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A poster of <i>Momtaaj </i>as seen on Youtube
A poster of Momtaaj as seen on Youtube|Zubaan Publishers
OPINION

Why there’s ‘vague’ presence of Assamese Muslims in films, theatre

There is a vacuum when it comes to our histories & narratives, with very scant reference to the roles of Assamese Muslim women in cinema and theatre

Jayanta K Goswami

Jayanta K Goswami

Guwahati: The representation of Assamese Muslim women in cinema and theatre has been “vague” with very scant reference to their roles, a pioneering research has revealed.

This was revealed in the research titled, 'Visual Cultures of Assam: Locating the Memory of the Assamese-Muslim Woman in Popular Representation’, carried out by an Assamese research scholar Shaheen Salma Ahmed.

Reverting to Assamese cinema, the role of Assamese Muslim women in its history is quite vague as there hasn’t been any record of women actors or technicians. Referring to narratives of actor Samsul Huda, Shaheen Salma Ahmed said, “It becomes difficult for me to say with certainty that there were no Assamese Muslim women actors. However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, one of the most popular heroines in Assamese cinema was Zerifa Wahid, who still continues to act in lead roles in various films. There are other Assamese Muslim actresses who have acted in theatre and cinema as well but have perhaps not reached the popularity of Wahid. Dr Jahanara Begum is an actress who has been associated with theatre since the 1980s and has been acting in films since the early 2000s. A qualified medical doctor, she also has a regular medical practice apart from acting in various plays and films.”

A <i>Youtube </i>grab of the film <i>Siraj </i>(1988). Seen here is Siraj (extreme right) and his sister. A Muslim villager is in the foreground
A Youtube grab of the film Siraj (1988). Seen here is Siraj (extreme right) and his sister. A Muslim villager is in the foreground
Zubaan Publishers / YouTube

Referring to personal interviews, conducted by film personality-turned-politician Bobbeeta Sharma with some of the former actresses in the Assamese film industry, Ahmed wrote that the first woman actor of Assamese cinema, Aideu Handique, was not allowed to see any films by her father, not even the local theatrical performances, such as the bhaona . Another well-known actress, Gyanada Kakati, tells Sharma that her mother was very strict and would not approve of her singing or dancing. Thus, gender mores and norms in an Assamese household were not too different for either Muslim or Hindu women and girls, she wrote.

The research was possible because of the Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation grants for Young Researchers of the Northeast, 2018-2019. It was a short research of four months and supported by Zubaan Publishers and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

Ahmed is currently pursuing her PhD in cultural studies from Monash University, Melbourne. A former student of JNU, New Delhi, she also worked as a journalist previously and a curator and artist with her artworks exhibited nationally and internationally.

On her research work, she said that Assamese cinema was pioneered by the polymath Jyotiprasad Agarwala with his film Joymoti which was released in 1935. Bobbeeta Sharma, while discussing Agarwala’s work, writes that “cultural reflection was obviously the overriding principle that guided Agarwala when he made the first Assamese film Joymoti…”

Thus, the subject for the film is not too surprising indeed as the film is centred around the Ahom princess Joymoti who sacrificed her life for her husband and the kingdom. The film was based on Assamese literary legend Lakshminath Bezbaruah’s play Joymoti Kunwori written in 1915. Sharma cites another well-known Assamese director Phani Talukdar’s observations about Joymoti published in 1981. He aimed “to make a film that displayed Assamese culture… the shots of the japi dance, the palanquins of noblemen, sarai, bota, canal-digging thieves, bhaona, weaving looms, depicting rural Assamese life…’

While Agarwala tried to get some of the best technicians in the film industries of Bombay and Calcutta at that time, what is relevant to this research was the cast for the film. Aideu Handique was the main lead for the film and played the eponymous role of Joymoti. Handique has received iconic status in Assam, and rightfully so, but only after a lifetime of marginalization, because she chose to act in a film, an unthinkable act for those from the Assamese middle and upper middle classes at that time.

“Most of the cast associated with this film went on to make their mark in the cultural and cinematic traditions of Assam. Though, there is no copy of the whole film available, and I am unsure if any Muslim character from the Ahom administration or court was represented in the film. However, it is interesting to note that the cast includes an actor who is listed on multiple sites as ‘Shamshul Haque’. There is no further reference for this actor or what role he enacted in the film. I spent hours trying to figure out details about this ‘actor’ as it appeared that an Assamese Muslim person was associated with the very first film ever produced from Assam. It was only after an interview with film historian and documentary filmmaker, Parthajit Baruah, that more details emerged, and this erasure of ‘Haque’ is rather telling.”

The actor who is listed as Shamshul Haque is actually named Samsul Huda. He acted in quite a few early Assamese films produced from 1935 to the late 1950s. He enacted the role of a spy in Joymoti and was also part of Jyotiprasad’s second film Indramalati (1939) and other films such as Biplobi (1950), Smritir Poroxh (1956) and Dhumuha (1957). According to Baruah, Huda was an Assamese Muslim from Nagaon district of Assam.

“No further information was available to me at the time of writing this essay. Of course, there have been notable Assamese Muslim actors such as Syed Abdul Mazid and Mirael Kuddus, but the representations of the body of the Assamese Muslim woman, as well as the man, remain few and far between even today,” Ahmed said.

Bobbeeta Sharma wrote: “In the 15 years after the release of Joymoti, only six Assamese films were released. Among them one was Siraj by Phani Sharma in 1948 which was one of the first films to have had an Assamese Muslim character as the protagonist and was about Hindu–Muslim unity. Based on a story by Lakshidhar Sharma, the film’s script was written by cultural and political activist Bishnu Rabha and the film’s music was by its music director Rabha, assisted by Bhupen Hazarika. There remains no known copy of this film, and Ahmed during her research could only locate its poster.”

Interestingly, out of the seven films that Bhupen Hazarika directed, he re-made Siraj as a period drama in 1988 with noted Assamese actor Nipon Goswami playing the title role. Mridula Baruah plays the role of Siraj’s sister, Fatema.

According to the researcher, Siraj (1988) is not only about communal harmony but is also about class and caste differences. What is important to observe in the film is that the class of elites represented in the film, that is, the tea-planters, are shown as Hindu upper-castes. This is a point to remember as it also reinforces certain representations that do seem palatable to the sensibilities and taste of the cinema-going public. Siraj is shown here as a devout Muslim man who always has his skull cap on. The other villagers are also marked by their Muslim identity through markers such as the lungi and the black tabeez around their necks. Fatema is shown wearing a white or light-coloured mekhela chador throughout the film. The next film that the research paper looks at is a short one by Monjul Baruah, titled Liakat (2016). Based on a short story by Monikuntala Bhattacharjya, this film is about two cousins, Liakat and Hanif. It is a poignant humanist story set in a rural area in Assam.

A poster of <i>Momtaaj </i>as seen on Youtube
A poster of Momtaaj as seen on Youtube
Zubaan Publishers

Another film based on the Assamese Muslim community is Momtaaj (2013) by artist and director, Pulok Gogoi. Apart from the Assamese Muslim community that is “represented” in the film, the rural setting is what connects all three films. The other element of symbolism that binds these three films that span over three decades is the tabeez of the male protagonists. Apart from Siraj, the representation of the women through their clothing is disjointed in these “realist” portrayals of the community in cinema.

Informing that the research tries to trace the social memory of Assamese Muslim women in popular discourses, she said, “I worked on this research because as an Assamese Muslim woman myself, I observed that there is actually a vacuum when it comes to our histories and narratives. I have worked through visual history of a social memory of the Assamese- Muslims. Visual mediums such as photographs, films etc., are my mediums to engage in questions of identity, representation, social memory and the absence of it, and a nuanced understanding of the personal and social meaning of community and gender among the Assamese- Muslim women.”