Between faith and superstitions: A journey through the eyes of the poor in Panisokori
Poster of the movie Panisokori

The film Panisokori (In the Swirls) portrays the arduous odyssey of a destitute family as they navigate through life’s challenging circumstances, straddling the precarious line between hope and faith. It is an honest reflection of the perils of blind devotion and superstition, depicted through the experiences of its protagonist Ratiram, who finds himself in a predicament as he tries to balance the demands of supporting his family, paying off old debts, caring for his ailing son, and dealing with a string of misfortunes.

Director Arindam Barooah’s debut feature film is of a quiet life and unhurried frames. His almost non-interventionist mode of filming every day offers a silent glimpse into the daily routines of a man, encapsulating moments of his muted anguish and unwavering determination to provide for his family. But numerous unsuccessful attempts to find work and earn money lead him to despair where he begins to question the role of his fate, fortune and existence. As a result, Ratiram becomes increasingly reliant on a belief in an external force that appears to exert control over his life from a distance.

Issues of poverty and existence and the question of fate and choices are some recurring themes in the works of filmmaker Arindam Barooah which include multiple short films like Bhranti: Fallacy Beholds (2016), Rendezvous: Unfolding an Unforeseen (2018), Obosheshot (At Last…) (2017), Bodh: Unfolding the Spirit of Reverence (2016), and others. On his choice of turning to a feature film to communicate these ideas, Barooah shared, “I have been making short films for a while now, starting from 2015. But during the Covid-19 lockdown period, I took the decision to attempt a feature film. And I had already planned for it to be a low-budget film with a focus on a community.”

“Actually, I was working on a different film on the Nocte tribe, who live in this particular village in upper Assam, and whose descendants are from Myanmar. But due to the lockdown, it couldn’t be made as it was also based on floods and the monsoons had already passed by the time the lockdown was lifted. So, this new film called Panisokori (In the Swirls) was made to accommodate the winter season and was shot and completed in just two months after the lockdown,” he added.

The film Panisokori (In the Swirls) delves into a facet of faith and belief that exists in a rural village belonging to the Matak community in Assam. “In 2020, I had the opportunity to visit Rohmoriya village near Dibrugarh in Upper Assam, where I met a family of four belonging to the Matak community, whose belief systems were deeply rooted in superstitions. For me, the best source of stories is our surroundings and experiences. And I strongly believe that a film is not just about entertainment, but also about empowerment, enlightenment, and raising awareness,” said Barooah about arriving at the idea of making the film.

As much as the idea of the film is rooted in reality and real-life experiences, Panisokori (In the Swirls) is also based on short story writer Kshipra Kalpa Gogoi’s story, Bhogowanor Somadhi (God’s Grave). “I had also read the short story in ‘Prantik’ magazine before visiting the village and I instantly visualised that the story might get its audio-visual shape as a fictional narrative imparting a sensitive issue,” added Barooah.

The film was made by the same family in their native language, which is Matak, as the filmmaker believes that visual language has no barriers. Moreover, the family’s comfort with their language and the lack of training or acting experience made the idea of turning it into a film in a very natural way more feasible. The film was also shot in the remote location of Rohmoriya village where the majority of the inhabitants belonged to the Matak community.

“Matak represents both a religious sect and a community and a majority of the inhabitants of the village are blinded by superstitions due to lack of education, leading them to fall into the abyss of superstitions. And therefore my film portrays the impact of blind faith and superstitions on people’s lives amid situational dilemmas reflecting on the ironic elements of the real world while emphasizing the consequences of such beliefs,” said Barooah.

In the film, the characters make reference to several intangible powers such as fate, fortune, divinity, and the supernatural. These forces, according to Barooah “are intrinsically tied to the human experience that evokes a sense of susceptibility or vulnerability which arises from several situational and environmental factors.” 

The film captures numerous occasions where the fine line between traditional knowledge, religion and superstitions erodes. For instance, a household resorts to prayer sessions to help a barren daughter-in-law conceive. In another instance, when Ratiram’s son falls ill, they attribute it to a harmful spirit from the fields and seek a shaman’s assistance instead of a medical practitioner’s help. 

In this regard, Dr Chandana Deka, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, at SRM University, Andhra Pradesh, opines: “The blurring of lines between faith and blind faith often paves the way for superstitions. It emerges from the lack of knowledge and a misinterpretation of the scientific principles or the relationship of cause-and-effect. It is not based on reason and knowledge. Hence it is not rational.”

Director Barooah believes that educating people with scientific and rational knowledge and creating awareness about the dangers of blind faith can help eradicate it from among the uneducated masses. “Empowering the masses with critical thinking and logical reasoning can help them break free from the shackles of superstition,” he added.

“And cinema has the power to educate people by portraying the negative consequences of blind faith and promoting rational thinking. It can raise awareness and inspire critical thinking.” 

He also advocates for the gradual dissemination of effective laws, policies, and programs that can replace superstitious beliefs with rational ideas, thereby bringing about a transformative change in society and paving the way forward.

Prior to Panisokori, movies such as Aei Matite (2017) by Dr Sitanath Lahkar and Ishu (2017) by Utpal Borpujari have tackled the subject of superstitions and witch-hunting within the Bodo community of Assam and the diverse socio-economic and cultural factors that contribute to it. In 2018, President Ram Nath Kovind also approved the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2015, which punishes those who practise witch-hunting.

“However, due to the diversity and the coexistence of different cultures in Assam, eradication of such practices remains a challenging task. The solution requires a change in people’s mindset, which cannot be achieved solely through the passing of laws. All stakeholders must work continuously towards this goal,” Barooah added.

Panisokori effectively exposes the vulnerabilities of being poor, and its climax delivers a punch to the gut. While on his way to the shaman’s hut, Ratiram parks his broken bicycle against a tree considered sacred by the locals. Ratiram is then brutally attacked by locals who cannot understand why his cycle is parked near a sacred tree. The film ends with an abrupt cut to black without revealing whether Ratiram survives or not, thereby leaving the question of his fate for the audience to ponder.

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When asked if the ending was a nod to the present political climate of growing intolerance and fundamentalism in the name of religion, Barooah said, “In the film, we aimed to portray how religion has impacted the prevalence of superstition in the society rather than explicitly delving into the politics of religion. It is important to recognise that neither religion nor politics should hold superiority over the other.”

Produced under the banner of Panchoi Productions, Panisokori has Bimol Chetia, Dimpol Baruah, Dipamoni Chetia and Minakhi Chetia in its cast. After concluding its festival run, the film will be released via OTT platforms.

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