Sanjib Dey’s III Smoking Barrels is being touted as the biggest film of the year from Northeast India. The film’s trailer was recently launched in Guwahati, Assam in the presence of its ensemble cast led by noted the spians like Subrat Dutta and Mandakini Goswami. Dey’s directorial debut is a multilingual film employing a homogeneous blend of six languages, viz. English, Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Nagamese, and Manipuri. The film recently won two major awards at the 7th Assam State Film Awards, bagging Best Film Other Language for producer Amit Malpani and Best Supporting Actress for Mandakini Goswami. The film had earlier won the prestigious Silver Palm Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 12th Mexico International Film Festival.
Having completed its yearlong festival run all across the globe which began with a world premiere at 38th Durban International Festival in July last year, III Smoking Barrels is finally set to release in theaters across India on 21 September, 2018. “The film is an anthology story about Northeast India. It deals with three stages of human life: childhood, boyhood, and manhood. Through these three stages I have tried to portray three issues which are majorly affecting this beautiful region of India,” explains Dey. The film’s three pivotal characters—a girl child caught in armed conflicts, a boy who is addicted to drugs and an illegal migrant involved in elephant poaching—are inspired by real people. “The three major characters of the film are the real people I have met in my life. For example, the boy’s character is based on my own nephew, the son of my deceased sister who sadly passed away during the making of the film. So the film is inspired by real life stories. Although, the events and characters are fictionalised for dramatic reasons, I have tried to keep the essence intact,” reveals Dey.
III Smoking Barrels is entirely shot in the Northeast, sporadically over the course of its shooting schedule that spread across two years. A large part of the film is shot at the international borders of Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar—locations that caused the cast and crew several hardships. Poonam Malpani, who is the film’s line producer, recounts, “I remember once we were shooting in the border area near Bhutan and while everybody was away shooting I stayed back along with my driver in order to make some last minute arrangements for dinner. We suddenly ran out of oil and so the driver had to rush back to get the supplies. It was then that I realized that I was all alone in the middle of a jungle. It was evening time and the local people gathered around the house we were staying at and started drinking liquor. Seeing all this I got a bit clueless and so I just ran inside and locked myself in the room. It was a really scary moment but thankfully they all left after some time to my great relief.” For Dey, who has previously worked on some international projects as well, shooting extensively in the Northeast was an experience of a lifetime. “I hail from this region but for the most part of my career I have been working in Mumbai and so coming back to the Northeast after all these years was really special. The icing on the cake is that my producer also happens to be my childhood friend and it was really his dream to make a film about the Northeast but with a pan India appeal. So I am glad that with III Smoking Barrels we have realised just that,” rejoices Dey.
Producing a film can be a risky proposition for a first time producer but for Amit Malpani it’s like a dream come true. “During my graduation years at Hansraj College back in the ‘90s, I quickly realized that all my friends had great misconceptions about Northeast India. Although, I knew that it was out of sheer ignorance, it still made me feel really bad,” confesses Malpani, whose family has been running tea estates in Assam for last many generations. “I remember once talking to a friend from Nagaland, who was one year junior to me at the college, in Nagamese and I was shocked to see that all my North Indian friends were laughing at me. One of them even commented that he didn’t know that I could even speak the wild tongues. It was an incident that hurt me deeply. From that moment itself I had been carrying this thing in my mind that one day I would do something that could help change the general perception about the region,” recollects Malpani.
In the past some Bollywood films, including Mari Kom, have been criticised for overlooking the local talent when it comes to casting actor for major parts. But III Smoking Barrels has set the record straight by casting the local talent in the pivotal roles such as Siddharth Boro who plays the boy in the second story, NSD alumna Mandakini Goswami, who plays his mother, and Shiny Gogoi who plays the girl child in the first. Boro, a model-turned-actor, observes, “The film highlights some of the major problems that we have been facing in the Northeast but most of the people don’t know about it. It is really heartening to see such kind of hard hitting cinema emerge out of the region and with local talent in it. Hopefully, it will bring greater attention to the region and the problems that we are facing.” Goswamy, reveals, “What drew me to this film initially was its close association to the Northeast. When Sanjib approached me to do the film he was quick to tell me that my character was inspired by his real sister. My biggest challenge was to get hold of the character’s emotional arc and understand the its innermost drives.” Guwahati girl Shiny Gogoi too had to deal with a lot of hardships during the shoot. “The very thought of a child being abducted and plunged into arms conflict is scary. And to think that such things are actually happening is deeply disturbing. So I am glad that such issues are being addressed by a film,” says Gogoi.
For the third story that’s based on a Bangladeshi migrant involved in poaching, Dey has cast a noted Bengali actor and NSD alumnus Subrat Dutta in the pivotal role. “When I arrived for the shoot the first thing that I asked for was to get me checked out of the hotel. Everyone thought at first that I was throwing tantrums. But I couldn’t have essayed my poverty stricken character Mukhtar while staying at such a lavish place. So it took some efforts to convince them to move me to a place away from all the worldly comforts,” reveals Dutta. It was no less challenging for actor Nalneesh Neel to play the character of Ikram, a mute man who assists Mukhtar in his poaching activities. Having played small parts in big budget Bollywood films like Shuddh Desi Romance, Raees, and Fukrey Returns, playing Ikram proved to be a completely different experience for Neel. “Since I was playing a person who can’t speak I had to internalize the emotions for my character. I developed a sign language of my own. I remember watching Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto which gave me the inspiration for my character. Also, I stopped taking bath in the weeks leading to the shoot in order to add greater believability to the character,” reveals Neel.
Other than the film’s realistic approach and meticulpous setting another unique aspect of the film is its choice of folk songs which include an Assamese Borgeet sung by Papon and two Bengali Bauls sung by Karthik Das Baul. Dev Gupta who has written one of the Baul songs reveals, “The director had a specific requirement for a song to be used in the third story based on a tune he had in mind. I was supposed to write the lyrics. The song comes at a point in the story where suddenly these poor people have begun to earn money but through illegal means and so the song is like a warning call, urging them to overcome temptation and stay righteous. It’s sung by Karthik Das Baul and arranged by Anurag Saikia who has also composed the film’s background score along with the Italian composer Michele Josia.”
It is really a pity that over the years not many filmmakers have managed to do justice to the beguiling beauty of Northeast India through their camera lens. One of the major reasons for this inaccessibility is the region’s remoteness from mainland India— connected to the Northeast by just a narrow stretch of land of about 22 kilometers called the Siliguri Corridor. Hopefully, all that will change with III Smoking Barrels. The film’s trailer has already crossed 1.25 million views on social media and as the film approaches its release date, one hopes that it will succeed in creating greater awareness about Northeast India as well as the issues affecting the region.