by Shillpi A Singh
NewsGram presents an exclusive tête-à-tête with the cast and crew of this year’s National Award winning Maithili film, Mithila Makhaan. In the second part of the series, Shillpi A Singh gets you the story of how director Nitin Neera Chandra scripted history in the regional language cinema with his outings in Bhojpuri and Maithili.
“A crisis creates the opportunity to dip deep into the reservoirs of our every being, to rise to levels of confidence, strength, and resolve that otherwise we didn’t think we possessed.” These words by Jon Meade Huntsman Sr, an American businessman, and philanthropist, beautifully sum up the story behind the making of National Award winning Maithili film Mithila Makhaan by Nitin Neera Chandra, and to some extent his astounding career path. And mind you, he’s barely three films old. His directorial debut Deswa, in Bhojpuri, has left an indelible mark on the history of regional cinema, widely acclaimed and feted in the national and international film circuits for its gritty portrayal of the state of affairs in Bihar.
Close on its heels was Deswa’s Hindi remake Once Upon A Time in Bihar that created ripples for raising socio-political issues, authentic setting and storyline, and believable performances by its star cast. His third one, Mithila Makhaan, has catapulted the Maithili language cinema to the world stage and caught the fancy of filmgoers all over.
The film was one among the three films that had a world premiere at the recently concluded International Film Festival of South Asia (IFFSA) in Toronto. Mithila Makhaan was the only one in Maithili to be part of IFFSA, touted as the biggest South Asian Film Festival in North America, in its five years history that witnessed participation of the film fraternity from across the globe.
Though it was Chandra’s second outing at IFFSA, first one was for Bhojpuri film Deswa, but it was truly an enlightening experience. “I am indebted to the Festival organisers for giving a global platform to my maiden venture in Maithili. It feels great to get a pie of the huge slice of adulation that IFFSA commands in North America. The affection and attention are motivating enough to make me say that I will surely come again to show Champaran Talkies’ next, Ladaku and Company Ustad, to the world.”
Chandra hails from Dumraon, in Buxar district, which also happens to be the birthplace of Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan. Born in a modest family in Bihar’s capital Patna, he has two other siblings — sister Neetu and brother Abhishek. While his brother is a costume designer, sister is an established actor of Hindi cinema and also the “honorary producer” of all his creative ventures. He completed his initial schooling from Patna and then like most others, moved to the Capital of the country for his undergraduate degree.
“Moving to Delhi for studies is like a rite for most natives of Bihar and it was no different in my case. It seemed like a natural progression,” he said. After completing the first lot of studies there, he moved to Pune, in Maharashtra, for his Masters in Media Research from the Department of Communication Studies, at the University of Pune.
Change of Course
As a student in Pune, he witnessed the anti-Bihar movement that was rampant on the campus and to some extent in the state, in the early Naughties. “The state of affairs in Maharashtra was disturbing. I was appalled to see the way people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were being treated. The attitude was certainly not in consonance with the state’s remarkable contribution in every field. It spoke volumes of ignorance, and this ignorance didn’t spell bliss for Biharis in general and students from the state in particular.” A baffled Chandra went on to make a short film “The Outsider” on the raging issue. In a way, the campus crisis made him change the course of his studies, from media research to film production. His first documentary “Bring Back Bihar: Moment of Awakening” was screened at various forums in India and abroad. Having a sister who is a famous actor, it was expected that he would sooner or later foray into films, but not many thought that he would go behind the camera and don a director’s hat.
The Crisis Call
In August 2008, heavy rains and poor maintenance caused a breach in the Kosi embankment near the India-Nepal border. The river Kosi, also called the Sorrow of Bihar, changed its course, wreaking havoc in parts of Bihar and neighbouring Nepal, and spelling misery in the 14 districts of the Mithilanchal region of the state. The disastrous floods that followed Kosi deluge changed the course of Chandra’s career. He witnessed the tragedy first-hand while working for an NGO in the flood-affected districts of the Mithilanchal region of Bihar and neighbouring Nepal. The catastrophe that the river had brought, the plight of people and subsequent migration of people to safer places in search of a better life and means of livelihood triggered his thought process. “The state needs not just job-seekers, but job creators who can make a more meaningful contribution to the state and help control widespread migration,” he said.
It was while travelling along the banks of rivers Kosi and Baghmati in the flood-ravaged villages that he conceived the idea of Mithila Makhaan. “I saw how people had lost not only their lives but also their livelihood. The raging river destroyed the standing crops, flattened houses and left thousands of people dead and lakhs stranded. I was part of the relief operation, but it was a short-term help and way too little for those affected by the deluge.” There is great catharsis in great pain and then something that is sublime. He made a documentary “Boya Ped Babool Kaa” narrating the catastrophe and his first-hand experiences of the worst tragedy in Bihar’s history.
He was back in Mumbai, but the images of the worst floods in Bihar’s history haunted him. “My determination to tell a story and motivate people to come and do their bit in being part of the change in Bihar grew stronger with the passage of time,” he said. The crisis created an opportunity for Chandra, lighting the creative spark and kick-starting his film career in some way. And the rest is history in the making, at least for the regional language cinema from the twin states of Bihar and Jharkhand.
A Son of the Soil
The movie-making exercise helps vent his creative fury on a larger canvas and satiate himself, in some measures, that he is doing whatever it takes to change Bihar and Jharkhand’s image in the minds of people at large. He set the ball rolling with his first film Deswa that changed the popular perception about Bhojpuri films. It wasn’t loud and brash unlike other films in the language that came as a refreshing change and caught the young cine-goers’ fantasy. “The film didn’t have any distasteful content or anything that smack of vulgarity. In fact, it boasted of a realistic storyline, and believable performances. It was a promising start and a sincere attempt to pull the native language speakers back to theatres,” he said. The 2011 film is a set against the theme of lawlessness in Bihar in the late Nineties and early Naughties and has serious political undertones as it depicts the state’s turnaround over a period of six years through the protagonists.
His attempt provided the much-needed facelift to Bhojpuri cinema, and it drew rave reviews from the masses and classes alike. The film was screened and lauded at the International Film Festival of India, International Film Festival of South Asia, Montage Film Festival, Habitat World Film Festival and International Film Festival of Fiji.
He also went on to remake Deswa in Hindi as Once Upon a Time in Bihar with the same star cast — Ashish Vidyarthi, Pankaj Jha, Kranti Prakash Jha, Arti Puri, and Deepak Singh — in the lead roles; the film was released last year.
Shock and Awe
From Bhojpuri, he moved on to explore cinematic opportunities in another regional language, Maithili, for his next, Mithila Makhan. Set against the backdrop of the 2008 Kosi deluge, the film poignantly captures the plight of those who faced the river’s wrath, losing lives, land, and livelihood to it. The protagonists of the movie try to breathe a new lease of life in the barren, lifeless village through their novel ways. They help revive two important sources of livelihoods — the first one being fox nut cultivation for the men, it’s processing, packaging and marketing, and the second one being preserving and promoting Maithili paintings by engaging the womenfolk of the village. “The film tries to instil pride, respect and a sense of belonging to one’s culture, traditions, language, literature, food, dress, song, music, dance and above all the way of living. These elements form our identity and should be preserved and promoted for the future generation. Or else we will lose ourselves,” said Chandra.
The other overbearing theme is to introduce the best of Mithilanchal to the world and get the youth involved in the development and progress of their immediate surrounding and promote the idea of Make in India. To sum up, “It is a back-to-the-roots story, told with great sincerity, about a courageous youthful rescue effort happening in Bihar.”
The film has managed to get ample attention at the recent world premiere at IFFSA, Toronto, and screening at Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi, and the National Film Archives of India, Pune. “The film was screened to a packed house at IFFSA. Many ladies had come to watch our film Mithila Makhaan. Not all of them came from Bihar or Jharkhand. They came from different social backgrounds and hailed from various parts of India. Their presence at the screening of a Maithili film was overwhelming,” said Chandra. Syed Ali Abbas, who watched the world premiere at IFFSA, was bowled over with the film’s presentation and how it had managed to capture the attention of the younger generation, who could relate to the characters and issues dealt deftly in the film. “Mithilaa Makhaan is a great movie and the effort and initiative behind its making is commendable. The best part was that it had managed to capture the attention of the new generation, like a teenager who has been raised in North America all along. It proves that you have accomplished your mission with this movie. Hope to see more in the coming years.”
Wooing the Audience
The scene in Pune was no different. It saw students and people from all walks of life and hailing from the twin states thronging NFAI Auditorium to watch the National Award winning film. “I am glad that a young man (Nitin Chandra) dared to challenge the age-old cinematic stereotypes about Bihar in particular and Biharis in general. The film will help dispel the misconceptions that people have about Bihar,” said Sushma Srivastava. Many like her didn’t want to miss the opportunity, more so because it was a matter of pride for them to see a film in their native language winning the National Award, the first of its kind honour for a regional language cinema from Bihar and Jharkhand. “It is an amazing feeling that our films Deswa and Mithila Makhaan are now at NFAI. It is a rare opportunity to see our films being part of the film archives, along with works of other great Indian filmmakers. We are here to create a rich legacy in our regional languages,” said Chandra.
The director firmly believes that regional language cinema will be a force to reckon with in the days to come. He said, “This will be because English will take over Hindi but regional languages will survive especially in the South, Punjab, Bengal, and Maharashtra.” He emphatically asserted that “no film in any language is regional, but there is regional language cinema. And if cinema was regional, then Satyajit Ray’s films would not be taught at the New York University.” His sister Neetu was in agreement with him on this subject. “Films are never regional, languages are. We have made global films in regional languages,” she proudly said.
He added that it is high time that the younger generation comes forwards and does its bit in preserving and promoting the native languages such as Bhojpuri, Maithili, Magahi, Avadhi, etc. He quoted an interesting anecdote to bring forth the point. “While travelling from Mumbai to London, I saw an 83-year-old Gujarati lady, who was sitting next to me, and watching a Gujarati film and enjoying it thoroughly.” Do we take that kind of pride when it comes to a film in Bhojpuri or Maithili? he tersely asked. If we don’t, then whom do we blame for the degradation of regional language cinema? The fault lies in our myopic approach. “We want the entire country to know about a Maithili film winning the National Award but have we done enough to give it the kind of respect it deserves in its home states.”
Activist to the Core
Chandra calls himself a “fire on the social networking sites”, and rightly so. He has been quite vociferous in expressing his thoughts on matters that matter to an ordinary man, from over speeding vehicles to Board results to brutal rape of a girl in a village in Madhubani, Bihar, to the ban of liquor in his native state. He dares to express his views and draws a lot of appreciation from his fans and followers. His posts are poignant and touching sometimes, hilarious and newsworthy on most occasions. In one of his recent posts, he urged parents to accept their child’s results in Class 10 and 12 Board exams heartily and refrain from judging them based on their scores because every child is brilliant in one or the other way. “Encourage and never compare your kids with anyone. It will scar them for life,” he wrote in his FB post. After Bihar was officially declared a dry state, he posted parodies of famous Hindi songs that will be played in the times of prohibition. But even on this platform, it is Bihar that wins hands down, finding a mention in 90% of his post. That’s a subject closest to his heart. And will always be.
Shillpi is a freelance contributor at NewsGram. She may be reached at: [email protected]
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