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Jahnu Barua’s Journey as a Film-maker

20 Aug, 2020 | Short Features by Parthajit Baruah
Jahnu Barua. Image Courtesy: Utpal Datta

The twelve times National Award winning film-maker Jahnu Barua is a voice for the proletariat, subjugated, the rural poor farmers and innocent common people, writes Parthajit Baruah. 

Jahnu Barua emerged as a staunch practitioner of alternative cinema and became the first Assamese to receive an international award, the Silver Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival, for his epoch-making film Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai in 1988. Earlier, the Assamese film Puberun (1959) by Prabhat Mukherjee was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, the first Assamese film to be screened at an international film festival.

In a career spanning almost four decades, Barua has made fourteen features (thirteen Assamese and one Hindi) that have crossed cultural and geographic boundaries. Two of these were adapted from existing works of fiction: Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai (Catastrophe, 1987), from the eponymous novel by Homen Borgohain, and Ajeyo (Invincible, 2014), from a Sahitya Akademi award-winning novel Ashirbador Rong, by Arun Sarma. Aparoopa (1981), Papori (1986), Banani (Forest, 1989), Firingoti (Spark, 1991), Xagoroloi Bohu Dur (It’s a Long Way to the Sea, 1994), Kuhkhal (Price of Freedom, 1998), Pokhi (And the River Flows, 2000), Konikar Ramdhenu (Ride on the Rainbow, 2003), Tora (Tora’s Love, 2004), Baandhon (Waves of Silence, 2012), and Bhoga Khidikee (Broken Window, 2018) are all original screenplays by the director himself. The Hindi film Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (I Did Not Kill Gandhi) was made in 2005. It tells the story of a retired professor struck with dementia, and while the film may not have been successful at the box-office, it won wide critical acclaim and the lead actor (Anupam Kher) received a national and other awards. 

Jahnu Barua emerged as a staunch practitioner of alternative cinema and became the first Assamese to receive an international award, the Silver Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival, for his epoch-making film Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai in 1988.
Jahnu Barua was born on 18 October 1952 in Lakwa Tea Estate, in Khelua Taluk of Sivasagar District in Assam. Just after a few months of his birth, his father, Debeswar Barua, who worked in the Lakwa Tea Tstate, got transferred to Tiloijan Tea Estate. Soon afterwards, his father again got transferred to Ofulia Tea Estate, just 10 km away from Moran town where Jahnu Barua began his primary school education. Barua lived with his father Debeswar Barua and Mother Gunabati Barua, the sixth of eleven children. ‘At our garden, there used to be a monthly entertainment show for the labourers. We watched Hindi films like C.I.D by Raj Khosla here. I enjoyed the film as a child. However, at that stage, I was not really attracted to cinema as a serious art form,’ Jahnu Barua remembers.
It was while pursuing his BSc at B. Barua College, Guwahati, that Jahnu Barua was mesmerized by this magical form of visual media. Gauhati Cine Club, one of the oldest cine clubs in the country, organized a festival where he watched Frederico Fellini’s La Strada, Vittoria de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali.
It was while pursuing his BSc at B. Barua College, Guwahati, that Jahnu Barua was mesmerized by this magical form of visual media. Gauhati Cine Club, one of the oldest cine clubs in the country, organized a festival where he watched Frederico Fellini’s La Strada, Vittoria de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Another film he enjoyed immensely there was the Romanian director Ion Popescu-Gopo’s A Bomb Was Stolen. The desire to become a filmmaker was ignited.

While searching for film institutes in various magazines, he came across the names of some film schools at the Hindustan Year Book. He applied at Lodz Film School in Poland, but did not join as it was a six-year course. Thereafter, he decided to go to FTII, Pune, opting for the course in film direction. While in FTII, Jahnu Barua scripted and directed his first film, his seventeen-minute diploma The F Cycle (1974), based on a popular folk tale. In the film, a village labourer finds an exquisitely adorned antique urn while digging a hillside. He cleans the urn and dreams of becoming an opulent man. Excited with the prospects, he accidentally breaks the urn. The film had Benjamin Gilani, Rama Vij and Tom Alter in the cast.
While in FTII, Jahnu Barua scripted and directed his first film, his seventeen-minute diploma The F Cycle (1974), based on a popular folk tale.
In the same year, he scripted and directed an eleven-minute documentary, Diary of a Race Horse. It documents the life of a racehorse, from the proverbial horse’s mouth. The racehorse, being aware of its relationship with trainers, jockeys, club officials and clients, feels that though they are closely bound to one another, they are living in different worlds. 

After completing the course from FTII, the young Jahnu Barua arrived in Bombay to start his career as a filmmaker. His challenges, everyday struggle to survive and make a living in a big city and later his success have become an inspiring tale for many young filmmakers. Jahnu Barua had to no place to stay in Mumbai. His friend Rani Day Burra, who graduated in the screenplay-writing course from the FTII in 1973, gave Barua her apartment, a fourth-floor flat in the Ganga Vihar building on Marine Drive. Interestingly, Jahnu Barua stayed in that flat for almost eight years, accompanied by Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, and occasional guests like Girish Karnard

Barua started his career as a first assistant director for the film Shaque directed by Aruna-Vikas, who were five years his senior at the film institute. 
 
Aparoopa. Image Courtesy: NFAI.
 
It was as a third-year student at the film institute that Barua decided to title his first feature film Aparoopa. In 1979, he applied for a loan to the NFDC to make the film. Once the loan was sanctioned, he came to Assam to shoot the film in a rural area of upper Assam.
It was as a third-year student at the film institute that Barua decided to title his first feature film Aparoopa. In 1979, he applied for a loan to the NFDC to make the film. Once the loan was sanctioned, he came to Assam to shoot the film in a rural area of upper Assam. But the shooting got stuck after six days because of political unrest in that area. He was asked to leave the place by some unknown people. He could not find identical location anywhere else. But he was determined to make the film. He had to wait for two years to make Aparoopa and its Hindi version (Apeksha).  
Biju Phukan, who played the role of Rana in Aparoopa and Bhadra Phukan in Papori, said to this author, ‘Simplicity was his forte. I observed Jahnu while working with him in two of his films as Rana in Aparoopa and an honest police officer in Papori. He was never flustered. During breaks in the shooting, we used to go the club, and I saw Jahnu dancing away, contrary to the serious mood in the shooting set.’
Interestingly, the idea to make a film on this sensitive issue came when he was a school student. Barua says: ‘It was an incident I witnessed as a child in my village Japihojiya. And some of the confusions I had felt then were still within me. Why did she leave such a nice husband? In the eyes of society, her husband was very nice. Then why could she not adjust to that kind of society? What went wrong? That was during my school days. When I began studying it after a gap of a few years, things became clear. I understood that all of them had done the right thing under special circumstances. When I grew up, I started reconsidering certain social values; I have been exploring man-woman relationships in many of my films, including Aparoopa.’
 
Aparoopa. Image Courtesy: NFAI. 


Biju Phukan, who played the role of Rana in Aparoopa and Bhadra Phukan in Papori, said to this author, ‘Simplicity was his forte. I observed Jahnu while working with him in two of his films as Rana in Aparoopa and an honest police officer in Papori. He was never flustered. During breaks in the shooting, we used to go the club, and I saw Jahnu dancing away, contrary to the serious mood in the shooting set.’


‘Just because you gave my land back, don’t think I’ll vote for you. Don’t think the world around will never wake up,’ cries out Rakheswar, the protagonist of Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai (Catastrophe). His anguish and long-suppressed anger come through distinctly when he strikes at the face of the landlord’s poster pasted on the tree with his spade. The plight of Rakheswar, is struggle to get his land back, is poignantly portrayed in Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai, which won the National award for Best Film. 
‘Just because you gave my land back, don’t think I’ll vote for you. Don’t think the world around will never wake up,’ cries out Rakheswar, the protagonist of Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai (Catastrophe).
After graduating from the film institute, Barua was thinking of making a film set against the rural backdrop of Assam. Although he had lived in Japihojiya only for two years of his childhood, the village exerted a strong influence on him. He had read well-known litterateur Homen Borgohain’s novel Halodhiya Horiya Baudhan Khaiby even before he made his first film and had been ‘searching’ for the character of Rakheswar. After Aparoopa, the film-maker happened to visit the fish market of Silpukhuri, Guwahati. Suddenly, his eyes fell on a man who had come to the market. He observed the man bargaining with a fish vendor. The way he went about doing so reflected the simplicity of a villager. Barua realized that he had ‘found’ Rakheswar! After the man had made his purchase, Barua followed him to his rented house. Through a common friend, Barua learnt that the man was Indra Bania who occasionally acted in theatre. When Barua was casting for Aparoopa, he called Indra for a screen test. He gave him a small role in Aparoopa and also in Apeksha. But Barua refrained from telling him anything about casting him as Rakheswar. ‘Only when I was almost sure that Indra could do justice to the character of Rakheswar did I tell him,’ says Barua. And so was born one of the great characters in Indian cinema. 
 
Ajeyo. Image Courtesy: Jahnu Barua's  personal collection
 
Sanjib Sabhapandit, who played the role of Kuhkhal in the film Kuhkhal, says: ‘Two things of Jahnu Barua have imprinted in my mind – first, what he is going to do in a particular scene, he was absolutely clear, there is no confusion. While doing the role of Kukhal, I was not given the script, but I was said before the scene what I need to do. Secondly, when he is in the set, he feels as if he is in a divine place.'
Sanjib Sabhapandit, who played the role of Kuhkhal in the film Kuhkhal, says: ‘Two things of Jahnu Barua have imprinted in my mind – first, what he is going to do in a particular scene, he was absolutely clear, there is no confusion. While doing the role of Kukhal, I was not given the script, but I was said before the scene what I need to do. Secondly, when he is in the set, he feels as if he is in a divine place. He creates such an environment in the set so that none can use any sort high pitch voice. He himself comes in a neat and clean way, and it can be called an austere environment.”
The image of his mother is often reflected in Barua’s films.
As a socially conscious film-maker, humanity is always in the forefront of his films, and Barua believes that the idea of humanity was born in him when he was in the village called Japihojiya of Sivsagar district where he studied for two years. His protagonists like Rakheswar in Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai (Catastrophe), Powal in Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (It's a Long Way to the Sea), and Dandeswar in Baandhon are ordinary human beings with ordinary human emotions and passions but are given ethical and allegorical dimensions. 
His protagonists like Rakheswar in Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai (Catastrophe), Powal in Xagoroloi Bohu Door (It's a Long Way to the Sea), and Dandeswar in Baandhon are ordinary human beings with ordinary human emotions and passions but are given ethical and allegorical dimensions. 
The image of his mother is often reflected in Barua’s films. He says, ‘In my childhood, I saw my mother managing the entire household chores. Her leadership and wisdom have left an indelible mark in my mind.’ His woman characters like Aparoopa (in the eponymous film), Ritu in Firingati, Mrs Barua in Bonani, Mrs. Khatun in Konikar Ramdhenu, Trisha in Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara and Juree in his short film That Gusty Morning are strong women who are cast in the mould of his mother. Aparoopa, the wife of a well-off tea estate owner, feels suffocated within the four walls of her bungalow. In spite of being part of conventional Assamese society, she elopes with her ex-lover Rana, thus breaking social shackles. In Firingati, Ritu Baruah, a widowed teacher, goes to a village, Koronga, and starts a school, fighting against social and economic injustice. Mrs Khatun in Kanikar Ramdhenu is a caring and loving superintendent of a juvenile home who does not hesitate to reprimand a police officer who comes with a court order and enters the home in a police uniform. Similarly, Trisha and Juree are emotionally strong girls who sacrifice their personal likings for their ailing parents. 
 
Image Courtesy: Jahnu Barua's  personal collection
 
Barua’s films are replete with evocative images, the most recurring of which are the sea, the river and the birds.
Barua’s films are replete with evocative images, the most recurring of which are the sea, the river and the birds. The sea is a strong presence in films like Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door, Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara and Baandhon. Both the sea and life are suggestive of unpredictability. Barua uses the sea as a central symbol for life itself, underlining the importance of never giving up and always moving on. In Bandhoon, when the old couple loses their only grandson in the Bombay terror attack, they sit in a bench facing the sea. Dandeswar says, ‘We are common people. The world is too big for us. We have no choice but to trust it. But like you, I too don’t know why it has betrayed us again!’ Again in Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara, Uttam Chaudhary and his daughter Trisha face the sea and recite Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s poem, ‘Lehron se darr kar nauka par nahin hoti / koshish karne walon ki haar nahin hoti…’ The image of a bird is repeatedly used as a symbol of liberty and captivity in his films like Aparoopa and Pokhi. While the river, a lifeline and a means of survival, is used in his films like Halodhiya Choriya Bau Dhan Khai, Firingati and Pokhi. The river Diroi in Firingati, the river Dihing in Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door and Pokhi are used as recurring images, suggesting the life force of the village people. On the other hand, the child in his films like Halodhiya Choriya Bau Dhan Khai, Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door, Pokhi, Tora, and Konikar Ramdhenu symbolize the possibility of positive change in the society. 

Awarded with Padma Shri in 2003 and Padma Bhushan in 2015, Jahnu Barua says, ‘Since the day I have been making films, awards are not my prime focus. It does give me immense joy, but I am never carried away by the glamour of awards. I just move ahead after getting each award.’
 

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About the Author

Parthajit Baruah is an Indian film scholar and documentary filmmaker. He won the Assam State Best Film Critic Award for his book Face to Face: The Cinema of Adoor Gopalakrishnan (HarperCollins 2016), and the Prag Channel Best Film critic Award for his book Chalachitror Taranga (Assamese). He did two film research projects at NFAI, Pune. He has presented papers on cinema at various international conferences. His article 'Shakespeare in Assamese Cinema' (Shakespeare and Indian Cinema, 2019) was published by Routledge Publishing House. His documentaries have won many awards at International Film Festivals. He teaches English and Cinema at Renaissance Junior College, Assam. He is a member of FIPRESCI.

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