Over the last ten years, more than 100 women have been killed in incidents of witch-hunting in Assam alone. The number of reported cases of witch-hunting in the state has shown a marked increase in the last two decades. The gruesomeness of the "punishment" meted out to victims of witch-hunting is regularly laid bare in all its gory details in local media publications.
But Utpal Borpujari's film Ishu, inspired from Assamese writer Manikuntala Bhattacharya’s novel of the same name, posits a departure from the norm. The film, screened at the second edition of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) film festival in Delhi, filters this medieval practice through the eyes of a child, narrating a tale of loyalty, courage and redemption. Here, the filmmaker has deliberately dialed down the grimness quotient of this dreadful social evil to present a stirring folk narrative which is palatable viewing for children, even with an element of wish-fulfilment. This becomes all the more special for its fable-like quality.
Set in a village dominated by the Rabha tribe in Goalpara district of Assam, the film depicts a turning point in the life of blithe, carefree 10-year-old Ishu when his favourite aunt is accused of being a witch by a local quack. The latter colludes with an evil jethi (aunt) to sway an entire village living under the shadow of illiteracy and superstitious beliefs. His beloved aunt is beaten up and banished to the forests, and Ishu is unable to let this mother-figure lapse into oblivion. The film is held together with a poetically rustic cinematography, animated with soulful tunes from woodwinds and indigenous ditties of the Rabha tribe. There are mesmerising interludes of sand art to accompany the narration of folk tales in the course of the film. The ending is tweaked to show that change in the local mindset comes from within the community, unlike the original novel where the victim is saved by outside intervention.
Ishu, which is produced by the Children's Film Society, India, marks the debut feature film of National Award-winning film critic Borpujari whose previous credits include Mayong: Myth/Reality (2012), Songs of the Blue Hills (2013), Soccer Queens of Rani and Memories of a Forgotten War (2016). Ishu won the Special Jury Award in Indian Competition at the 10th Bengaluru International Film Festival held in February this year.
A bill against witch-hunting was passed by the state assembly in Assam, but is still awaiting the president's assent, owing to certain technical impediments. Most witch-hunting cases are borne out of property or land ownership disputes and personal grudges. Single women, widows and the elderly are generally preyed upon.
But the barbaric practice of branding women as "witches" for any illness, crop failure or natural calamity isn't just restricted to Assam, it exists in remote, far-flung villages of West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Telangana as well.