A journalist from Mumbai travels to Majuli, Assam, to investigate the disappearance of a popular and charismatic activist friend, who may have been killed by United Liberation Front of Assam (Ulfa) separatists. Did you just say Sanjoy Ghose? Yes, Bidyut Kotoky’s feature debut Ekhon Nedekha Nadir Xipaare (As The River Flows) is loosely based on the Ghose case, but the film-maker also explores other issues plaguing the state. Sanjay Suri’s Abhijit walks into a web of sorrow caused by disappearances, extrajudicial killings and economic frustration caused by poor development.

photoGhose was abducted in early July 1997 in Majuli, where he had been working on developmental issues. His body was never found. Kotoky refers directly to the Ghose case—a character is shown reading Sanjoy’s Assam, a collection of his diaries published posthumously. Kotoky tells his story with simplicity and sincerity. However, his decision to make two versions of the film, in Hindi and Assamese, and cast non-Assamese actors in the main roles didn’t impress the National Awards jury (apart from Suri, the film stars Bidita Bag, Nakul Vaid, Raj Zutshi and Victor Banerjee). They rejected Ekhon Nedekha Nadir Xipaare, saying it didn’t qualify as an Assamese film. Audiences in Assam, where the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) production will be released on 14 September, can judge the movie’s authenticity for themselves, the 40-year-old film-maker tells Mint. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Why did you base your debut feature on Sanjoy Ghose’s murder?

In the late 1990s, I was in Majuli to shoot a few documentaries. That was around the time Sanjoy Ghose disappeared. I spoke to people to understand the backdrop against which this happened. I was busy making documentaries, but I also wanted to make a feature film. When I decided to write the script, I asked myself, what is there within me that will get somebody else interested? I realized that it was the North-East.

This (the Sanjoy Ghose murder) was a story that needed to be told. I had already done a lot of work on him. I met his wife and clarified that my film wasn’t based on his life but inspired by it.

What is your approach to the issues facing Assam?

It is a sad situation. Conflict zones inspire the greatest stories in literature and cinema, but if someone looks at Assam in the decade between 2000 and 2010 50 years from now, it will look like a society that was in love and that was shopping at malls.

It is said that it takes 50 years after a major conflict for a good book or a good film to come out. Perhaps the wounds are too raw in Assam and we don’t want to face the situation. But running away from the problem isn’t the solution.

Whenever you look at any insurgency-affected area, you know the point of view of the insurgents because they thrive on propaganda. The government has to counter the insurgents, so they too get into propaganda. But nobody bothers about the common people who are sandwiched between these two groups. Nobody asks them for their point of view.

What challenges did you face during the shoot?

We shot in 2009 in Majuli and Jorhat. We had to leave Majuli after a couple of days because of an attack by suspected Ulfa insurgents—a grenade was thrown at the resort where we were staying, which happens to be right next to a police station. The intention seemed to be to scare us off. I got concerned because so many people had come to Assam on my trust. But we got a lot of help from the locals—the entire village youth guarded our resort while we were there.

Why did you choose to shoot the story in Assamese and Hindi and cast non-Assamese actors?

I have grown up in Assam but I would like to see more of a universal story. I wanted the movie to be seen at the national level. Whether it’s Iraq or Pakistan or Afghanistan, the story is the same. This film was originally supposed to be in Hindi, so I cast non-Assamese actors. Later, (the producer) NFDC suggested making it in Assamese also. We shot the same sequences twice. Forty per cent of the film is common, while 60% has been shot twice.

The National Awards jury rejected the film on the ground that it wasn’t Assamese enough. Is that fair?

Members of the jury of the National Awards are not supposed to give any explanation as to why they have selected or rejected a film. Yet, two jury members went to the media. What can I say—the jury’s decision is final.