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‘Semkhor’: The Movie at the Centre of Controversy and Discord in Assam

How the award-winning movie turned out to be a point of contention instead of receiving applause and welcomes back home is a complicated story.
The Poster of ‘Semkhor’, the movie under debate. Image source internet, used for representation only.

The Poster of ‘Semkhor’, the movie under debate. Image source internet, used for representation only.

A movie has become a contentious issue in Assam, and there have been protests on the street and on social media where people expressed discords about it. The movie in question is ‘Semkhor’, which is based on the lives and practices of the Dimasa people of the Dima Hasao district of Assam. The hill district, ravaged by torrential rain and landslides earlier this year, witnessed massive protests where people came out with demands of withdrawing the film’s release and seeking an apology from the director Aimee Baruah. Notably, Semkhor has been able to bag accolades at national and international levels. It won the ‘Rajat Kamal’ award at the 68th National Film Awards, while earlier Aimee Baruah had won the best actress award at the Toronto International Women Film Festival. The movie has now been dropped from screening in the PVRs.

How the award-winning movie turned out to be a point of contention, rather than receiving applause and welcomes back home, is a complicated story. The two major allegations against the movie team are misrepresentation of the tribe and a gross violation of child rights. However, the issues surrounding the allegations made against the movie are multifaceted.

Let’s start at the beginning. Addressing a press conference in November last year during the 52nd International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, director Aimee Baruah said that the film was based on reality about the ‘Semsa’ tribe who live in the village ‘Semkhor’ in Dima Hasao. She went on to speak about how the majority of the people are still utterly backwards and pursue some dangerous social practices. People of the remote village of Semkhor, according to Baruah, still practice some grossly patriarchal norms, and women are considered machines of reproduction. Nonetheless, she also said that the people there are living amidst what real happiness is, away from the modern day living standards.

However, after the controversies and the protests broke out, Aimee Baruah changed her earlier view in an apology message through her Facebook post where she wrote: “Although the plotline of my film "Semkhor" was created on the basis of information that we collected from newspapers, books, magazines and a few individuals, fact remains that the story is completely fictional. It has never been our intention to hurt anyone's feelings or self-respect through this film. I simply attempted to draw the attention of our society to the beauty of the location, the local language, the attire and so on. Nonetheless, we sincerely apologise if we have hurt anyone in any way.” However, her statement in the IFFI resonated that she made several visits to the place and interacted with the people in order to understand how they are, and how they think and live.

The other burning point is the death of a two-month-old baby who was cast in a shot of the movie. This issue came to light only two days ago. Notably, the movie was shot during the last quarter of 2020, when there were partial restrictions due to the pandemic. And for about two years, nobody knew about the baby. It only came to light when Daniel Langthasa, an elected member of the N C Hills Autonomous Council, Dima Hasao, investigated independently into it. Daniel recorded the statements of the parents of the baby through his Facebook account. The parents reportedly said that their baby died after the shooting. In a scene in the film, the baby was drenched in a river. The parents alleged that after their baby came home from the shoot, he developed a fever, and after few days he died. The parents also said that Aimee Baruah and the movie team did not talk to them even once after the shooting was over. However, they reverted their comments afterwards, said they were paid by the team, and appealed not to talk about them and their baby anymore.

After Daniel Langthasa’s Facebook post, the movie was fiercely contested, leading Baruah to post the apology message reversing what she said earlier in the IFFI press meet. The movie has also been dropped from PVRs now. Notably, Dimasa organisations also wrote a memorandum addressing the President of India to halt the film’s screening in theatres.

Samarjit Haflongbar, an ex-MLA from Haflong, while speaking to Newsclick, gave a brief account of the history. “After getting defeated by the Ahoms, the Dimasa who came from Dimapur first settled at Semkhor, and hereafter, some migrated towards Maibong. Some continue to live at Semkhor. They may be a bit backward, but we all are one—Dimasa. Some are now residing in the Cachar district, whom we call the Barmans, and those in Nagaon district (Hojai region) are called the Temrasas. Similarly, those at Semkhor are known as the Semsas. We all belong to the Dimasa community. Our customs and culture are almost similar.”

Haflongbar said about the portrayal of women in the movie, “Women have a higher place in our society. We don’t have any tradition of dowry. How can the movie be a fiction, as the director told later, when it portrayed our dresses and mentioned the Semsas?”

He pointed to a specific scene of the movie where “It was depicted that in case the mother dies during childbirth, a newborn girl is buried alive, which is a totally false depiction of the Dimasas.” Haflongbar said that this scene should be removed from the movie immediately. He also said that what Aimee Baruah had said in the press meet was bogus. There are schools in Semkhor village, and there are also instances of students coming out with brilliant results in school examinations.

Haflongbar did not forget to bring in a political angle and mentioned that Ranu Langthasa of the BJP has been winning to the autonomous council for the past sixteen years, ever since Semkhor village became a constituency in 2007. He also demanded compensation from Baruah for the baby’s family.

Protest in Haflong against ‘Semkhor’

Protest in Haflong against ‘Semkhor’

Newsclick also spoke to Daniel Langthasa, who unveiled the story of the baby's death after the shooting of Semkhor. He said—“Even before the Dimasa people got to see the movie after it was released in Guwahati, it was screened publicly in various festivals. And after watching it, the contentions grew, especially on the burial of a newborn girl along with her mother.” Langthasa also mentioned other scenes with a false depiction, including that of the priest (Hojai in Dimasa language) during ‘Madai Huba’ (which is an indigenous worship ritual of the Dimasas). According to him, these kinds of portrayals, especially of the women and the revered ‘Hojai’ irked the community, and they came out on the streets demanding ‘Justice’.

Apart from cultural misrepresentation of the Dimasas, the baby's death is widely contested. Were the provisions of child rights grossly violated in the entire process – this is among the questions being discussed widely in Assam. Langthasa said the baby's parents claimed on camera that they did not sign any agreement. Langthasa said that the matter should be followed seriously by legal experts.

Newsclick approached child rights’ activists to learn about the provisions. Miguel Das, a child rights’ activist based in Guwahati, said that the primary responsibility should be put on the parents. “How come they let their two-month-old child be taken for shooting, that too while knowing about the scene?” Miguel asked. He went on to give a message to all the parents to be more cautious only to avoid such unfortunate incidents in future. However, Miguel raised a pertinent point about the lacking of a clear child artist policy in the Indian film industry. He said that it is high time such policies are formulated immediately.

However, Deba Prasad Sarma, secretary of the Red Cross in Guwahati and former manager of Save the Children, told Newsclick, “There is no clarity anywhere to pinpoint who is responsible the most. Even the UN convention mentions the responsibility of ‘duty bearers’. The duty bearers can be the parents, the society at large, the school or anything. The issue here is whether the recommended precautionary measures were followed. The laws also mention the provisions of such measures. Not following them could be a crime. We are not even clear whether the Semkhor team followed those or not. In fact, nobody knows till now.”

Commenting further, Sarma said, “Blaming only the parents for not taking full responsibility is not enough. Can we simply ignore the socio-economic factors? Many parents may not even know about the rights or the directives or the judicial provisions or the risks and dangers associated with such activities. The Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) says that there should be child protection committees at the level of every village. What is the reality of it, we all know.”

It appears that team ‘Semkhor’ very likely have missed many aspects. The cultural portrayal of the Dimasas in the movie has been severely contested in Assam, especially by the Dimasas. The death of the child, which came to light just a few days before, is also deeply concerning. As Deba Sarma said, we know little about whether the movie team followed the measures correctly. In their memorandum to the President of India, the Dimasa organisations alleged that the movie team did not take permission from a magistrate before casting the baby, which is required under the Child and Adolescent Labour (prohibition and regulation) act, 1986. The memorandum said it is a clear case of violation of the laws.

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