By Shoma A. Chatterji
Pramathesh Chandra Barua, a real life prince, was born in the royal family of Gauripur, Assam, in October, 1903. He is among the handful of people who changed the face of Indian cinema for all times to come – with his choice of stories from classical Bengali literature, his personalised style of natural acting, his technical innovations – some of them turning points in cinematic technique and last but not the least – with Devdas, the eternal lover, who continues to haunt young and old alike, well into the 21st century.
Many stalwarts such as Dhirendranath Ganguly (D.G.), Debaki Kumar Bose and Dinesh Ranjan Das were already functioning in Bengali cinema when Barua stepped in. Audiences today identify him with Devdas, an image that keeps haunting the jilted lover boy across time and space.
The first film from the Barua Film Unit was Apradhi, directed by Debaki Bose with Barua as the hero. It was the most outstanding among the tail-ender films of the silent era. The phenomenal rise of New Theatres came along with the entry and rise of Barua, then known as Raj Kumar Barua. Adhikar, Devdas, Grihadaha, Mukti and Rajat Jayanti, every film directed by Barua became an instant hit. He turned into the first ever star phenomenon in Bengali cinema. He could play all kinds of roles. The tragic lover in Devdas, the sober Mahim in Grihadaha, (Manzil), a psycho-pathological Salil in Shesh Uttar (Jawab), a comic and idiotic Rajat in Rajat Jayanti, or the vibrant artist Prasanta in Mukti are historic performances that remain etched in history. The touch of sentimentalism in Devdas faded away as Pramathesh matured as an actor and director in his post-Devdas phase.
After Devdas, Pramathesh acted and directed in Grihadaha (1936). Bimal Roy was cameraman. The story of Mukti was penned by three writers – Sajanikanta Das, Phani Majumdar and Pramathesh Barua himself. The story did not have a title. Pankaj Mullick who was scoring the music for the film, narrated the story to Rabindranath Tagore who gave the film its name. Mukti is the first film to introduce Tagore songs in cinema and also the first film to be shot extensively on location in the forests of Gauripur, featuring Jung Bahadur, Barua’s pet elephant, in a major role. The film became an instant hit, turning Barua and heroine Kanan Devi into screen icons overnight.
After he left New Theatres, Pramathesh directed and cinematographed a tear-jerking melodrama called Shaapmukti But one discovered that Barua was, perhaps, losing his magic touch. Among his technical innovations in films are – artificial lighting within the studio (Apradhi), Rabindra Sangeet (Mukti), the jump-cut (Grihadaha), back-projection and flashback (Devdas), innovative credit titles (Rajat Jayanti), song sequences and choreography as an editing device (Shesh Uttar), and natural, low-key acting as a radical departure from the melodramatic, theatrical style of the time.
To him, an actor was an interpreter, not a mimic. He was a complete film-maker. He wrote the script, story, handled the camera, did the editing, directed the film and often acted. He created an entire generation of actors, musicians and technicians who became famous in their own right. Among them are Bimal Roy, Pankaj Mullick, Phani Majumdar, K.L. Saigal, Pahari Sanyal, Amar Mullick, Jamuna, Robin Majumdar, Anupam Ghatak, Menoka Devi, Kartik Chatterjee and Padma Devi. Later day directors like Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor held him in high esteem as a film-maker who had acquired a command over various fields of cinema. Though Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen had expressed their negative opinion about Barua as an actor and film-maker, Ritwik Ghatak was an ardent admirer. “I do not understand anything about method. To me, Pramathesh Barua is the best director of India till today.”
Barua, a folk hero for all time, passed away in 1951 when he was 48, proving the worthiness of his one-time comment that no one had the right to live beyond the age of 50.