Maitri Das’s debut feature film Boroxun- Songs for Rain will be a part of the New York Indian Film Festival 2021. This news on May 15 left the actor elated. Such news is not only a reminder of the sense of achievement for a hardworking team of independent artists, but also a ray of hope to every aspiring artist to hold on to their work amidst the gloom of a global pandemic. Portraying the character of ‘Bengi’- an apparent village simpleton who is in love with a boy ‘Benga’ – Maitri Das recalls her days of shooting as a challenging yet rewarding experience.
“For a story which is based on a fishing community desperately waiting for the rains amidst a drought in an otherwise flood-prone region, the love story of Benga and Bengi had to be told intricately. I spent five days before the shoot began to get more familiar with the surroundings.
Everyone on set seemed to know their craft very well, and probably that’s why it didn’t take us more than ten days to finish shooting the entire film”, said Das.
Boroxun- Songs for Rain received two nominations – Best Director for Krishna Kanta Borah and Best Actor for Deepjyoti Kalita.
When I met Maitri Das a few months on a smog-filled December afternoon in Guwahati, she asked if I could give her an idea about the type of questions I would be asking her before the interview. Truth was, I didn’t have any particular question apart from asking how she would, rather like her story to be told. I was eager to meet a young woman who acts and writes, who hustles and struggles for work amidst a pandemic, who receives a prestigious grant for theatre artists and at the same time does not get recognised at other auditions.
Das, gradually making herself comfortable into the conversation began explaining how the pandemic had made it hard for theatre artists everywhere, veterans and debutants alike – to find work, to sustain, and to pay their bills.
Theatre, being a collaboration of many elements of art, is presented to a live audience, and it cannot rely on the mercy of technological saviours like OTT platforms for its survival. It needs the artists to be on stage in real-time: acting and emoting with a rush of adrenaline to deliver the performance, forgetting lines and improvising, all in one take.
“Theatres don’t pay enough, to be honest. And with my experience of a handful of years, I have to be constantly on the lookout for work as well as grants to sustain myself. Especially now, with most of the work either being stalled or cancelled due to COVID-19”, said Das.
Theatre thrives on the gasps from the audience, the unpredictable reactions and the reverberation of claps that follow after a breakthrough performance. However, the emergence of a dreadful and deadly virus made the smooth-running of expressions and art forms like theatre very difficult.
Das received the Kolkata Centre for Creativity Art Laboratory Grant in January 2021. Set against the tragedy of Assam’s Baghjan as its backdrop, which took place in May 2020, she co-wrote and acted in a one-woman show titled: Baak of Maguri. In the mono play, Das told the tale of human and resource exploitation of a region in the country’s peripheries by an oil company.
But Baak Of Maguri was also about the aftermath of an oil blowout followed by a fire destroying most parts of the village of Baghjan, while also killing two local Oil India Limited (OIL) employees.
Considered by many as an issue of criminal negligence and some as an industrial hazard, Das incorporated the narratives of several villagers from Baghjan whom she interviewed in January 2021.
“An old woman told me about the Gumgumoni (The constant white noise referring to the oil leakage before the blowout), which impacted her existing disability of being hard of hearing. One man told me how the kitchen roof fell after the blast at the oil well and asked me to tell his story in my work. These narratives stay with you. It makes you even more careful and responsible about your work where you have to incorporate it into a form of storytelling”, said Das.
With a Master’s degree in Literary and Cultural Studies from English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, Maitri Das moved to her home state Assam two years ago to pursue a career as a theatre artist.
The theatre culture in Assam paints a different picture to the audience as the genre of the colloquially known ‘Bhramyoman Theatre’ enjoys much more popularity as compared to its counterparts. The journey of the mobile theatre in Assam has its story to be told for another day. For an industry that provides refuge and financial security to many actors of Assam’s ailing film industry, it is also not necessarily a passionate aspiration for many young artists like Das.
“Bhramyoman Threatre in Assam is a popular culture undoubtedly. But I feel like the process of experimentation stopped in that industry and it has commercialized in an unfathomable way in the past decade. I don’t think I could find myself happily and satisfactorily working there”, contemplated Das.
And while Maitri Das has had considerable experience of acting in various stage plays and a few short films while pursuing her studies in Hyderabad, she has also been a part of countless stage plays in Guwahati since the early age of twelve.
If performing in front of a live audience had laid the foundation of her aspirations to be an artist in the formative years, Das on the other hand also worked as a part of the crew on several occasions after moving back to Assam. And in doing so, several instances of abuse of power by men were witnessed by the young artist. Keeping a few of the details anonymous on this particular occasion, Das narrated one such instance when she witnessed a female colleague’s agency being taken away from her.
“I was working as an AD intern once and we had a few people coming over from Delhi, who accompanied the Production Head. The Anchor of the show was a woman and the entire team had to travel from one place to another for some reason. The Anchor was asked to sit in a sedan car with the three visitors by our Director. One man sat on the front seat and she was asked to sit between two strangers, without any specific reason. I could feel it in my bones that it was very uncomfortable for her to join those men in the car. But late,r our Director wore the devil’s coat and told the Anchor that she was being too friendly with the guests. It appalled me and everyone else.”
And while this might not be her last bitter experience in the industry; but informing and discussing such instances is a part of everyone’s responsibility. That abuse of power is multifaceted, Das stands her ground on it.
And about her love and passion for theatre, Das believes that theatre provides an artist with a lot of independence. “Being involved with writing in my recent work has let me control my narrative. And women need to take such initiatives in telling their own stories in art forms. I have only started my journey, and I want to start it on the right note. I feel like my voice will be heard clearer if I don’t let anyone else say it on my behalf.”
On being asked if the critical acclaim of her first feature film will have any impact on her love for theatre, Das’s immediate response was, “I would any day choose theatre over anything else. Any day.”