IN THE LAND OF POISON WOMEN
BY URVASHI BAHUGUNA
“I wanted to bring the focus on aboriginal people, to show that their stories are universal, are no different
from those of people in any other part of the country,” said multiple-award winning Assamese film director Manju Borah, whose newest film, In The Land of Poison Women (2019), is set in a remote part of Arunachal Pradesh. The Peacock spoke with her about disappearing dialects, the uniqueness of her location, and other technical challenges.
Tell us about the region you shot in.
Zemithang, locally known as Pangchen, is the easternmost part of the country on the Indo-China border. It is by the river Nyamjang Chu, which flows down from China, and is surrounded by tall mountains. Pangchen means a place where no sin is committed.
Most residents are Buddhists. Strictly vegetarian. They do not hunt. You see lots of deer, wild boar, birds freely roaming around. Usually people think that in the Northeast, people will eat all non-vegetarian. They’ll be surprised to hear that here they don’t even eat the fish in the river.
This community is made up of just 5000 people, and it is so important for the country because they’re the shock absorbers. They’re only 1.5 kilometers from the border. If another country enters India from that side, these people will suffer the most. I felt it was very sad that these people are not getting even basic education or medical facilities.
Maybe they don’t want to develop a place that the enemy can take over at any time. I have seen a lot of military around. The people are very poor.
Even small students go for daily labor collecting stones from Nyamjang Chu for construction. The males get 500 rupees a day, the females 300 rupees a day. Since they get that cash, they’re least bothered about education. Some civil servants are working really hard to support the country by working in these regions where it can be -40, -50 degrees.
What were some of the challenges of shooting this film?
My out-of-station team (more than thirty-six people) and equipment came from Bombay and Guwahati. It took 4 days to reach the place. It was snowing so heavily they couldn’t cross Sela Pass (the world’s second highest motorable road). I had to send the army. It was a very expensive effort. I was literally crying. But the show must go on. We shot in April and it was -8 degrees. I warned my crew. Somehow some of them didn’t carry enough warm clothes. I had to buy jackets, socks, caps. Accommodation was a challenge because there are no hotels. We carried thirty sets of beds. There were some old, broken offices that were lying vacant. We made temporary toilets, connected some pipes for water supply. For only two days, I could speak to my children and husband. Other thirty days we were literally cut off.
The dialect in the film, Pangchenpa, is only spoken by 5000 people?
That’s the beauty of this country. I was at the opening of the National Museum of Indian Cinema. In some ways, Modi is a very modern Prime Minister. He said, “India has 700 different dialects. If filmmakers make films in those dialects, it is anthropologically important. We come to know about places through cinema. People become curious, and that’s how our civilization grows.” I am so happy when films are made in dialects spoken by aboriginal people.
Was it hard to shoot in a language you didn’t know?
Some words were familiar to me and I had a language assistant. Editing the film was a struggle. My concentration level and my editor’s concentration level had to be so severe. We had to follow the dialogues by sound. The first round the language expert was there, but not in the final editing when we had to shorten the film. Removing shots and then joining shots together in a way that the words made sense was very difficult. Ultimately, when I showed it to my language expert, he said not a single dialogue was repeated.
In The Land Of Poison Women (2019) screens today at 3:00 PM at the festival multiplex Screen II.
llustration by Oriana Fernandez. You can follow her work on instagram.com/oriana_fernandez_/
Read more from The Peacock: Issue 7 (2019) here: