TORA’S HUSBAND, Jaan, is a good man. He runs a cake shop and restaurant in a small town near Guwahati in Assam, and has done his best to keep the staff together through the long months of the Covid lockdown. He is a good husband, even if slightly erratic. And he is a good citizen, encouraging young boys and girls to play football, gifting them kits, because he knows that is where friendships are born, courage is tested and values are retained.
He has a flaw though. At the end of the long stressful day, dealing with a lack of money, issues between his mother and his wife, the frustrations of other people’s bad behaviour, he likes to meet his old mates for a drink, or two, or three. This causes conflict with his wife who is struggling with raising their two pre-teen children, especially when their help takes ill. Tora’s Husband chronicles with great sensitivity what Tora is going through, from her children playing in the rain immediately after she has bathed them, to the flower pot her husband unthinkingly breaks and then scolds her for filling their house with them, to the entire family turning on her for soap remnants in a hastily washed dish.
It is a powerful portrayal of a family struggling with the impact of the pandemic, told in the director Rima Das’ gentle, non-judgemental way. It is also, most unusually, based on her own family. Tora’s husband is played by her brother Abhijit Das, whom Das had to persuade with some persistence to act in her film. Her sister-in-law and niece and nephew play themselves. Even the bakery and restaurant in the movie, Snow White, is actually owned by her brother.
Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Tora’s Husband is Rima Das’ third film at the festival and the first to compete in the festival’s Platform competition (a first for any Indian film). Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker who excels in telling tales of her homeland, which have won over global audiences with their simplicity and elegance. From the young woman who wants to sing and own a guitar in her breakout feature film Village Rockstars (2017) to the youngsters in Bulbul Can Sing (2019) who want to love on their own terms, Das’ movies have always heard the unheard and made visible the hidden.
Perhaps it’s because of her upbringing in Chaygaon near Guwahati, in a world full of books and learning. Her father was the founder headmaster of the local girls’ school and a great believer in women’s education. Her mother ran a printing press and bookstore. Das, 41, did a post-graduation in sociology at the University of Pune, until she was bitten by the acting bug, and landed in Mumbai, the city that hustles its dreams into existence. Audition after audition, rejection after rejection nearly broke her spirit. She was not comfortable either in English or in Hindi, it was a cultural challenge and she had no self-confidence. “I got some small roles in TV and cinema but the day I realised I was not good, I was scared,” she says.
What she had was the support of her family and it saw her through a long rough patch between 2000 and 2007. That was also the time she watched many foreign films.
“The film is an observation of what it means to be in a man’s world, and how even a gentle man can knowingly and unknowingly struggle with the burdens traditional masculinity places on him,” says Rima Das, filmmaker
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“That changed my life. It made me see the stories around me. For the first time, I realised one could not only watch films but make them too, be in them too,” she says. That’s when she decided to go back home and shoot the stories around her. She started work on her first feature film Antardrishti (Man with the Binoculars), with a Canon DSLR camera. That was the beginning of a whole new adventure, highlighted by the fact that she could be in her own film. A year later, she started shooting with a group of young musicians around her and Village Rockstars was born in 2017. Dhunu’s desire to own a guitar and play in a boys’ band is the bedrock of this film of hope. Das’ third feature film Bulbul Can Sing is a story of three teenagers, Bulbul, Bonny and Suman coming to terms with their sexualities.
Although she acted in Antardrishti, by her second film, she decided it was too much to do, given that she was her own co-producer, DoP, writer, set designer, and casting agent. “Once I started directing, it didn’t allow me to sleep. I had to sacrifice acting. But it also liberated me to see my vision through. I was not acting according to someone else’s diktats,” she says.
Adil Hussain, acclaimed actor from Assam, says, “Her accomplishment is in elevating the ordinary to the extraordinary. It is a lesson to everyone who complains about lack of opportunities and only looks for faults. This tiny little thing armed with her camera is creating magic. She should be idealised for her mastery over different departments of filmmaking.”
Film scholar Swikrita Dowerah has written that Das does not pander to the standardised Assamese language in her films or the dominant linguistic tastes. Instead, she creates her own cultural space using the distinctive Nalbariya dialect of her native place.
DAS NOW HAS a quiet confidence about her, one which comes with hard-earned pain. Despite over 15 years in Mumbai, she remains the quintessential girl from Assam, who sees the beauty in the rivulet nearby, in the potted plants in windowsills, in the innocence of her relatives. Her camera doesn’t miss a thing, whether it is the unshed tears in her brother’s eyes when he is parting with his beloved cake shop (while keeping the restaurant) or the unspent anger in her sister-in-law’s face when her children defy her. Tora’s Husband is at one with nature—the rain in the farms, the wet earth of the football field, the gentle swaying of the trees the children climb. And though it is a family drama—specifically her family’s drama—it is not entirely unscripted. “It’s an observation of what it means to be in a man’s world, and how even a gentle man can knowingly and unknowingly struggle with the burdens traditional masculinity places on him,” she says of Tora’s Husband, which she shot over two years.
Das was stuck in Mumbai for the first three months of Covid, but then returned to Assam. She started her film in July 2020 and completed it just a few days before the Toronto International Film Festival. Film critic-turned-filmmaker Utpal Borpujari says Das has made an enormous impact on the Assamese cinema scene with her lone-ranger filmmaking. “Her rooted cinema, reflecting the life of people in her own village and its surroundings in Chaygaon was something not witnessed in Assamese cinema. And her low-budget minimalist filmmaking, more out of compulsion than necessity, has inspired a lot of young filmmakers not only in Northeast India but also the whole of India.”
“Once I started directing, it didn’t allow me to sleep. I had to sacrifice acting. But it also liberated me to see my vision through. I was not acting according to someone else’s diktats,” says Rima Das
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Assamese cinema, now in its 88th year, is in a flux, he says, with the pandemic impacting its already limited commercial prospects. “Very recently a few films have given a fillip to the industry, but it’s a long way to go given the limited number of screens in the state. But a lot of younger filmmakers have emerged in the decade after 2010, who are experimenting with interesting concepts. Rima is as much part of the industry as anyone else is, though her films, except Village Rockstars, have had very limited release. Village Rockstars rode the wave of being India’s Oscar entry, the first film from the Northeast to get that distinction, and it did well at the box office,” Borpujari says.
Das has been busy in the last three years. Apart from Tora’s Husband, she’s made one film for the four-part anthology on My Melbourne commissioned by the Government of Victoria, revolving around disability. She’s also made a documentary for BRICS and another film for an anthology shortly to be released on OTT.
The girl from Assam is now increasingly at home in Mumbai, which offers her the freedom to be who she is, go where she wants, do what she wishes. The anonymity is a safe space she carries with her, and which enables her to not be dependent on anyone. It is a city she was once lost in, but one she has grown to love. It is the city that allows her to fly even as Chaygaon gives her the roots to tug at when she is looking for a refresher, “There are very few filmmakers from Assam in the national mainstream so it’s a responsibility for me. I know my place, my people, my land, and my stories,” she says.
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