The Witch Hunters Of Assam

It is a problem not generally picked up by films or the mainstream media, because it occurs in remote rural areas, where the lynching of a woman as a witch does not cause much outrage.  Needless to say, most of the women killed are aged or widowed, with a relative who has an eye on their property. The easiest way to get rid of them is to invoke the superstition of ignorant villagers and brand them as dayans.

Film critic-turned-director Utpal Borpujari, has made a children’s film titled Ishu, in which a ten-year-old boy fights a whole village for the sake of his beloved aunt. Produced by the Children's Film Society of India, on a tiny budget, the Assamese film, is set in a beautiful, as yet unseen location — a remote tribal Rabha village bordering Meghalaya’s Garo Hills. The huts in which the villagers live, and the traditional costumes they wear, makes the film, based on Assamese writer Manikuntala Bhattacharjya’s Ishu, an interesting anthropological study of the region too.

Ishwar Prasad Garo or Ishu (played by the utterly natural Kapil Garo) is a normal ten-year-old, the kind who hates getting up to go to school on a Monday, dislikes mental maths and likes to play with his dog, Bhalu. He is a beloved child, pampered by his parents, uncle and grandmother. Ishu’s favourite aunt is Ambika (Tonthoingambi Leishangthem Devi), a young widow, who famously vanquished a tiger once, with just a scar on her face to show for it.  (The incident is narrated by her using beautiful sand animation.) Ambika is an expert on herb remedies and helps the villagers who come to her for a cure for their illness.

Ishu and his friends walk to school every day, turning the walk into a game, being frequently admonished by villagers for not hurrying up to be on time. One day, Ishu witnesses a fight between Ambika, her brother and another aunt Bhadreswari (Chetana Das), over the latter’s encroachment on her property. Talking of foolish adults, Ishu and his buddies are interrupted by the village Bej or shaman (Bishnu Khargoria), who warns of the arrival of a witch. Their teacher pooh-poohs the idea of  witches, and tells the kids that people are falling ill due to contaminated water.

Ishu does not know what a witch is, but is terrified nonetheless, waking up to nightmares of a black-robed, long-haired female with scary claws.  

Ishu’s mother gives birth to a girl, who dies a few days later; she had already lost a baby earlier.  (Ishu sweetly leaves treats for him on the tiny grave.) When another villager dies of jaundice, the Bej accuses Ambika of being a witch, instigates the villagers to beat her, throw her out of the village and burn down her house. The only one who tries to defend Ambika is a progressive woman, seen zipping about the village on a bicycle. Ishu does not believe that Ambika, who took him to the forest and taught him about herbs, is a witch. He packs some food for her, and secretly goes in search of Ambika. The solitary child has the courage to row a boat and go hunting barefoot in the thick jungle till he finds her.

This is a children’s film, so the end has to be happy, but in real life, women accused of being witches are not so lucky.

According to information provided by Borpujari, the crime of ‘witch hunting’ is so prevalent, that the state Assembly unanimously passed the Assam Witch Hunting (Prohibition, Prevention and Protection) Bill 2015, after a sustained campaign by social organisations and an intervention by the Guwahati High Court.  According to data placed before the state Assembly, 93 cases of witch-hunting were reported and 77 persons, including 35 women, were killed during 2010 to 2015.

CFSI films seldom get a commercial release, but are screened at festivals and in schools all over the country. Perhaps by catching ’em young, a film like Ishu can help kids clear their minds of evil superstition. Grown-ups could do with a lesson too!

(Deepa Gahlot is a critic, columnist, editor, author and curator)