When Roopa Barua was growing up in Jorhat, Assam, her friends and she would regularly play in tea plantations, along the Brahmaputra, and at the local gymkhana. Every year, when the gymkhana hosted horse races in the month of February, they would all go along to watch them. That the horses — ponies, rather — are semi-feral, and that they swim across the river from the grasslands they inhabit, make this an event unlike any other. “When the British first started these races, they had ponies as well as horses, but now it’s just the former. And, though the ponies are fully grown, they are roughly half the size of thoroughbreds. I’m about 5.5 feet tall, and they’re a bit shorter than me,” says Barua. She had left for the US to study at the age of 18, and much to her surprise, when she returned home a good 17 years later, the tradition — which she thought would have died out — was still flourishing, and being run in the exact same manner. Curiosity piqued, she started to learn more about it.

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“I was fascinated by the fact that these horses live across the river, while the jockeys live in the village, and they only take care of the horses off and on. Almost 80-100 participate in the races annually,” she says. “There are no ships there to bring these horses to the other side, so I asked the jockeys to show me their boats. Then I learnt that these are half-wild horses who swim across the Brahmaputra. It was all just waiting to be documented.”

Barua found eager participants in the gymkhana members, who serve as stewards at the races, and gave her interviews in fluent English. Even the Assamese-speaking jockeys from the village were forthcoming with their stories. By the end of it all, she had over 100 hours of footage, and had to figure out what to retain.

Being a local was definitely an advantage, but there was no way the first-time feature-length documentary maker was going to manage the Herculean task all alone. The enormity of the Brahmaputra, the eight-track and two-kilometre racecourse, and the overall event area of about 50 acres meant that a substantial crew had to be hired.

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Having self-funded the project, Barua did have to hire locals to keep costs low, and to “ask anyone with a DSLR to come along and help”, but she didn’t compromise where it mattered. “I was very clear that if there was anything I wanted to spend on, it was the main camera and edit people, who had prior experience with Bollywood and indie films. There were also three FTII graduates who worked with us.”
But, experience doesn’t always mean that the shoot will be a breeze. The biggest challenge was posed by Barua’s lead actors — the horses — who were as difficult to work with as any A-list Bollywood star worth his stripes. Try all you might to tell them when and how to cross the river, you still have to wait patiently with your cameras in place till they decide it’s time to roll.

Being in proximity to them isn’t much better either. Stand behind them and there’s the fear of being kicked, and in the front, of being bitten if they get frightened. “Look, they aren’t lions or tigers who will kill you. But, a galloping horse can easily take you down.” She was seconds from being knocked down while filming a video for brother Joy Barua’s song, which features in the film. “There’s a scene in which he’s standing in the middle, with horses coming towards the camera from both sides. One of them ran straight at me, and I could well have been trampled if a crew member hadn’t pushed me. I fell, camera in tow, but at least I came out unscathed,” she recounts.

The jockeys, it seems, make little attempt to develop a dynamic with their horses. It’s not like the high-profile races you see in the metros, in which the riders spend hours developing a relationship with their respective steed. The Jorhat race is unique for precisely this reason, and not much has changed over the years. The governor is always at hand to give away the grand prize, and in his absence, an army general does the honours. “Earlier, the whole town would be shut during the race, but not any more. Other than that, it’s like things are stuck in time, but in a good way. Races have to be conducted in a certain manner, so there isn’t much scope for changing things. The men who were jockeys earlier have now been replaced by their sons.”

Watching the rushes of the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking that said sons are schoolboys, but in reality, most of them are in their early twenties. “In the northeast, people don’t tend to grow quickly when they are younger.” And, the fathers? “It’s the opposite. Men who are in their forties look a decade older, because by that time, they start ageing rapidly.”

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Parts of the film are also archival footage, acquired from the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge. “Their people had come here in the 1920s and ’30s with their 9mm cameras and went around taking pictures of these things. I saw some of it on YouTube and set out to get permissions. Thankfully, I didn’t have to go there and sift through volumes of content. Someone directed me to the correct website and I got exactly what I wanted.”

For a tradition that dates back roughly 135 years, little is known about the Jorhat races. Barua admits that it’s because media coverage is mostly just local. “However, two years ago, some experts did come from Kolkata, and they had suggestions like online gambling to expand the reach of our event. Thankfully, the organisers were sensible enough to say no. They are happy with it staying a heritage event.”

The documentary, then, may well be the turning point that ensures the annual event gets its share of the spotlight. The Assamese government — that wasn’t involved with the making of the film — has already shown interest. “They want to show it in school classrooms across the state,” says Barua, who also received an interesting call a couple of months back. “A woman who worked with a horse breeders’ association in Australia saw the trailer online, and wanted to conduct DNA tests on the semi-feral horses.” As we speak, samples are being prepared to send to an expert in Texas.

Doing the festival rounds has also helped immensely. BBC and National Geographic are both interested in the footage. Renting it out, Netflix-style, is another option Barua is considering, before putting up the 65-minute film on YouTube at a later stage. “But first, I’ll finish a year on the festival circuit. I started this March, and want to do it till March 2016.”

Barua’s labour of love took about three weeks to film, but over eight months to edit. “The final film is, maybe, the 42nd cut.” But, she’s always wanted to begin her filmography with a documentary, and is keen to tell a few more stories from her hometown before switching tracks. “I grew up in this town, at this club, and along this river, so I understand the nuances. If these races happened somewhere in, say, Madhya Pradesh, I might not have done that good a job,” she says. “There are so many stories from home that are waiting to be told, so I intend to focus on them first. Now I live in Mumbai, so someday I might do something on this city, too.”