Acclaimed filmmaker Jwangdao Bodosa was one of the jury members of the 44th National Film Awards in 1997. He remembers two entries, Rag-Birag and Adajya, which enchanted the jury. Both featured the contributions of Assamese cinematographer Mrinal Kanti Das, who died in 2004.
“Out of all the entries received nationwide, two Assamese films had grabbed the attention of the jury members for their striking visuals,” Bodosa recalled. “But the producers did not consider it worthwhile to nominate the film in the category of best cinematography. The jury members were further startled by the fact that both the films were shot on 16MM and later blown up into 35MM. Hence it was unanimously decided by the members of the jury to give the best cinematography award to Mrinal Kanti Das for both the films.”
Das became the first in his field from Assam to win a National Film Award for cinematography. He has since enjoyed a reputation as one of the most eminent technicians in Assamese cinema. Films such as Rag Birag, Adajya, Baibhav, Koihatir Dulia, Hastir Kanya, Panoi-Jongki and Juye Poora Xoon have all won National Film Awards in different categories.
Born on October 31, 1965, Das might have dedicated his life to wildlife conservation and mountaineering if fate hadn’t intervened. He studied at South Point School and Kendriya Vidyalaya in Khanapara in Guwahati in 1982. Das was selected for the civil engineering course at Jorhat Engineering College, but he abandoned his studies mid-way to join the State Forest Service. He was the youngest officer of his batch.
Das was posted at Ultapani in Kokrajhar, where he met Sanjay Debroy, the Magsaysay Award-winning conservator of forests at Manas National Park. Under Debroy’s tutelage, Das’s love for wildlife blossomed, and he went on to do a wildlife management course in Dehradun.
“He earned admiration as a brave and honest officer who took tremendous risks to challenge poachers,” said Rupam Barua, a journalist and friend. “In 1986, it was Mrinal Kanti Das who, along with three Sherpas, made the first ascent to Mount Menthosa in the Western Himalayas. He was only 22 years at the time.”
Destiny had other plans for the young man. Filmmaker Manjyoti Baruah, the son of the famous Assamese actor Brajen Baruah, died in a tram accident in Kolkata in 1986. Manjyoti Baruah, who was a friend of Das, was in Kolkata for the music recording of the Assamese film Pratima in his capacity as assistant director. Das was an avid watcher of adventure and wildlife films during this period. After Baruah’s sudden death, Das decided to complete his friend’s filmmaking dream. He enrolled for cinematography at the Film and Television Institute of India in 1988 and took leave from the forest service to attend the course. His best-known predecessor from the state was Indukalpa Hazarika, who shot Padam Barua’s Gonga Chilonir Pakhi and Bhabendranath Saikia’s Sandhyarag.
Das introduced new techniques of cinematography and lighting to Assamese cinema through his artistic compositions and sensitivity to native nuances. Assamese actor Biju Phukan gave Das his first break on the television show Deuta. The first Assamese film that Das shot was Mimanxa, directed by Sanjib Hazarika.
Das won the National Award for his second and third films, Rag-Birag and Adajya, respectively, in 1997. Besides arthouse films and documentaries, Das also worked in mainstream productions such as Hiya Diya Niya, Nayak, Mon, Anyo Ek Jatra, Gun Gun Gane Gane, Anurag, Asene Konoba Hiyat, Sneha Bandhan and Sapon.
Among the films that Das shot was Baibhob, the debut feature of Manju Borah. Baibhob won Borah her first National Film Award in 1999. “I prepared myself for my first independent film in all aspects,” Borah told Scroll.in. “Mrinal was very helpful. He pointed out the sequences that could be avoided or improvised. Though I was new and I had no technical knowledge of shot taking, Mrinal made it easy and comfortable for me. He showed me each and every frame of his compositions and if I wanted any changes, he would readily agree with me. With a 16mm camera, he gave gorgeous results.”
Das had a flair for capturing the nuances of Assamese culture, recalls Hemanta Das, the director of the National Film Award-winning documentary Koihatir Dhuliya in 1999. “Because of Mrinal, I have been able to work peacefully and creatively,” Hemanta Das said. “He succeeded in bringing out the local colours and flavours in the film. He was hard-working, innovative and knew his work well.”
Given his talent, Das could have worked in Mumbai, but he chose to make Assam his base despite several challenges and obstacles. “Mrinal Kanti had even helped a producer complete his project by refusing his own remuneration and helping the producer financially,” said the cinematographer’s wife, Rubee Das. “That money had been kept aside for an emergency since we were expecting our child.”
Das persevered with his passion for cinema during the production of Panoi Jonky, the first film in the Mishing language, Rubee Das said. “The crew would shoot only in day light, eat rice and boiled leaves three times a day, and go to sleep in the evening as soon as the sun set since there was no facility for electricity at night,” she said. “There were no toilets around, no tea, no cereal, no snacks. He couldn’t call me for weeks because there was no connectivity.” Mrinal Kanti Das returned home after the shoot with malaria, but he bounced back soon enough to shoot Nishiddha Nodi, one of the first Assamese colour films to be shot in low key light.
“By that time, we were left with no money for the birth of our child,” Rubee Das said. “I was all alone throughout my pregnancy, it still gives me pain. Mrinal could hardly contribute anything to the family as he was always away for shooting and we were facing financial constraints. At the end, we learnt to be happy and content.”
Das also worked extensively in television. He made the first song-based serial for Doordarshan Guwahati soon after completing his FTII course. The 13-episode series Rodali was based on classic melodies performed by singers such as Dipali Borthakur, Birendra Nath Dutta, Jayanta Hazarika, Tafazzul Ali and Pulak Benarjee. The series used poetry, painting and drama to revive interest in the songs.
Das’s tireless efforts also resulted in a six-episode series on popular poet Hiren Bhattacharjya from his Sahitya Academy Award winning book Xoisor Pothar Manuh, the eight-episode show based on Ajit Baruah’s novel Brahmaputra Etyadi, and the documentary on the Mishing called Noi Poriya Collage.
“Television provided him the space to get closer to nature and portray it more beautifully,” Rupam Barua said. “He was equally respectful of television and celluloid productions.”
A dream project that remained unfulfilled because the producer backed out was a biopic on the poet Hiren Bhattacharya. Undeterred by the project’s failure, Das embarked on Aranyat Boroxun, based on a movement to conserve a rain forest in upper Assam. Das planned to shoot the movie throughout the different seasons. After shooting one portion, Das travelled to Upper Dihing and Joypore for the second schedule.
On September 3, 2004, Das and his team were travelling in a Tata Sumo vehicle to scout for a location. The team was supposed to spend the night in Moran and proceed to Arunachal Pradesh the next morning. The Tata Sumo collided with a tempo on the highway, and Das fell out of the vehicle as he was sitting in the front seat. He was later taken to a nearby hospital, where he was declared dead. Around 10% of the film, or 20 minutes, had been shot.
After Das’s untimely demise, his wife and friends set up a foundation in his name. “The foundation was designed to work as a non-governmental organisation, but registration is pending for technical reasons,” Rubee Das revealed. “We organise activities in fits and starts depending on funds. We have arranged lectures, seminars and screenings and collaborated with festivals, film societies and college film clubs. We want to sponsor students in film schools and fund new cinematic ventures, but we have a long way to go.”
(All photos courtesy Rubee Das.)