2019

Jahnu Barua’s ‘Bhoga Khirikee’ Peeks Into An Insurgent Assam

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA) in India allows the Indian army special power, in certain Indian states, to arrest, search and question any resident of these states without any warrant. All the army officers have a blanket legal immunity for their actions under AFSPA. The north-eastern Indian state of Assam was put under the Act in 1958, on account of the state’s “internal disturbance” and “terrorist activities.” Radical outfits like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) seek to establish an independent state of Assam with an armed struggle and have been deemed a terrorist organization by the Indian government. The Indian north-east’s separatist struggle has been one of the longest-running separatist struggles in South Asia.

Several women living in AFSPA-governed states have come out and accused Indian army officers of rape and sexual abuse and the officers have not been charged in any of these cases. Women continue to be caught between the ensuing violence between the government and the alleged militant groups, as consecutive governments fail to come up with effective policies to solve the political unrest in the Indian north-east. The act has been criticized by several human rights organizations for its complete disregard for people’s (especially women’s) autonomy, dignity and self-worth. Togor (Zerifa Wahid), Jahnu Barua’s protagonist in Bhoga Khirikee (Broken Window) is symbolic of that tussle, as her life continues to be inhibited by the patriarchy that operates through her father, her husband, the army and the inept government.

Togor is married to Koncheng, who is a part of an ULFA-like outfit engaged in a militant struggle against the government. Her father not only disapproves of their marriage but also refuses to acknowledge it as a legitimate relationship. The army is on the prowl for Koncheng and often harass Togor’s family for information on his whereabouts. Between a father who does not respect her, a husband who shoulders no responsibility of their married life and a state that is hostile to a woman’s struggle for economic independence, Togor’s life remains constricted and limited. Living in rural Assam, she travels to search for jobs in her bid to find autonomy over her body, her finances and her life.

Bhoga Khirikee lets viewers peek into the many ways the masculine forces of the family, government and the army (on both sides of the law) play out to create havoc in the lives of women like Togor and her mother (played by the talented Seema Goswami). In the battlefield between these forces, women end up being the casualties wherein they are denied the agency over their own lives, and the freedom to form meaningful relationships and friendships. Togor, her mother and her unborn child are emblematic of the generations that continue to suffer the fallouts of a war that has gone one for too long without their consent, but over their bodies and lives.

Barua does an excellent job of exploring the whole spectrum of patriarchal oppression that women in the Indian north-east suffer in their everyday lives. He explores the gendered spaces that exist within the family, the army and even the militant-Left outfits. He highlights the common thread of chauvinism that runs through all these social spaces both on and off the mainstream. Unfortunately, Togor’s character becomes so much of a symbol that the actual human behind the character gets lost in the plot. Barua, who has scripted extremely complex male characters in films like Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (I Did Not Kill Gandhi, 2005), falters as the character Togor loses all its subjectivity. As the audience, one can never come to know what she really feels about being in this position until the very end of the film. She struggles with her pregnancy in silence while trying to pay heed to one opinion after another — none of which are her own. When Togor finally finds a voice, the plot has already disempowered her.

There is a beautiful relationship that Togor and her mother share — a rare female bond that creates a revolutionary female space within the intersections of the masculine forces — but Barua does not let this take shape into a wholesome and complete feeling of community. This is when one wonders if the presence of a female filmmaker would make a difference? In Bulbul Can Sing, another Assamese filmmaker, Rima Das, explores an unusual friendship between a young girl and her friend’s mother, who bond over collective grief and strive to find joy in living life together.

There is seething, justified anger that underscores the plot of Bhoga Khirikee; an anger that could be used to create extremely radical female characters who pull the plot forward instead of becoming cardboard stand-ins for the filmmaker’s radical politics. The film poses a harsh critique of the Indian State but fails to become a means of activism that calls out for a passionate, collective outcry.

Bhoga Khirikee recently had its American premiere at the New York Indian Film Festival.

Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.

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