Pramathesh Chandra Barua-The First Star in Bengali Cinema

Pramathesh Chandra Barua’s 106th birth anniversary falls on October 24 this year (2009). His name is synonymous with the immortal character of Devdas, created by the gifted pen of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay

Pramathesh Chandra Barua-The First Star in Bengali Cinema
Pramathesh Chandra Barua’s 106th birth anniversary falls on October 24 this year (2009). His name is synonymous with the immortal character of Devdas, created by the gifted pen of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay given flesh and blood by Barua who lived the role not only on screen, but in real life too. Join CalcuttaTube in an EXCLUSIBE Birth Anniversary Tribute to P.C. Barua. Article by Shoma A. Chatterji.

Pramathesh Chandra Barua
Pramathesh Chandra Barua

Some say he was born on October 10 but most confirm that it was October 24. Confusions dot Barua’s life story because it is more exciting than the scripts of all the films he made adding to the intrigue and the mystique of a man who changed the face of Indian cinema for all time to come.
His father, Prabhat Chandra Barua married Sarojbala Devi in 1896. Though blessed with five children, they doted on Pramathesh, the first-born, who broke the long marriage presumed to be barren for seven years. It is said that the first was born after a Himalayan sadhu had blessed the sad couple. Another version goes that the senior Baruas did have a first child. But the child died in infancy followed by a long, barren phase. The tragic story of his life might partly be attributed to over-indulgence by his parents.

Pramathesh’s childhood was full of fun and games. He swam across the ponds of the Barua estate, played games with other children in the royal family, and learnt big-game hunting. The royal family believed that learning big game hunting and going on shikars was more important than learning their three ‘R’s. He shot his first tiger when he was 12. He went on to kill around 50 tigers but after a point, he gave up.  By then, Pramathesh was convinced that big game hunting was a destructive sport because it destroyed precious wild life. No one could make him change his mind. Film historian B.D.Garga informs us that this big game hunter was mortified at the sight of a cockroach! Ironically, non-vegetarian food like fish, eggs, meat and poultry rarely found place in his daily diet. Pramathesh graduated with honours in Physics from Presidency College in 1924. He aspired to go to London to pursue higher studies. His mother would not allow him. He finally went to England in 1926, a year after his mother passed away.

He was nominated to the Assam Legislative Council as member in 1928. The Viceroy must have felt that belonging to the royal family of Gauripur would have instilled pro-British feelings in Pramathesh. But this did not happen. In 1930, he was again elected to the Council when he was offered a ministerial post by the then-Governor, Sir Lawrie Hammond. He rejected the offer and remained with the Swaraj Party of Chittaranjan Das as its Chief Whip in the Council till 1936. As filmmaker, he steered away from contemporary politics. He did not propagate his political ideology through his films.

The seeds of cinema were laid early. His close friend Samar Ghosh wrote (Silver Jubilee Issue, Rajat Jayanti, 1953) that he first met Pramathesh when he was a student of Hare School. “I called him Saheb. The acronym stuck till he passed away. We would cut classes to watch films. Saheb loved to watch action films with fight scenes. Films in those days would be screened either at the Albion (Regal) or at the tents put up by Madan Theatres at the maidan. The entry fees were three annas, twelve annas, one rupee and one rupee and eight annas.”

Pramathesh acted in some silent films between 1931 and 1932. Irene Gasper, an actress of the silent era (screen name – Sabita Devi), urged Pramathesh to build his studio and produce his own films. He went to Europe, observed production at the Elstree Studios in London. After undergoing surgery for kidney stones, he proceeded to Paris with a letter of recommendation from Rabindranath Tagore where he learnt cinematography. He learnt about lighting in cinema at Fox Studios. He bought lighting equipment before his return.  He built a studio and formed Barua Film Unit in one section of the Gauripur House at 4, Ballygunge Circular Road.

Work on Apradhi began. Pramathesh was hero, Sabita Debi was heroine and Krishna Gopal was cinematographer. Directed by Debaki Bose, Apradhi (1931) was a critical success, the first Calcutta production to use artificial lights. The technical environment of film production in Bengal underwent a radical change. Directors no longer had to depend on natural light. Shooting in studio interiors became common. Apradhi turned out to be the best film of the year. But with time, Pramathesh’s unscientific and extravagant financial strategies landed him in trouble. He incurred massive debts he could never hope to repay. The company had to be sold out to repay loans he had taken from Aurora Film Corporation, among others.

When B. N. Sirkar of New Theatres invited Pramathesh to join his company, Pramathesh had no choice. He began his first film with the half-complete script of Anath from the Barua Studio that was never shot. From the original story by Sudhish Ghatak, Pramathesh built the script of his new film, Rooprekha. For the first time, the Bengali audience saw acting completely distanced from the loud, exaggerated, theatrical mannerisms. They heard dialogue that was real life, delivered naturally. Rooprekha was a financial disaster. But Sirkar had seen his talent and had faith in him.

The next few years saw the phenomenal rise of New Theatres along with Barua, then known as Raj Kumar Barua. Adhikar, Devdas, Grihadaha, Mukti and Rajat Jayanti, almost every film directed by Barua was a hit. Barua was the first star in Bengali cinema. He was a versatile actor. 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, the vibrant artist Prasanta in Mukti are classic performances The touch of sentimentalism that Devdas was invested with faded away as Pramathesh matured in his post-Devdas phase.

Devdas was released in Chitra Talkies on April 26, 1935. The film marked the entry of the jump cut to heighten the drama with a new editing strategy. When Devdas vomits blood, the camera cuts in to show a plate of floral offerings fall off Parvati’s hands, far away in her matrimonial home. In a night scene on the train, as soon as Devdas calls out to Paro, the scene cuts to show the doors and windows burst open in Parvati’s room as Parvati screams out in her sleep in the middle of a nightmare. These scenes set out Pramathesh’s creative imagination in explaining through the language of cinema, the psychological stress his characters were going through, the telepathic bonding the lovers shared, without melodrama. Barua did not create Devdas – he was Devdas. So powerful was the impact of Pramathesh’s portrayal, so close it grew to his private life, that to the Bengali audience, Devdas was synonymous with the actor who played the character. By the time the film released, Pramathesh learnt he had tuberculosis, and, drawn inescapably to the bottle like his screen parallel, wasted himself away to die an untimely death barely 15 years after he had lived the character of Devdas on screen.

After Devdas, Pramathesh directed and acted in Grihadaha (1936.) The film has an imaginative jump cut showing the transition of Achala from a modern young girl to a coy bride. The shot focusses on a pair of feet clad in high heels then cuts straight to close in on a pair of alta-dyed bare feet stepping out of a palki. Maya did not do well but Mukti did. Mukti had three writers – Sajanikanta Das, Phani Majumdar and Pramathesh Barua. Pankaj Mullick, music director, narrated the story to Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore said, “Pankaj, I see that it begins with a series of doors being opened, one after another. It is as if the protagonist is searching for freedom from something or someone. Let Mukti be the name of the film.” Rabindra Sangeet was used for the first time. Mukti was the first film to be shot extensively on location in the forests of Gauripur, featuring Pramathesh’s pet elephant, Jung Bahadur in a major role. Pramathesh and Kanan Devi became screen icons overnight.  Adhikar followed Mukti and bagged the Best Film of the Year Award from the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association.

Rajat Jayanti (1939) was a comedy, underscoring Pramathesh’s versatility as an actor par excellence. But the audience did not care for a ‘Devdas’ who made them laugh! His last under the N.T. banner was Priyo Bandhabi (Zindagi in Hindi) released in 1940, after he quit the studio. Priyo Bandhabi marked the return of K.L. Saigal cast opposite Jamuna. Pramathesh stepped in as cinematographer, investing subtle dimensions of light and shade into the Black-and-White photography.

His concern for social issues comes across in several films. Devdas carried an implied indictment on arranged marriage. Mukti tried to show that a marriage between two adults with opposing perspectives on life and love need not sustain on rituals alone. Adhikar was against social and economic disparity while Maya and Mayer Pran took a sympathetic view of illegitimate children. In all these films, Pramathesh maintained an ambivalent stance, leaving matters on the side of the status quo.  When he found he could not bring a film to a clear resolution in the climax, he opted for the easiest way out – death in its varied manifestations. But the way his film journeyed to this tragic end, the manner in which he used the strategies of the film language to arrive at this fatalistic conclusion, made all the difference between melodrama and good cinema. The audience appeared to enjoy the “pervasive lugubriousness about Barua’s films – the irresistible attractiveness about death.”

As filmmaker, Pramathesh made many innovations. Among these are – the use of artificial lighting within the studio (Apradhi), Rabindra Sangeet in cinema (Mukti), the jump-cut (Grihadaha), back-projection and flashback (Devdas), innovative credit titles (Rajat Jayanti), song picturisations and choreography as an editing device (Shesh Uttar), and natural, low-key acting, a radical departure. After he left New Theatres, Barua made Shaap Mukti (1940), under the Kisan Movietone banner. He then formed his own company, M.P. Productions in partnership with Muralidhar Chatterjee.  Maayer Pran, Uttarayan, Rani (Hindi) and Shesh Uttar (Jawab in Hindi) revealed that he was no longer the Pramathesh of Devdas. Chander Kalanka (1944) consolidated his failure. However, Zindagi (Hindi) with K.L. Saigal was an instant hit. Ameeri was probably Barua’s last film. He began to direct Maya Kanan (1953) but left it incomplete to be finished by others. The joint project he had planned with J. Arthur Rank while he was in UK remained an unfulfilled dream.

“I have lost the gamble called Life. I have not won a single game. But I am an optimist. I am a past, looking through the present for a future.” These contradictions define the enigma that Pramathesh Chandra Barua stood for, the contradictions that led to the destruction of his celluloid Devdas as much as they led to his own. He passed away on November 29, 1951 when he was 48, proving the truth of his statement that no one had the right to live beyond 50.

Filmography of P.C Barua

  • Maya Kanan – Director      1953
  • Iran Ki Ek Raat – Director      1949
  • Pehchan – Director      1946
  • Ameeree – Director      1945
  • Subah Shyam – Director, Actor      1944
  • Rani – Director, Actor      1943
  • Jawab – Director, Manoj      1942
  • Uttarayan – Director, Salil      1941
  • Mayer Pran – Director, Satish      1941
  • Shap Mukti – Director, Ramesh      1940
  • Zindagi – Director, Cinematographer      1940
  • Adhikar – Director, Nikhilesh, Writer (writer)      1939
  • Rajat Jayanti – Director, Rajat, Writer (writer)      1939
  • Justice – Director, Nikhilesh, Writer (writer)      1938
  • Mukti – Director, Prasant, Writer (writer)      1937
  • Mukti – Director, Prasanta, Writer (writer)      1937
  • Devdas – Director, Writer (writer)      1936
  • Grihadah – Director, Mahim      1936
  • Destination – Director, Mahim      1936
  • Maya – Director, Writer (writer)      1936
  • Maya – Director, Writer (writer)      1936
  • Devdas – Director, Devdas, Writer (writer)      1935
  • Roop Lekha – Director, Arup in the bengali version      1934
  • Bengal 1983 – Director, Actor      1932
  • Ekada – Writer (screenplay) (story)      1932
  • The Culprit – Actor      1931
  • Charitraheen – Actor      1931
  • Takay Ki Na Hay – Actor      1931

Credited  in

  • Devdas – 2002 starring Shahrukh Khan, Madhuri, Aishwarya credited a tribute to P.C. Barua
  • Gaja Gamini – Dedicatee      2000

Articel by: Shoma A. Chatterji

Buy P.c. Barua (Legends of Indian Cinema)-Book by Shoma A. Chatterji

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