For filmmaker Pradip Kurbah, life has come a full circle. On 5 October, his third full-length feature film ‘Iewduh’ premiered at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) in South Korea, which ranks among the most significant platforms for Asian filmmakers. At BIFF, he was also nominated for the highly prestigious Kim Ji-seok Award given to emerging Asian talent.
Lakadong Turmeric is a special variety of turmeric from Lakadong in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. It has a variety of healing properties. This rare variety of raw Lakadong Turmeric at our shop is pesticide-free.
As a young boy, Pradip was inspired to pursue cinema as he watched his father renting out VHS cassettes from his video library in Iewduh Market (Bara Bazaar) in Shillong and listening to him cry out for authentic Khasi cinema to find its place on the world stage.
The movie is set in the narrow and crowded lanes of Iewduh Market, one of the oldest and largest public markets in the Northeast. There, he tells the story of ordinary people who inhabit it.
“Rather than talk about the market itself, I seek to depict human relationships and the existence of different kinds of people who exist there. Iewduh is such a massive and old market that there are stories in every lane. The movie is basically the story of everyday people. Maybe they aren’t your typical movie heroes, but it’s their stories. When people saw the film in Busan, many came up and told me that they had undergone very similar life experiences to those characters portrayed in the film,” says Pradip, speaking to The Better India.
There is no single protagonist in the film, but many characters whose stories criss-cross amidst all the chaos.
Dominic Sangma, a Shillong-based filmmaker invited to Cannes earlier this year, says, “Iewduh is among the best films to come out of the Northeast. The main character is the bustling open market of Iewduh, but the film’s beauty lies in its depiction of familial bonding between disparate characters beyond blood ties. One of the key characters, a toilet cleaner, finds family through all that chaos. The film shows how people from different and desperate circumstances like a drug addict or someone suffering from dementia find each other in startlingly unanticipated ways and establish a deep bond. There is so much humanity in the film.”
For Pradip, the first thing on his agenda was documenting the market. There are people from different communities, religions and tribes coexisting and selling fish, vegetables, meat and any other item on the face of this earth. It is often said that if you don’t find something, you’ll probably find it in Iewduh.
“Nonetheless, these communities do hold age-old suspicions and grudges, but it’s not something I sought to highlight in the film. These divisions and negative elements of Shillong society are nonetheless presented in a subtle manner,” says Pradip.
Iewduh Market was also the site of recent communal clashes between the Khasis and Mazhabi Sikh community, but what Pradip chose to do was present a story steeped in humanity despite its crowded nature and contradictions.
“As a filmmaker, you will be surprised how he managed to shoot in such crowded spaces. The market is marked by narrow lanes with people pushing you around and garbage strewn all over. It’s amazing how he brought the market and the people who inhabit it, to life. My perspective on the market has changed after watching this film,” adds Dominic.
Pradip’s focus was more on the positive aspects of the people making a living in the market—their warmheartedness, compassion, kindness and sense of equality.
“This is my perspective of the market. Maybe someone else could have a different view. Some would say the market is dirty, shabby, and that they hate going to market. For example, my son doesn’t like visiting the market because it’s dirty, but I don’t want to reduce this place to such images. Everyone from my great grandparents, grandparents and parents have run shops in this market. Despite retirement, my father still visits the market everyday,” he says.
Self-taught & Early Days
Dropping out of school after Class X, Pradip took the gamble of coming to Mumbai in the early 1990s living with a friend who worked in the film industry. He wanted to find gigs assisting various filmmakers and learning the craft.
Without a college degree, he had no chance of studying it at institutions like FTII and SRFTI. From 1992 to 2000, he found gigs assisting directors in Bollywood and Tollywood while shuttling between Mumbai and Hyderabad. One of his last gigs during this time was as a chief-assistant director for ‘Raju Chacha’ starring Ajay Devgan.
Despite these unique experiences, at the back of his mind was a burning desire to tell stories from his region. That was always the end game. Following his return to Shillong, Pradip ventured into making music videos, tele-films and short films.
Breaking New Ground
It was in 2014 when he released his first full-length feature film titled ‘Ri: The Homeland of Uncertainty’, which dives into militancy in the state and how it affects ordinary people, particularly the youth. It’s a film he had been wanting to make since 2003. At the time, however, producers weren’t willing to come onboard because militancy was quite active in the state.
Unwilling to remain hostage to these circumstances, he started his own production house. His next film ‘Onaatah: Of The Earth’ (2016), which won him a National Award and is available on Netflix, was driven by his own production house. It’s a remarkable narrative about a survivor of sexual assault and how she navigates life following this traumatic incident.
Inspiration for Onaatah came from Pradip’s deep-lying frustration about the media narrative surrounding sexual assaults in the state. He was frustrated that the narrative never extended beyond the incident itself. No one followed up on what happened to the woman in her pursuit for justice or how she deals with life in the aftermath of such an incident.
“In 2014-15, I met three survivors of sexual assault. Over a period of seven-eight months they shared their stories with me. Naturally, there was great resistance on their part in talking to me, but over time a certain degree of trust had developed and they soon grew comfortable. They talked about acceptance in society, whether they’d be able to have families of their own and whether they can fall in love again. That’s why Onaatah happened,” he says.
Incidentally, on 11 October, a Marathi remake of this film titled ‘Man Udhan Vara’, produced by Satish Kaushik, will release in cinemas across Maharashtra.
This is the second movie from the Northeast to be remade in another Indian language after the Assamese film, Chameli Memsaab in 1975.
Pradip says that cinema is the best way to bridge the gap between the ‘Northeasterners’ and the ‘mainlanders’. “Getting remade in another Indian language, particularly Marathi, feels like a great achievement for us. We never knew this would happen so soon with Onaatah. I’m very thankful to Mr Satish Kaushik for taking my film up for adaptation,” gushes Pradip.
Taking Khasi Cinema to the world
“Meghalaya is home, and I want to take Khasi cinema to another level. Showcasing a Khasi film at BIFF is part of that journey. I will continue making Khasi films as well, while assisting other non-Khasi projects like The Maya Tape, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui,” he says.
“Pradip is the face of Khasi cinema. With Iewduh getting premiered at BIFF and Pradip getting nominated for Kim Ji-Seok Award, this will now put a spotlight on Meghalaya. It’s no longer just about cinema from the Northeast. With Iewduh, Pradip is now representing Indian cinema on the international stage,” says Dominic.
“More importantly, his work brings hope that we, as filmmakers from Meghalaya, can break the regional ceiling and make it on the global stage. This will shatter the inferiority complex many of us have long held and eradicate the desire to seek validation from the outside,” he adds.
Even Pradip sees this promising future.
“It was a real honour for me to premiere the film at the Busan Film Festival, considering it comes from such a small state in Northeast India where cinema is still at a nascent stage. We never thought that our films would make it to such international platforms. However, when we interacted with people, I realised there are no language or other barriers as far as cinema is concerned. At the end of the day, all you have to do is tell a good story,” he quips.
Pradip hesitates to call himself an ‘independent filmmaker’ even though he fulfills a lot of those parameters.
“Yes, at some level I do consider myself to be an independent filmmaker. But every time I set out on a project I always have people beside me. In this regard, producers who back projects like mine deserve a mention because they too struggle in ensuring that my films reaches the public. Making films today has become easy but releasing them is very difficult. To reach mass audiences is very tough but I don’t depend on other parts of the country to reach my audience. I’m dependent more on the people of my state,” he says.
With just three theatres in Shillong, it’s hard to recover all his money, but what’s important to him is reaching out to people in the villages.
“I tour these villages with my films, literally travelling door-to-door showcasing it. This is the only way I can recover money on my films. For Onaatah, I travelled through every nook and cranny or the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. Once you discover your passion and love for cinema, you need to find a way of recovering the money spent,” informs Pradip.
For Iewduh, however, he was lucky to find a National Award-winning producer in Shankar Goenka, a major distributor in Assam. Goenka has aspirations of releasing this film in different cities across India. Soon, you could have Khasi reaching different parts of the country.
In the meantime, Pradip is looking to tell more stories from his state, bringing Khasi cinema and culture to the world.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)