this conflict. Throughout the film we were trying to understand ..whose side to take? It is difficult to take sides because , both Ali and Haren have their own reasons and circumstances, and this way or that both are victims of circumstances. The song is an extension of the basic philosophy of the film, which is to understand that truth is multifaceted, and your perspective mostly depends on where you stand. The story has no hero or villain; it is just a depiction of what reality often looks like.

The film seems to have been shot entirely on location. You open with a large close-up of Ali's sad face and then the camera cuts to a very long shot of the land with a boy walking on it. You have chosen to narrate the story mainly through visuals as dialogue is minimum. Am I right? 

Absolutely. Firstly, I have never liked the idea of rushing into a story plot or into the lives of the characters. Before we listen to  them talk, I feel the need to feel their presence on screen; and also for this theme, I felt  much of talk would have diluted the sensitivity of the subject. When so much can be said without uttering a word, why create unnecessary dialogues to just fill in the space?

Both Haren and Ali are tragic victims of the circumstances which makes Haren decide first to come back to his village and return to farming but leaves in the end because there is no land for him to farm in after it is given on lease to Ali. Please explain this.

Why Haren returns without contesting? Why is the land given back to Ali after all this? Haren had returned to the village after years of working in the city and staying away from his village. He feels his mother’s loneliness after his father’s demise and hence decides to come back home and make a living there. To his surprise, the land that was leased out to Ali, is now claimed by Ali as his own. Haren is unsure of whether Ali actually gave Rs10,000 to the buy the land or whether it is a false claim. He also has a sense of regret for not being there for his father, when he asks his friend “Did father really take that money?”Ali on the other hand is completely dependent on this land. He has given his sweat and blood working day in and out, when there were no sign of Haren returning back home. Haren, representative of a native Assamese boy, is more driven to a salaried job and the prospects of living and working in the city, from the beginning, he was never very firm of his decision to grab his land back and start working . He is not somebody who will be comfortable i working as a farmer, city life is what he has had for so long. When the fire breaks out, the situation turns for the worse. There is a possibility that the finger might point towards Haren. All these factors combined when the village panchayat decides to give the land again to Ali, they give Ali hopes to survive in the adverse situation, and Haren decides to give up on the land for now (not permanently though) to escape the heated situation in the village and go back to what he is comfortable with in the first place.

How does the village Panchanyat decide on the conflict?

The village panchayat decides on three main points –

 (a)Since Ali has no legitimate proof of proving his ownership of the land, the case will rest till it is resolved by the authorities. Till then, to ease the tense situation , they take a temporary decision- a way out for now;

(b)Since Haren is not sure now of whether he wants to start his farming plans on the piece of land for now, so the land will again be leased to Ali considering his pathetic situation right now;

(c)Ali is given an extension to pay his pending dues to Haren’s family, and strictly instructed to pay his upcoming dues on time. This is a temporary fix to ease the situation.

*****

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