Can a movie change the world? By João Antunes

in 9th Mumbai International Film Festival

by Joao Antunes

It’s one of those questions every other filmmaker, film journalist, cinephile or viewer in general made at least once in their lifetimes. Can a movie change the world? Usually, even the most active directors, in terms of social or political intervention through their work, are somewhat sceptical about the real chances a movie has to directly effect precise change.

Behind the Screen (Aideu), directed by Arup Manna, one of the twelve movies in Indian Vista, the competition section of the vast program of Mumbai Film Festival’s 9 th edition, shows us that, after all, it is possible! With qualifications, however: It’s not exactly that this 2006 movie, made in a century where the pure and the naïve are hard to find, has the power to change things. It’s the story of the movie within the movie, produced in the 1930s, that actually changed something in the conservative society where it was made.

Behind the Screen is set in 1935, when Jyotiprasad Agarwalla wanted to make the first Assamese feature film, called Joymoti. The story revolved around a heroine, a brave woman who saves her husband from a tyrannical king determined to eliminate all eligible princes in the most important clans. At the time, all female characters in stage productions were portrayed by male actors in disguise, but this particular director wanted to change things.

Finally, when he was almost ready to abandon his dream – because no girl from a “good family” would have the courage to show up on a movie set – someone told him about Aideu Handique. It all began when a young man from her village promised to show her a “house that sails”. On this never seen boat, Aideu Handique spent a month away from her family, being, in her own words, “almost compelled to act in a talkie”.

Historically, Joymoti is the first Assamese movie and one that changed the world. Not in a pacific way, it must be said. But isn’t it always thus? In reality, on her return, Aideu Handique’s family was banned from all social activity in their community and the girl wasn’t even allowed to enter her parents’ main house. Also, no man had the courage to propose to this young girl after she was seen addressing another man as her “husband” – even if it was only fiction. Therefore, Aideu Handique lived alone all her life.

Joymoti was both the first and last movie made by Aideu Handique, who only saw the remnants of this historical artifact 50 years later. However, she remains a kind of heroine, for her courage – if, ultimately, unconscious – in confronting the moral issues of her time. For example, the primarily school at his village was named after her – even if Aideu was still illiterate at the time of her 2002 death, at the age of 87. Arup Manna, for whom this has long been a dream project, had still time to capture her again on film, shortly before her death, for the beautiful images we see in the beginning of Behind the Screen.

But there’s also another lesson, in this movie. In an era where digital cinema has led many young directors to conclude they don’t need to know the basics of film history and narrative theory, when film journalists, historians and teachers struggle to convince young readers, viewers and students to see as many classic movies as they can, it’s refreshing to see a young director, with only his second feature, care so passionately about this story from the past.

Given this, it must be said Behind the Screen is not what we usually categorize as a great movie, from a cinematic point of view. But can’t we consider its flaws and naiveties as a kind of homage to a movie and a screen persona who, as naïve as they were, still managed to challenge the world around them?