Documentary channel

An old-new spin on the Ramayana in the documentary ‘The Broken Song’

The Mumbai International Film Festival pick, directed by Altaf Mazid, stages episodes from the Karbi tribe’s version of the epic.

Assamese filmmaker Altaf Mazid’s The Broken Song (the original title is Sabin Alun) is part of the Mumbai International Film Festival, the biannual showcase of documentaries, but it might actually remind you of a feature film.

The Broken Song examines the oral singing traditions of the Karbi tribe from Assam. One of the stories that has passed down the generations is a local version of the Ramayana epic, in which Sita is Sinta, the brothers are named Ram and Lokon, and the villain is Ravon. Sabin is the other name for Shurpanakha, whose nose is cut off by Laxman, forcing Ravana into taking revenge for her humiliation by abducting Sita.

Rather than a straightforward information-led documentary that introduces us to the Karbi tradition and includes interviews with the community members, Mazid gets performers to sing and enact episodes from the epic. Except for two sequences featuring interviews, the 52-minute Public Service Broadcasting Trust production plays out as a musical set in contemporary times. The Broken Song is a bit like Garin Nugroho’s Opera Jawa, a 2007 musical inspired by the Indonesian version of the Ramayana. Opera Jawa used the epic to address gender discrimination and environmental degradation. Mazid is far more playful in his treatment. Ravon is depicted as a gangster who is surrounded by photographs of himself (a clever way of referring to his many heads), while Ram wears glasses and looks clueless when Sinta is kidnapped.

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The documentary brilliantly captures with minimal resources the manner in which the Karbis have merged the themes of the Ramayana with their animistic tenets and agricultural lifestyle. Sinta, for instance, emerges out of a peahen’s egg rather than the earth. She drives off into the fields on a tractor at one point.

Mazid’s inventive approach to the documentary form is also evident in his 2012 film Rahasyar Bitchaku (Seven Hundred Zero Zero Seven). The film is ostensibly a profile of pulp writer Ranju Hazarika. Mazid distills the essence of the author’s wildly imaginative universe by staging cheerfully tacky and exaggerated scenes from Hazarika’s novels.

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Mazid wrote about films before making them. In 2004, the former critic reconstructed Joymoti, the first Assamese film, from existing footage. In an older short, Mazid takes a couple from Guwahati to Las Vegas in the vehicle known as imagination.

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(The Broken Song clip courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.)

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