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Assam teen had Oscar on vision board. His film The Horse From Heaven just got closer

A mix of nationalism, dogged determination, and an incident from Maharshi’s grandmother’s funeral played a big role in the audacity of his teenage ambition.

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When kids his age were dreaming of becoming engineers, doctors, or getting an MBA degree, Maharshi Tuhin Kashyap had erected a ‘vision board’ in his room. It had ‘80 per cent’ scribbled on it next to a sketch of an Oscar figurine. His father had promised him a Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’ bike if he scored 80 per cent marks in his Class 12 board exams.

And the Oscar figurine? That dream took shape when Hollywood director Danny Boyle won the coveted Academy Award in the Best Picture category for Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Maharshi, who was studying in Class 8 at Guwahati’s Shrimanta Shankar Academy at the time, decided that he would make an Oscar-worthy film.

But no one — least of all Maharshi — thought that the lofty dreams of a teenager in Guwahati would play out in real life. While he never got the ‘Bullet’ bike (falling short of the target by 2 per cent), he is though, nearly 15 years later, one step away from realising his second childhood dream. Maharshi’s 15-minute short The Horse From Heaven is a 2023 Oscars contender for Best Live Action Short Film. 

The Assamese-language film, about an Ojapali performer who comes across a donkey on his way back from a performance and decides it is a horse, is a tale about loneliness and the power of imagination. In the skilled and convincing words of the protagonist, Kuxhol, his horse is similar to the Hindu god Indra’s transport – Uchchaihshravas, a seven-headed flying horse. He names the animal Goti, which means ‘speed’ in Assamese.

Before the Oscars shortlist, The Horse From Heaven won the top prize at the Bengaluru International Short Film Festival (BISFF) 2022, beating Varun Grover’s Kiss

“I was in a school assembly when I heard that Slumdog Millionaire won an Oscar. But later, I realised a foreign director had come and made a film on India and won,” the 27-year-old director said. He remembers thinking to himself, “This is not done. I will be the Indian director who will make an Indian film that wins an Oscar.”

So a mix of nationalism, dogged determination, and an incident from his grandmother’s funeral played a big role in the audacity of his teenage ambition.

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Changes that seemed surreal

From a teenage ‘gunda’ who dropped out of engineering school to a film student on the brink of international fame, Maharshi’s life has changed over the past few weeks as he juggles interviews and promotes his film. He’s currently a final-year student at the iconic Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI) in Kolkata. In fact, The Horse From Heaven is part of his final-year project.

“I sometimes wonder if I am like Kuxhol too, and I believe that my film is like his horse, but actually, critics do not like it because it is a donkey. So, the nomination gave me validation,” Maharshi said.

The sweeping changes in his life are more surreal than any plot. Reporters from newspapers to television channels are clamouring for an interview. He never thought his film would one day be shown to students at the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK), the world’s oldest film school, founded in 1919. 

“In my teens, I was a bit of a troublemaker, a ‘gunda’, the kind you see a lot in Guwahati, or what we call here a ‘gone case’,” Maharshi said. In Assam, ‘gunda’ is often a term given to teenagers who get into a lot of scrapes. As a student, Maharshi was not sure what he wanted to be in life. After the 12th board exam, he asked his father for a laptop and a camera. 

“For the engineering dropout, who was amazed by his first brush with making a film to a director whose film is in the Oscar race, Maharshi has evolved,” said Pulkit, his classmate at SRFTI. “His politics and worldview have probably changed the most. I have seen a tremendous capacity for receiving criticism and growth in him,” Pulkit added.

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Making of an ‘Oscar-worthy-film’

Long before The Horse From Heaven, film critic Parthajit Baruah recognised Maharshi’s raw talent and untrammelled imagination.

“Even before his nomination, when I watched his short film, Kaan Phus Phusot Phus Phusoni (Poetry of Whispers), I thought to myself that he is a talent to watch out for. My words just foreshadow what happened next,” said Baruah, who is the author of Jyotiprasad, Joymoti, Indramalati and Beyond: History of Assamese Cinema

The Horse From Heaven, titled Mor Ghorar Duronto Goti in Assamese, shows the Ojapali tradition – a shamanistic type of indigenous folk dance from Assam, which is one of the oldest art forms of the state.

The idea is based on an incident in Maharshi’s life when he and his father were visiting their ancestral home in Barpeta. His grandmother had passed away, and the family had gathered to pay their respects. While he was sitting next to a pond with his father, a man came out of nowhere and started talking about his horse.

“The incident was so absurd that it remained in my mind long after. Eventually, it became the subject of this film,” said Maharshi.

The story convinced lead actor and veteran performer Atul Pachoni to act in the film. Pachoni read every new draft of the script and gave input on how his character should behave. 

Pachoni’s performance as Kuxhol breathes life into the film, which seamlessly merges the mythological with the contemporary in a tragi-comic manner, something that even the Ojapalis do.

And though Maharshi was unsure of how his film would be received, he is no stranger to awards. His short film, Kaan Phus Phusot Phus Phusoni, won the best student film award at the 2019 International Moving Film Festival in Iran, out of 3,046 entries from 120 countries. “I was in love with this girl who talked like a poem. It’s an attempt to express that poetic experience through cinema,” he said.

Maharshi has competed with Bollywood heavyweights such as Brahmastra, which grossed Rs 425 crore worldwide. He collaborated on the screenplay and dialogue for the Assamese film Bulu, which opened in theatres on 9 September, the same time as Brahmastra.

And despite an ‘A’ certificate, Bulu ran for a month with multiple housefull shows —  not a common feat in Assam. It earned Rs 75 lakh at the box office.

The film, about three young men from Assam who lose their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic and decide to make an erotic or ‘blue’ film to earn money, won the hearts of critics and viewers. They were bowled over by the contemporary, mature outlook of the film and the handling of the subject.

“While writing the screenplay for Bulu, we were clear that we were going to write about men, and the film would be a reflection of our society. Women will write about themselves, we are not equipped to do that,” Maharshi said. But the stories he is telling have ignited the hopes and dreams of independent filmmakers in Assam.

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Vibrant pulse of storytelling

Many in the local film industry say that this will be a turning point in the kind of content that will be created in the future. Critic Baruah sees Maharshi as a gem of a new kind of movie-making. 

But Assam’s filmmakers have been laying the groundwork for several years now. In 2017, Rima Das’s Village Rockstars was India’s official entry to the Oscars. This one-woman production inspired filmmakers to break away from Bollywood-inspired masala films and opt for stories offering a more realistic worldview of the state and its people. 

That same year, Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi also created a ripple with its reimagining of Assamese folk stories. It’s not a ‘usual’ Assamese film and looks at a very subversive universe. They are children’s tales but Kothanodi looks at the underbelly of the story, and the concept of motherhood itself, with nurture being replaced by the predatory.

The foundation was set, and soon, young guns like Maharshi decided to take up the mantle of showcasing not just Assam but its vibrant pulse of storytelling, myriad socio-cultural practices, and despair tinged with hope. 

Multiple languages within Assam are finally getting a place in the state’s film industry, and there is at least one Assamese film being released every weekend. In this context, Bulu’s success is crucial. It is not simply the triumph of the director or writers, but of the possibility of collaborative cinema, of newer kinds of stories and storytelling.

“Assam has so many vibrant communities who speak different languages. I want to make films with them, instead of on them,” Maharshi said, still coming to terms with the fact that his amateur ‘vision board’ has led to this moment.

Maharshi’s parents are also trying to understand how a film about a horse that is not a horse has made its way to the Oscars. “When we watched the film, we told him we loved it. But we were wondering who makes a film about a horse?” said his mother, Bharati Pathak.

But then, when wishes are horses, an Oscar could very well fly Maharshi’s way.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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