Why Jahnu Barua is one of the most important proponents of modern Assamese Cinema
Assam filmmaker Jahnu Barua

It was a bright and sunny afternoon of 1995. I was in the 2nd standard and yet I remember that day as if it was only yesterday. In those days watching films in theaters without the escort of elder family members was considered a heinous crime. That was however one sin that both I and my elder brother who was by the way 10 years older than me committed every now and then. We were so keen on watching every Friday release that at many junctures we went to a particular cinema even without knowing what was playing on that given day. In those days the only way of knowing what was playing in theaters was to check the cinema schedules that came out in the newspapers. It was a Friday and I had checked the schedule and informed my brother that an entertaining Hindi film starring one of the biggest draws of those days was playing in Udeshna Cinema. He didn’t even care to check the schedule before Ok-ing the plan.

I couldn’t control my excitement. Here we were almost there at the Udeshna and about to leap into a world of fantasy, humor, action and music. As our rickshaw turned around the corner, I saw something that was ominous. The large poster stands in front of the hall had a poster which read “Xagoroloi Bahu dur” (It’s a Long Way to the Sea). Apparently, I had miss-read the schedule and pulled my brother into watching an Assamese film which in those days was not on top of our list. My brother was furious on me for this mistake. This was also the first time that I committed such a mistake. I was generally very dependable.

Still from the movie Xagoroloi Bahu dur

However, we had committed ourselves too much to the viewing to abandon it now. We were absolutely not ready to go back without watching a film. For me, the movie was not as important as the movie watching experience was and my brother was crestfallen at the wrong info but still wanted to watch what was on platters. We went in, the curtains rolled, the film started and then something magical happen.

Within moments of it beginning, the film had completely engulfed our senses. I was transfixed at the lyrical visual storytelling of Mr. Jahnu Barua which even appealed to a student of the 2nd standard. I was so engrossed in the life and humane struggles of the protagonist Powal played by Bishnu Kharghoria and his grandson that I didn’t realize when I started taking sides with the old man. I loved it when he had a moment of happiness and peace and I hated the scenes where he came up against hard times. The Protagonist earned his living by ferrying people across a river in his boat. That was his lone source of income. I was pained when a bridge was completed across the river and it is apparent that the protagonist will lose his livelihood. But what hit me the most was the scene when his own grandchild, whom he loves more than his life, chooses to take the bridge instead of riding with him on the boat.

Jahnu Barua successfully bridges the gap between the screen and the audiences and makes them a party to the protagonist and his grand child’s life. In doing so he creates a motion picture that appealed to one and all transcending the borders of language, culture, milieu, etc. The audience in this film is the privileged voyeur who always has the best vantage point on the life of Powal and his grandson. Even though Powal can’t see us, we are very much a part of his day-to-day life as we observe him from a distance. This feeling is wonderfully extracted by the manner in which Barua shoots the film.

Still from the movie Xagoroloi Bahu dur

As we walked out of the film, the frustration of not being able to watch a blockbuster was replaced by a feeling of being touched by melancholic beauty and having seen something that we knew would stay with us for a long time. That was the first time I saw a Jahnu Barua film and I can nearly feel the same anxiety, love, frustration and morose that gripped my little heart that day at Udeshna as I write this piece.

2007: “The Catastrophe” at the Film Appreciation course:

The year was 2007 and I was attending a four-day film appreciation course. The rule for the fest was that every evening, after the day’s discussions, classes and screenings, they would show a film by a maestro and that would be followed by a panel discussion.

On the third day of the fest, they showed Jahnu Barua’s “Halodhiya Sorai Bao Dhan Khaye” years had passed since my tryst Xagoroloi Bahu dur and in these years, I had again forgotten the genius of the man and was again being skeptical about the screening. Moreover, the day of the screening wasn’t particularly an easy one and we had to face a lot of grilling from our teachers throughout that day. Hence, I was looking for some light entertainment instead of the heavy hearted “Halodhiya Sorai Bao Dhan Khaye” which I had assumed it to be. I had no idea what it was about though.
The film was introduced by one of our teachers and then the screening started. I just wanted it to be over so that I could rush home. As the film started, I watched a couple of scenes with the least bit of interest but strangely enough in those few scenes the film hooked me. Once again, I was under the spell of Jahnu Barua, a feat that he had pulled off in 1995 on a kid who went in to watch a masala potboiler. The simplicity of the tale, the overt casualness of the protagonist who is a simpleton and has to risk everything he has to try and safeguard a piece of land was just heart wrenching for me. The film took me from one emotional roller-coaster to another and I couldn’t help but feel choked as I sat through scene after scene of warm emotional content.

Still from the movie Halodhiya Sorai Bao Dhan Khaye

The faith that the simpleton has on his feudal lord works as the catalyst for the rest of the drama that will hold on to your senses. There are many scenes of unthinkable power like the one in which the protagonist, for a second, imagines giving his wife to a man to get his land back, the scene where he has to sell off the cows (which is equivalent to selling off one’s mother) which he owns for arranging bribes and the last scene where he finally regains his land but has little to cultivate it with. The manner in which he vents his anger on poster of the antagonist was heartbreaking and poignant at the same time.

Still from the movie Halodhiya Sorai Bao Dhan Khaye

Jahnu Barua in this film transcends genres by creating an essential drama that at many levels is so laced with thrills and tension that you can very easily call it a thriller. What will happen to the protagonist remains a surprise till the very end. Again, he makes wonderful use of the actors and makes them perform beyond all expectations. Like his previous film, “Halodhiya Sorai Bao Dhan Khaye” is visually stunning. The essence of the rural Assamese life is brought out beautifully and it is done in a very cinematic manner. After this screening I had re-discovered Jahnu Barua’s cinema for a second time. What’s amusing is to note the fact that “Halodhiya Sorai Bao Dhan Khaye” is christened as “The Catastrophe” in its English avatar.

2015: The thin line between comedy and tragedy:

I used to buy my monthly stock of films from the wholesale DVD and VCD shops in Lakhtokia. It was during one of these shopping expeditions that I suddenly found a whole lot of Jahnu Barua films available on DVDs. Not to mention, I bought as many as I could find and the most prized possessions of them all was Bandhon. Here was a film that was applauded by one and all but one that I didn’t get a chance to watch in theaters. But strangely enough, even after owning the DVD, every night when I sat to choose which film to watch, it never made the cut. I just didn’t pick it up.
Finally, during a hot summer afternoon, I thought to myself that I needed to atleast play the disc once to find out if it played fine. Sometimes the DVDs that I bought turned out to be faulty which then had to be replaced. As I put the DVD in and watched the first five minutes of the film, I was hooked yet again. I didn’t as much touch the mouse after the film started and finished it in one sitting just as one might if he/she watched it in theaters.

Stills from the movie Bandhon

Here was a film that started as a comedy and remains that way till atleast the interval. The chemistry between Bishnu Kharghoria and Bina Patangia playing an aged couple is an amusing affair. The first half of the film takes us through their nitpicky quarrels which are adorable. I had a smile on my face all through this part. How snoring becomes an issue of conflict between a couple was hilarious to watch. The film then changes mood as the story shifts to Mumbai where the couple arrives looking for their missing grandchild. From here on it becomes an emotional rollercoaster that will make you go limp on your knees many times.

Through this film Barua proved his mantle yet again and successfully portrayed how we can have a comedy metamorph into a tragedy without hurting the basic effects of both the ingredients within a runtime of two hours. There are few films that I have seen achieve such a feat with such ease and finesse. Once again Barua extracts bravura performances from his ensemble cast and what was noteworthy was how actors who are known for their theatrics are toned down to give restrained performances. It’s again a very contained but extremely well shot film conveying fully well Barua’s understanding of the cinematic language. Not to mention, it’s highly entertaining and gripping which happens to be a trademark of his craft. It’s the kind of film that you cannot leave without finishing.

Still from the movie Bandhon

2017: Why Jahnu Barua is one of the most important proponents of modern Assamese Cinema:

Through the above-mentioned trysts with Jahnu Barua’s works, I have come to not only respect the man but also appreciate his cinematic knowledge and prowess. I have practically grown with is films as the timelines mentioned above would suggest. His films are exactly what the Assamese film industry needs now. A lot has been said about how dwindling shows at cinema houses and lack of support from the government are the primary causes for the degradation of Assamese cinema. However, the fact of the matter is that the primary cause for the degradation is the ever-dwindling standard of Assamese cinema and what it believes is entertainment. Barua has almost always worked with shoestring budgets, chose unconventional and not so massy subjects and kept his films free from jingoism and cheap thrills. But his films have always entertained and enthralled.

He has set examples of how we can take simple subjects that are rooted in realism and then treat them in a cinematic manner to extract wonderful result. Devoid of glitz, glam, fast cuts and editing tweaks, his films are unadulterated and pristine pieces of film making which I dare say can be compared to the auteurs like Fellini, De Sica, Truffaut and our very own Satyajit Ray. His films show every sign of the neo-realistic style of film making and reflect every quality that is at the heart of this style.

Assamese filmmaker Jahnu Baruah

Sadly enough, the master has been silent over the years. As he mentioned in his speech at a film festival, one has to see his films for him to be able to make them. It’s indeed a heartbreaking statement to hear from a man who has practically revolutionized the Assamese film industry and has shaped the understanding of cinema of people like myself who has been watching his films since his childhood. I have been skeptical of his works more than once but I have given his cinema a chance. I believe that’s something we all need to do or else we are poised to lose one of the greatest proponents of Assamese cinema.

Also Read | ‘Jolsobi’ – A heartbreaking tale of broken dreams and promises

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