How two young men from small-town Assam gave the Northeast its first big budget multi-lingual film

How two young men from small-town Assam gave the Northeast its first big budget multi-lingual film
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It was literally a conversation in the back of a car between two old friends — back home, yet homesick — that led to III Smoking Barrels, the big Northeast release set to hit the theatres on Friday. The two, friends since pre-school, were parked in a stationery car, waiting for another, in Golaghat — an old city in upper Assam, famous for its tea and heritage buildings. Back then, it had been already a decade since Sanjib Dey had moved out of his hometown, and was making small commercial films in Mumbai, while Amit Malpani, a tea industrialist, would shuttled between Golaghat and wherever work took him. “We had lost touch over the years — but whenever we were back in Golaghat, we would end up meeting,” says Dey, over the phone from Mumbai, just a couple of days shy of the big release.
“Anyway, this was in 2014, and we were just sitting in the car when Amit looked at me and said quite seriously — ‘Let’s make a film!’ I was taken aback and my first response was — ‘But you work in tea…are you sure you want to make a film?’”
Malpani laughed and said his only condition was that it should be about the Northeast. “And for me, just the thought of it gave me goosebumps.” says Dey, adding that “making a Northeast film was always a latent dream he had at the back of his mind.”
Four years later, the “latent dream” is set to become a reality as III Smoking Barrels, directed by Dey, produced by Malpani and touted to be the first commerical film from and of the Northeast, hits the screens tomorrow. “It is true people make films on the Northeast all the time, but actors are mostly from the ‘mainland.’”
While Dey’s anthology of three stories which make up the film, has a pan-India cast, a chunk of the roles are played by Northeastern actors. “I have people from the Bodo tribe as actors, the Mising tribe in my crew, alongwith technicians from Mumbai,” he says, “I supposed the best way to describe this film is ‘collaboration’. From Kashmir to Kerala, from Gujarat to Nagalnd — everyone has participated.” The ensemble cast includes actors such as Indraneil Sengupta, Shiny Gogoi, Siddharth Boro, Bijou Thaangjam, Mandakini Goswami, Amrita Chattopadhyay and Rajni Basumatary.
Language — or languages, for that matter — is, according to Dey, another thing that keeps his film authentic as dialogue seamlessly switches across six different tongues in the two-hour long production: English, Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Nagamese, and Manipuri. “If it was entirely in Hindi, it wouldn’t have been a true Northeast movie. It’s probably the only multi-lingual film to have ever come out of the region,” he says, adding that the soundtrack, too, which features songs by Assam’s Papon, has a mix of Assamese, English, Hindi and Bengali songs.
Conceived at a heavy budget of four crore, and shot extensively over two years across the Northeast (parts of Meghalaya, Assam, Nagaland as well as three borders areas), the film fictionalises three socio-political issues the region has long been grappling with: children involved in armed conflict, drug abuse and trafficking, and man-animal conflict. “While these are rampant issues in the Northeast, it’s not alien to the rest of the county either,” says Dey, who claims that the intention was never to make a “preachy” film. “Despite touching upon such topics, this is is a full ‘entertainment’ film. The story has been in my head for years — it follows three stages of life of three ‘criminals’,” he says.
Till now, the film has received a warm reception in the smattering of film festivals it has been screened at. It has won an award too. But for the makers the big release is the big test. They have no qualms about describing the film as a “big-budget commercial” one. In fact, feels Dey, that is what sets his film apart — “It is about a region, yes but it’s not a regional film. I suppose with the budget we had, we could have made a mainstream Bollywood flick in Hindi, and it could have been like any of the other mainstream releases. But we chose not to. This one is for the Northeast.”