Noted film critic and filmmaker Utpal Borpujari's debut feature "Ishu", that premiered here at the 23rd Kolkata International Film Festival on Sunday, sheds lights on witch hunting practices in Assam through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy.
The award-winning director says if children become ambassadors and talk about social evils, then it would have a bigger impact.
"I wanted to portray witch hunting from a child's point of view. Often what we see as adults is very predictable... when you see things from a child's point of view... you see it from a fresh perspective... they don't have any prejudices," Borpujari told IANS here.
Recipient of the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic at the 50th National Awards of India in 2003, Borpujari has clocked over two decades in journalism, and has to his credit documentaries such as "Mayong: Myth/Reality" (2012), "Songs of the Blue Hills" (2013) and "Memories of a Forgotten War" (2016).
"Ishu" is an adaptation of Assamese writer Manikuntala Bhattacharya's eponymous novel.
Asked if children would find the subject too dark, he said: "It is suitable for age 12 and above... that is the right age to expose them to information to what happens in the world around them. If children can talk about an issue... it will have a greater impact."
Expanding on the problem, the Delhi-based Borpujari pointed out the major reasons for branding someone a witch - barriers to access to basic healthcare and education.
"Many people in Assam are disturbed by the practice of witch hunting. It's still prevalent in many tribal societies and many tea garden communities. Reasons being superstition and illiteracy. Also, many people in these communities don't have access to basic healthcare. So whenever they fall ill, vested interests find it very easy to call someone a witch," he said.
It's mostly women who fall prey to the practice but men are victims as well, he said.
"Most of the time it's a lonely woman, a young widow, and there's a property angle attached to it... brand a woman as a witch and drive her out or even kill her and then usurp her land. Some times there is a sexual angle... for example, if there is a young widow and somebody wants to exploit her and they can't do it, so create the myth that she is a witch... even men are beaten up and killed occasionally," he observed, adding its a pan-India problem.
"So I think this is prevalent in communities that do not have access to healthcare and education."
To scout for his 10-year-old protagonist, Borpujari didn't go for auditions; he preferred to "interact" with children to see who would fit the role the best. Kapil Garo, a boy from a village near Guwahati, was eventually chosen to essay the titular character.
"The story is set in western Assam in Goalpara. I concentrated mainly on lower Assam because I needed that accent. Also, there are a lot of things which a village boy can do, which a boy from the city wont be able to do (run barefoot in mud)," he said.
The Assamese feature is produced by Children's Film Society India. Borpujari hopes to take it to more festivals and get the word out. The 91-minute film was screened as part of the 'Competition in Indian Languages' segment of KIFF.
"Its a major social issue, especially in Assam, where a bill is still pending... an anti witch hunting bill which was passed in the assembly but is waiting President's assent," he added.
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