Director-actor Rajni Basumatary’s latest feature, Jwlwi – The Seed, is as much about the personal as it is about the political; it is as much about the past of a conflicted region as it is about the land’s future promises.
Set in 2015 in Assam, a state in India’s Northeast region, the multilingual film uses flashbacks as a device to travel back in time and tell the story of a widowed single mother, Alaari, across two decades. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Assam (and many other parts of the Northeast) was marked by violence and trauma. The period witnessed the conflict when various ethnic militant groups demanded self-determination or autonomy, and the Indian state’s subsequent crushing of such groups; it was a time where many youths lost their lives to the violence in an area away from the Indian mainland. How then does one tell the tale of such violence and trauma?
Basumatary focuses on one such tale of violence, loss, and grief in an unsparing though minimalist style. As one of the only women filmmakers making films in the Bodo language, Basumatary is best known in Bollywood for her role in the biographical film Mary Kom (2014), where she played mother to Priyanka Chopra’s titular character; in Jwlwi – The Seed, she plays Alaari, a mother again, toughened by adverse social and political situations. Opening the film with close up shots of various aspects of rural Assam, the film immediately brings in a sense of the domestic intimacy of rural life to the viewer. The narrative is largely shaped by the violence in the Bodoland Territorial Region within Assam, which witnessed a prolonged armed struggle for an autonomous region for the Bodos, one of the state’s main indigenous communities.
As Alaari travels back in time through flashbacks, we witness her husband’s death early on in the film when he is caught in a crossfire between Indian Army personnel and armed rebels. A woman with little education and no career prospects in the village, she is left with the daunting prospect of raising their only son alone. Once Alaari is widowed, Basumatary subtly represents the patriarchy prevalent in her rural society through her family members’ discussions. We see Alaari, now shorn off the paraphernalia of married Hindu women, sitting at the center of a family discussion. She has no ornaments on her and she looks down as the rest of the family decides that she has no future with them, but should move out. She is forced to relocate to the interiors of the village to live with her in-laws in their thatched Assam type house as her widowhood becomes burdensome to her own parents and siblings. Forced to relocate with her middle-school going son Erak (Dronacharjo Brahma) to the village interiors, Alaari suffers from a loss of middle-class status as she has to shift Erak from a private English medium school to a government run school.
Despite these blows, the film charts Alaari’s transformation into a hardy woman who spends her time doing physical labour such as farming and weaving to support her family and Erak’s education, all the while running errands around the village on her rickety old bicycle. But as Erak (now played by Shimang Chainary) grows into a young man who is pursuing his undergraduation, he gets attracted to the revolutionary ideals of a militant group with their demands of self-determination for their community. The film details in stark realism how young boys were picked up from their homes and workplaces by the Indian Army on mere suspicion of being a militant or a terrorist. The dreaded military law — the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) — which facilitates extra-judicial power to the armed forces to question or detain anyone on the faintest suspicion of being a militant, becomes a matter of quotidian conversations among the villagers.
As the young boys are routinely detained by the military and their mothers wail in anxiety over the fate of their sons, Alaari and her mother-in-law help Erak escape at night before the Army can get hold of him. Jwlwi captures the horror of the AFSPA in the region where countless young men were picked up by the Army, and many still remain disappeared or dead. There’s a poignant moment in the film just after Erak’s escape: Alaari is chopping firewood with an axe alongside her mother-in-law, who’s sitting on a murha (cane short stool) in their courtyard, oiling her hands under the sun. Wistfully, she remarks to Alaari, “The men in the house have left one by one. Now the women here have to work as women and also as men”.
Jwlwi, we learn then, is the metaphor for the youth of the land. It is not just the literal rice seed of the farmer, but the future generations that gives hope to the grieving mothers. In the process, Basumatary subverts a very male metaphor of virility (seeds) into a feminine and maternal one. Despite her efforts to save him, her son joins a rebel group and is killed in an encounter with the armed forces. He leaves behind a wife and a toddler, and Alaari refers to her grandson as her ‘seed’.
The trauma and loss due to violence does not just remain a memory in Jwlwi – The Seed — Basumatary transforms it into an afterlife of its own, an afterlife which has, in reality, defied linear temporality and history for many from the region, who are still grappling with the militarised excesses of the nation state. As with Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’, Basumatary looks at the violent past not as a dispassionate observer, but as a subject of this violence. As a survivor herself — whose brother disappeared and is still officially missing — she stares at the past with her mouth open where loss and grief is the debris of the region and its people. Though she ends the film on an optimistic note, the so-called progress or development of the region often marketed by the Indian government cannot proceed till we are able to process the exacting toll of the last few decades. Till then, Alaari’s back or the back of the people from the region will be turned to the future. The afterlives of all that have been lost will remain and will keep returning.
This is not the usual Bollywood fare where narratives from the Northeast have been mostly neglected or misrepresented — Jwlwi – The Seed gives an entry point to an India most audiences are unaware of.
Jwlwi – The Seed screens as part of the 2020 Indian Film Festival of Melbourne from 23–29 October.
Shaheen Ahmed is currently pursuing a PhD in cultural studies from Monash University, Melbourne. She is a writer, curator and artist. Her research areas include decolonisation, Indigeneity, visual studies, photography, feminism, cinema studies, cultures and borderlands. She is also a MIFF Critics-Campus 2020 alum.