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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



III Smoking Barrels-Stories from Far East India, Review: Barrelful of empathy

III Smoking Barrels-Stories from Far East India, Review: Barrelful of empathy

Roman three in the title refers to the fact that the film is an anthology of three stories, each exploring a different stage in life--a child involved in armed conflicts, a boy in drug peddling and a man entangled in elephant poaching. All three are set in the North-East of India where insurgency and underground movements thrive, aided in part by the fact that the Indian states of the region share borders with as many as five countries: Bhutan, BanglaDesh, China, Nepal and Myanmar. All three tales are painstakingly developed and the inspiration from reality makes them highly credible.

A pre-teens girl named Janice gets inside the car of an engineer, Anuraag Dutta, while he goes to relieve himself on a long-drive from Nagaland to his home in Guwahati, where his wife is about to give birth. She sits on the back-seat, wields a gun and commands the engineer to take her with him. They communicate in various languages. Instead of getting terrified, the engineer wins her trust and she gradually opens up. It turns out that she was kidnapped from outside her school and initiated into terrorism at gunpoint, and even made to kill two ‘outsider’ businessmen. She and another girl escaped, but the girl was shot dead, while Janice managed to survive. Dutta does all he can to win her over, but she is in a dilemma. If she goes home, she will be found and her parents will be shot dead.

Sanjib Dey, the director, has also written the script, with dialogue by Tasadduk Ahmed and Dev Gupta. Tassadaq makes an appearance in this episode as a Police Officer. The narrative unfolds at just the right pace and there are three or four neatly interwoven twists in the tale. Performances by Indraneil Sengupta and Shiny Gogoi perform to order. It was so easy to make this a bang-bang and chase-chase episode, but Dey and his team eschew all such options.

After a very good start, the second episode drags a little, bringing in the ‘regular jobless youth drifting into drugs and guns, while his mother suffers from high anxiety and fear’ syndrome. Cross border smuggling of drugs is surely a cause for deep concern and worry, but no country has been able to eradicate the menace completely.

Siddharth Boro is Donnie, the young man after easy money, spending it on drugs, bars and rock concerts. He has some humane moments with his mother, which is where the actor in him gets to surface. Vikram Gogoi as Chiru, the peddler for who Donnie does the pick-ups and drops, looks the archetypal peddler. Mandakini Goswami as Nilima, his mother, is a gifted artiste. Disha Thakur plays Ria, who had an interest in him but leaves him to his wayward ways. She is confident and beautiful. Vikram Gogoi and Bijou Thaangjam are cast as other drug dealers. The two actors whom Donnie threatens with a gun when they are unable to pay him drug money one day are Biplab J. Doley and Boynao Sou. Jhon Narzary is a menacing Karzi, the international drug supplier. This story is the most formulaic of the three, though less generic than many pot-boilers of the drug mafia thriller genre.

Poverty is the big enemy of Mukhtar, a man who barely makes a living, selling grass. Add to that his frequent visits to the local country bar, and his wife Morjina (Marjina as pronounced in the North-East) is more than justified in having regular spats. A goldmine opens up before him when a friend he meets at the bar offers him an assignment, supposedly at a hotel construction project. But when he meets the Boss, he is told that he will have to kill tusker elephants and bring the tusks to him, for a fee of Rs. 20,000 each. (The region is rich in elephant count, but the species is protected under Indian law, this attracting high premium). He can also have an accomplice, who will be paid likewise.

Mukhtar resists at first but does not waste much time in agreeing, since he has handled rifles in the past, and the sum offered gags his conscience. He asks the mute Ikram to join him. Ikram’s conscience turns out to be stronger, but it crumbles, nevertheless. One hunt leads to another, and the duo pile up a small fortune. Morjina is impressed and the couple make love, leading to Morjina’s pregnancy. It is not going to be hunky dory any more, as you can feel in your bones.          

Subrat Dutta is an impressive Mukhtar, Amrita Chattopadhyay as Morjina, the shrew, is in her element. Nalneesh as Ikram conveys so much with his grunts. Rajni Basumatary plays the country bar owner, quite credibly so. Siddharth Mukherjee as the Boss who watches cricket, is part of the underground and yet poaches elephants is a man of few words and fits the role. Chetana Das is cast as Razia Khala, the lady who comes to look after Morjina when Mukhtar is out elephant hunting. It’s a small role. Part III of the smoking barrels trilogy is the most engaging and stimulating.            

Cinematography by Anil Akki is competent. Editing by Dattatraya Ghodke and Kathikuloth Praveen keeps the film interesting in overview, but the middle portion tends to drag a bit. The rock concert and the bar scenes could have been shorter. At two hours and seven minutes, it is about 15 minutes longer than what would be prescribed for a crispy feel. Art Direction by Phatik Barua and Bijou Thaangjam matches the life-style of the characters.

It might appear odd that a film that has guns, guitars and girls is not about any of these three constituents. III Smoking Barrels-Stories from Far East India is about human conditions, poverty, dilemmas, easy money and, above all, empathy. Don’t worry about the language issues—sub-titles are there to make it easy.

A must watch surprise in the mainstream mould, such films erase the line between art and commercial cinema, dealing with serious issues with slick production values, well-worked out screenplay, high class direction and performances that can match the best in the business.

Rating: ****    



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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