The region of ‘seven sisters’, as we know it, is very diverse. It’s a warehouse of stories, music and dialects and bringing some of their tales to the mainstream Indian audience is III Smoking Barrels. Written and directed by Sanjib Dey, a Mumbai-based filmmaker, III Smoking Barrels is a metaphor for guns, a theme which runs through the movie. The film, which releases today, talks about three social issues— children caught in armed conflict, drug trafficking and animal poaching.
It seeks to highlight the repercussions of these issues on the societal life. Says Dey, “These issues have existed for decades, but somehow other concerns have taken a precedence over them. Now their repercussions on social life and family relationships are being felt. I am talking about drugs in the movie. If you google, you will find a golden triangle in the east of India, near Myanmar, and it says the 2/3 rd of opium is being manufactured and sold here. The opium is then trafficked into India. My nephew took to drugs and he almost lost his life. He has been clean for sometime now. But because of his addiction, his mother suffered a lot. That’s what I have tried to show in the movie.”
These very pertinent socio-criminal issues have somehow not made inroads in consciousness of the mainstream Indian audience. Dey agrees and says, “These issues haven’t really made to mainstream, but dig deep and you will find that there are a few people, journalists, who are trying to highlight them. I tried to go as deep as I could for this movie.”
The second story in the movie talks about children who are forced, compelled or emotionally manipulated to become terrorists. “You see, no one really would suspect children and teenagers to be terrorists. That’s the reason why they are forced to join the armed conflict. My third story is about poaching. I came across a report which said that 36 rhinos were killed. I was ashamed when I read it. The rhinos are a part of the ecology, and if we try to kill or hunt them, then we are disturbing the ecology. We forget that our survival depends on them,” explains the film-maker, who won the ‘Best Narrative Feature Award’ at the 12th Mexico International Film Festival 2018, for this movie.
All of this ties up with politics of the region. How has Dey portrayed it? “When I was writing the script, I wanted to focus on the human and humane angle of the crisis. The story is of three criminals who have taken to guns, hence the title of the movie. It also talks about three lives, in different stages — childhood, boyhood and adulthood. I have kept the political part subtle. There are cops in the movie, but their usage is on prop level. There are no politicians or bureaucrats in the film. If you know the politics of the place, the culture and history, you can tell the story without using their presence directly. That’s what I have done,” he points out.
But how have the people from North East received this work of a Bengali filmmaker? The Bengali community is not welcome to the ‘sons of the soil’ and there is lot of political power play involved in it. Dey laughs and says, “The problem exists and you will find the reasons in history— the Partition of Bengal. I am a Bengali, but my family has lived in Assam for nearly 100 years now. I consider myself an Assamese more than a Bengali. North East is not just about Asssamese-Bengali, Assamese-Manipuri and Naga conflict. It’s an amalgamation of so many castes and creeds, dialects and languages. There are nearly 200 dialects spoken there and I have included six of them in my film. So far, no one from North East has discriminated against me or my film. My work has been accepted whole-heartedly. I have been supported by various mediums and platforms.”
And yet questions have been asked about the narratives chosen in the film. At one press conference, Dey says, he was asked, ‘why have you chosen to portray the darkness of the North East?’. The film-maker’s reply was, ‘Martin Scorsese has made many films on New York’s underbelly, the gangster flicks. Does that mean New York is a dark city? It’s not. The underbelly is just one part of it.’
He tells us, “I have tried to make III Smoking Barrels as an entertaining and engaging film. There is definitely more to North East than drugs and insurgency. It is known for its music, landscape, the people, and their humanity. But drugs are becoming a part of the narrative and to protect the culture of North East, we have to control the drug menace. I want people of India to know about this.”
His cast features Indraneil Sengupta, Subrat Dutta, Mandakini Goswami and Amrita Chattopadhyay, of which Indraneil is the most familiar face to those who watch Bollywood films. Dey, however, has tried to go pan-India in making the film, so that it reaches a more wider audience.
“I have made many short films, so when I got an opportunity to make a feature film, I wanted to set it in the entire region of the North East and not just one state. If I had restricted it to Assam, then I would have had problem of a limited audience. The population of Assam isn’t very big. Setting it in Nagaland or Manipur would also have resulted in similar situation. Therefore, I decided to make a big budget film (in the North East, III Smoking Barrels is a big budget film) so that it is watched by wider audiences. I incorporated more dialects in the movie and roped in actors from Bollywood, Kolkata, Kerala and North East. The technicians have worked in the Southern and Bollywood film industries, so my crew had people from Kashmir to Kerala and from Gujarat to Nagaland,” he says.
That’s also the reason why he added the tagline ‘Stories from Far East India’ to the movie. “If I had added ‘North East’ in the tagline, people would have mistaken it for a documentary. I have taken the cinematic liberty of calling it ‘Far East’. Also, the region is in the far east of India, so technically it’s not wrong,” he says. Clearly, a name, and in this case, the region, has lots to convey.