Noise of Silence, India’s first film about the NRC list and a couple excluded from it, along with the story of a Rohingya Muslim girl’s search in India for her mother, releases on 11 December on an OTT platform. Despite its politically volatile themes, director Saif Baidya, who shot the entire film in Tripura, talks to Silverscreen India about how the movie is not political, but about “true stories”.
Shooting in a BJP-ruled State
With OTT platforms now coming under government regulations, Silverscreen India asked Baidya if he expected to face censorship issues from the government.
Baidya said, “Why will there be any problem? I haven’t shown anything that involves politics, I have just brought the true stories, the pain of loss and the struggles of the Assamese people in front of the camera, and the main thing is I wanted to inform people what is NRC.”
In fact, Baidya said that the ruling party Chief Minister had supported the shoot. He said, “The Tripura CM who is from the BJP (Biplab Kumar Deb) has himself had lent support during the shooting and I shot without any interruption or intervention.”
The film’s trailer released on December 8 and ended with a voiceover saying, “The government of our country will not throw out any citizen.” The Chief Minister, said Baidya, had praised the trailer and encouraged him to make more short films and documentaries set in Tripura.
Baidya said he hasn’t tried to show “what is right what is wrong” Instead, he has tried to put up the facts and inform the viewers about what is NRC, while also showing the suffering that the citizens of Assam have been through during the process.
Based on True Stories
In Noise of Silence, a Rohingya refugee girl (played by Puja Jha) crosses the border in search of her lost mother. In a parallel plotline, an Assam-based elderly couple find that their name is not on the NRC list. Meanwhile, a teacher in Assam finds his salary stopped because his name is not on the NRC, and commits suicide for fear of being humiliated.
The idea for the film came to Baidya in 2017, when “news broke out that year of violence and atrocities against the Rohingyas in Burma. Thousands of Muslims, including children, were killed and buried or burned alive.” Baidya’s (then) Assistant Director from Assam, Aditya Bhattacharya, found that his and his mother’s name “did not appear on the NRC list for the past five years (prior to 2017)”. Bhattacharya’s father is in the Indian Army, and his name was on the list.
Baidya said, “Aditya and his mother had to visit the court every month since then. But their hearing was postponed to another date each time. When I heard that, I thought that was a story that needed to be heard.”
A Story from the North East
It was shortly after, in 2018, that Noise of Silence started to come together.
Baidya said, “I came to know that the owner of Drishyam Films and producer of Masaan, Manish Mundra, was looking for a script similar to that of Masaan.” Baidya pitched his idea but Mundra said that he wanted more to the story. By then Baidya had shot his feature film NCR: Chapter One and Chaar Pandraah (currently streaming on Hotstar).
During the film’s release in 2019, NRC became a national issue after the final list of NRC came out in Assam with around 19 lakh people left out of citizenship by the state, and with rising protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Baidya once again pitched the script, but it was rejected again.
Instead, he was told, “Tell me about everyday stories from the North or Punjab (because these stories are the ones that mostly run in the Bollywood).” Somehow, he managed to persuade them.
Baidya wanted to shoot in Assam but he was unable to bring life to the locations there. However, he did find several locations in Tripura that mirrored what he had imagined. Plus, there were places that had never been brought on screen.
Assam and the CAA
Assam is a state that has seen long-standing protests since 1826 leading to the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 signed by Rajiv Gandhi. Initiated by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) who are also leading the anti-CAA protests, the Assam Accord was the pinnacle of a six-year-old historic Assam Movement.
The NRC in Assam traces back to 1951 when the first Census of Independent India was conducted which is the first NRC compiled based on Census. AASU started the movement to protect their culture and language when the Bengalis came to be imposed on Assam during the Bengal partition. The provenance of the tensions between the Assamese and Bengali linguistic communities lies in their state’s own history and continues till date.
For decades the greatest single factor of politics of Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya arguably have been the anxiety of being dominated or overrun by Bengalis. Clause 6 of the Assam Accord assured protection of local rights, culture and language. The basis of the NRC finalised in early 2019 under the supervision of the Supreme Court was also determined from the Assam Accord’s cut-off date. The contradictions between ethnolinguistic politics and religious-nationalist politics advocated by the BJP that made its way into the northeast and tried to give the appropriate anti-outside sentiment, an anti-Muslim turn are now out in the open.
After the Supreme Court passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill(CAB) and turned it into the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the protests in Assam and Meghalaya have been directed only against the CAA while rest of the country has been protesting both the proposed NRC as well as the CAA.
A Film That Is Not Bengali
The film was originally supposed to be titled “Udabaastu” (or “Refugee” in Bengali) but there was concern that it would then be seen as a Bengali film. Half an hour into the first shot on the banks of a river in Tripura, Baidya said they picked “Noise of Silence” instead, and registered it immediately.
Baidya was initially in talks with National awardee Geetanjali Thapa who he thought would be perfect for the role of the Rohingya refugee girl. But with Thapa working on another project, he cast Puja Jha (Jamtara) instead, as an actress who was the right fit for the age of the character. The film also features Firdaus Khan, Ajay Kundal and actors from Tripura’s National School of Drama.
Baidya, who is an engineer-turned-filmmaker, won the Youth National Film Award for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for his fifth film Teenage Year (2013) at India’s Youth National Film Awards. He also , said Noise of Silence was based on true stories. His films Overdose, Ittar and Kali-Bari were an official selection at 7th Dadasahib Phalke Film Festivals in 2017. His short film City of Dreams also won three special festival mention award at the 2017 Dadasahab Phalke Awards.
According to Baidya, this is the first Bollywood film based on the NRC (the National Register of Citizens) and also the first film ever to have been shot entirely in Tripura.
While a theatrical release for Noise of Silence is likely in January 2021, Noise of Silence will be released on MXPlayer by Hungama Play as well as on Airtel Xstream and SonyLIV.