When there’s trouble, throw a glitzy, distracting event. This, filmmaker Bhaskar Hazarika believes, is the philosophy guiding the decision to host the 65th Filmfare Awards ceremony in Guwahati on February 15 this year. Bhaskar, internationally acclaimed for his films Kothanodi (2015) and Aamis (2019), is one of many Assamese voices from the field of art and culture who are troubled by the government’s decision to carry the ‘Black Lady’ all the way to Guwahati.
The official line is that the Filmfare Awards will provide a fillip to the state’s tourism sector. According to local media reports, the Assam government is set to spend up to Rs 30 crore of its Rs 300 crore state budget allocation for tourism on the star-studded event. However, opinions are divided regarding the spending as well as the timing, with rumblings that the event is a ploy to draw attention away from the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests and political turmoil in Assam.
‘An exercise without vision’
According to Lurinjyoti Gogoi, general secretary of the All Assam Students’ Union, the government should have cancelled the event out of respect for the people’s agitation. These sentiments are echoed by actor Ravi Sharma, a superstar in the Assamese film industry in the 1990s and 2000s. “Six of our boys have been killed in the recent struggle, and I’m personally still in mourning,” he says.
The government’s use of funds has also been questioned. Gogoi says the BJP dispensation tends to give undue importance to grand festivities (“melamukhi karbar”) even at times of extreme duress, and this instance, in particular, is an exercise without vision. “They are spending Rs 30 crore on this gala, yet when floods and erosion happen, the same authorities ask common people for donations. What is their comprehensive tourism policy?”
Sharma feels the same way. “Is [the awards ceremony] in any way contributing to infrastructure support for tourism? Some days ago, a tourist in Majuli died. When you exit Guwahati airport, you’ll not be able to find a public washroom with toilet paper. If they really wanted to promote tourism, they should have addressed the issues of sanitation, hotels and transport,” he says.
However, Mayur Bora, a leading political commentator in the region who has extensively written in support of the anti-CAA movement in December, cautions against viewing various endeavours of the government through the lens of the CAA. He says that Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal tweeted about hosting the Filmfare Award on August 10, much before the bill was reintroduced in Parliament.
While he believes that the ceremony could “give the region some visibility” and is “not a very bad idea” from “the tourism point of view”, he does have reservations about the expenditure and the fact that far larger issues assail the state. “If the indigenous population itself is not secure, what will the place do with tourism?” he asks.
Zubeen Garg, a major entertainment star in the state for three decades, and a leader in the anti-CAA movement, says he has a problem with political leaders and not with the actual event. “Prime Minister Modi is coming to Assam on February 7, and I oppose it. But Modi is not Filmfare,” he says. “Our fight is not against Filmfare or Khelo India (hosted in Guwahati last month).”
Modi had cancelled his proposed visit to Assam twice in December and January as protests against the CAA raged on. While the first time, he was to have hosted his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe at a bilateral summit in Guwahati, the second planned visit was for the inauguration of the Khelo India Youth Games.
But while Garg does not oppose the awards being held in Guwahati, he says he is not convinced that it will contribute to tourism.
Will the Assamese film industry benefit?
Scepticism abounds on the impact of the awards ceremony on the local film industry. HuffPost India spoke to young, independent filmmakers who said that the event has very little to do with Assam and Assamese cinema. Mukul Haloi, an FTII alumnus known for his documentary Tales from Our Childhood (2018), said that the government’s emphasis on the awards ceremony originates from a sense of cultural insecurity. “It’s the idea that, ‘Oh, we can now bring the mainland here’ but what people are not realising is that it is an indoor event. If we wanted to spend Rs 30 crore, we could have opened a film school or at least a film studies school in the state. The needs of filmmakers and film enthusiasts here could have been tackled.” Bhaskar Hazarika also talks about the “tremendous difficulties” faced by local filmmakers who get little or no assistance from the government. “The government can do a lot for people like us. But they will not. Because we are not Hindi-speaking, we are Assamese-speaking,” he says. When asked if he would attend the ceremony if invited, he says, “I would rather be on set making an Assamese film.”
Ravi Sharma is similarly dismissive. “If the Filmfare awards came with a possibility of cultural exchange, I would still support it. But all of us know that for them, Assam is just a venue.”
Hope springs eternal
In some quarters there is a sense of cautious optimism.
Anurag Saikia, a leading music composer in Bollywood who is much revered back home in Assam, says he sees potential for a meaningful outcome. “If the actors from here just go, check into their hotels, do the event and come back, it would not help Assam in any major way. However, if there are opportunities for the Assamese and the Bollywood artistes to interact, engage in workshops etc, I would see that as a step in the positive direction. Guests coming over should not be seen as a negative thing,” says the Thappad music director.
Interestingly, the current Director General of Police, Assam, Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta, is also a filmmaker (his short film Yugadrashta even won Anurag Saikia a National Award for best music). When contacted, Mahanta said that he is going to make “absolutely professional police arrangements” for the guests and that there is no security threat whatsoever. He was unwilling to speak in his capacity as a filmmaker but did mention that his documentary Rebellion Bejewelled (2015), about a surrendered ULFA militant, was an example of the meeting of both worlds.
HuffPost India reached out to Jitesh Pillai, editor of Filmfare magazine, but he said that he was not authorised to speak to the media. Deepak Lamba, the CEO of Worldwide Media (WWM), a subsidiary of the Times Group that owns the magazine, said that the initial conversations with the government of Assam began in mid-2019 in order “to mark new beginnings”. He also spoke in favour of the government’s reported investment in the event.
“The government is trying to boost tourism in a huge mainstream manner which will lead to positive growth of the local economy. Also, it will be a great opportunity for the film industry to explore a new destination.”
On being asked if he is aware of the displeasure in Assam and the recent deaths during the anti-CAA protest, Lamba said the intention was to “foster more positivity” and to build opportunities for the state as well as the film industry.