After the screening of the award-winning Assamese-Bengali film ‘Alifa’ at an ongoing film festival in the national capital, an elderly member in the audience told director Deep Choudhury, “This was the best film in the festival so far. But I have a grudge. Why did you allow the actress to get her eyebrows done? It didn’t quite seem natural.” The fact that the only flaw a critic could find with the film was to do with the eyebrows of one of the characters is quite telling.
At the heart of this film is the story of a Bengali Muslim family that would pay the ultimate price for the man-nature conflict emerging out of the constant greed for land. What, however, is sad that in this battle between man and nature, it is always the poor who have to pay the price. The tension between Muslim Bengalis and Assamese is another major strand of the film. In fact, a lot is going on simultaneously – an illicit affair that breaks a family, leopard attacks killing the children in the hills, a young girl constantly day-dreaming about going back to school . The scenes where Assamese landowners, contractors and city employers bad-mouth the Muslim Bengalis are particularly difficult to watch. The crude language, toned down by the censor board’s famed “beep” puts you in an uncomfortable spot. It’s impossible not to empathise with the Bengalis, knowing well, they are also part of the problem that has disturbed the balance of nature.
What holds these events together in the film is the sweet inquisitive voice of Alifa, a pre-teen girl who narrates the devastating changes happening in her family with an innocence and naïveté that is suitable for her age. Her voice-over works because she is asking the most relevant questions as a non-participant in the whirlwind of events that effect her life – why did she have to come up the hills? When will she go back to school? Why is her benevolent father turning into a monster? Alifa’s concerns boil down to one question – why do natural calamities always disproportionately harm the poor and the marginalised and make them even more dependent on the dominant forces of the society, who already blame the displaced for being ‘evil’ and ‘illegal encroachers’. Alifa’s voice also works because often at the altar of all conflicts — be it man-nature or ethnic, it is always the future of our children that is sacrified.
When I asked Choudhury, whose side was he as a filmmaker, he says: “I was on the side of nature, because when we mess with nature there is a heavy price to pay.” And what kind of reaction did the film get in Assam? “Surprisingly, I got only praises from both communities. Many, in fact, looked inward and realised that they have behaved in similar ways as depicted in the film. They felt bad for it,” he says.
Choudhury extracts some solid performances form his actors. Biharul Islam as Alifa’s loving father who later becomes a wife-beater is intense. In a graphic scene of domestic violence, Islam miraculously manages to keep his humanity intact. A similar scene, although in a completely different context, in Secret Superstar had left me numb for days together. It left me wondering how do women endure such brutality and yet carry on with life as if nothing had happened. But somehow Islam doesn’t quite elicit similar disgust, maybe because of his circumstances, or maybe even at his worst, he manages to give us a glimpse of the broken man who still loves his family. Jaya Seal as Alifa’s mother imbues her character of a promiscuous wife with just the right amount of vulnerability. Alifa, perhaps, is the lone pure voice untouched by the corruption around. She lends a certain lightness to a grim plot. Combined with the soothing sight of Assam’s lush green forests, Alifa’s voice makes this difficult movie an easy watch.
Alifa is a rare brave film, made with journalistic rigour. It gives you a well-rounded perspective on what’s happening in Assam which is very similar to what happens in most conflict-ridden areas – exploitation of the poor and the exploitation of natural resources. Films like Alifa make you root for regional cinema and make you wish that they get country-wide release. Such films deserve a wider audience.