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‘She is a witch’

By: Trans World Features

 ‘She is a witch’
Ishu, debut film by Utpal Borpujari, that premiered at the 23rd Kolkata Film Festival recently throws light on the practice of witch-hunting prevalent among some communities in Assam, reports Ranjita Biswas

Ishu is a young boy from the Rabha community living in a village in western Assam near Goalpara. His world revolves round playing with his cronies on the river bank, or indulging in a little harmless fun by taking a detour on way to school, and going to bed with his grandmother telling stories. Sometimes he accompanies his favourite aunt Ambika, who lives on her own, to the jungle to collect roots and herbs to cure illnesses at which she is an expert.

 

Into Ishu’s innocent world barges the dark cloud of adult conspiracy when the village shaman, or bej, in collaboration of a quarrelous woman with her own axe to grind, declares his aunt a witch, a dakini. He blames her for a few deaths in the village, that includes Ishu’s new-born sister. The villagers have blind faith in the shaman. Following his verdict they beat up Ambika , burn her house, and throw her out of the village leaving her to fend for herself in dense jungle outside the village  precincts.

 

 

She is not a witch, Ishu protests again and again, but who would listen to his young voice? So he sets off on his own to search for her and finds her injured and frightened in the jungle beyond the village stream. With the help of a sympathetic young man and a woman he manages to rescue her with the help of police. The bej and conspiring woman are arrested.

 

Ishu, debut film by director Utpal Borpujari, journalist and film critic, premiered at the recent 23rd Kolkata Film Festival. The narrative of the film is straightforward enough and simple to grasp by a young audience. The film has been funded by Children’s Film Society, India.

 

However, the subject is not so simple. It throws light on a superstitious practice of witch-hunting among some ethnic communities in Assam.

 

Asked why he thought about witch-hunting as subject of his debut film, Borpujari says, “ It was not deliberate though I had wanted to make a film with the backdrop of witch hunting someday. It’s one of the biggest social problems facing several ethnic communities in Assam and also in other parts of India. Then I read Manikuntala Bhattacharjya's novel Ishu and made a mental note that this was a story I would like to make into a film someday. It looks at the whole issue from the perspective of a small child, and thus presents a new point of view.”

 

Interestingly, among these ethnic communities in Assam like,  Rabha, Hajong, Bodo, Mishing, etc.,  there are also men condemned as witches but they are much fewer in number. According to social activists, over a hundred people were killed in more than 200 cases of witch hunting between 2008 and 2016 in Assam. About 80 percent of the victims were women. Even a veteran state athlete, Debojani Bora of Karbi Anglong district, was tortured for ‘practicing’ witch craft in 2014. Though she escaped  death she had to be hospitalised.
 

 

About her novel of the same name, Bhattacharjya says, “When my husband was posted in Goalpara, I came across two women from the Rabha community with their heads tonsured as they were declared as witches. Later, I spoke to many women there and I was astonished at the blind faith in this superstitious  custom that affect women  and thought  their story had to be told. I chose the protagonist  as  a young boy, his innocence and questioning mind in direct contrast to the viciousness of the elders and their customs.”  

 

In Ishu’ role Kapil Garo, uninitiated into the reel life yet, brings in a certain wide-eyed simplicity into the character. Award winning actress Tonthoingambi Leishangthem Devi from Manipur as Ambika and veteran  Bishnu Kharghoria, as the village quack stand out in the village milieu.

The village life is authentically portrayed which could prove to be an apt introduction to this corner of India about which not many are aware of, even today.

 

Witch-hunting as a practice prevailed widely in pockets of Africa where the village medicine-man held sway. In ‘white’ Europe too, women were burnt at stake  in the Middle Ages condemned as witches . Even in the New World America, in the early days certain women  were castigated as witches and kept outside the village. Sociologists and historians  opine that ignorance, superstition, and not the least,  conspiracy to take over land and property of single women in a male-dominated society played a part in the practice of witch-hunting.

 

Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, self-proclaimed witch (priestess of Wiccan) says that in older times if a woman was more knowledgeable than the men, or challenged a village elder or shaman it was convenient to declare her a witch for the benefit of  superstitious people who  could blame anything untoward happening in the community on her black magic.

 

In Ishu, Ambika  is much more knowledgeable about herbal medicine with which she has cured many villagers. This is a direct challenge to the bej, who resorts to fear-mongering to secure his own place in the community.