On the morning of April 17, 1971, Jiban Bora, a drama activist and film aficionado from Panigaon, a village located around 370 km from Guwahati, arrived at the House of Baruah (refer to our previous feature in the series) and stepped up to the veranda. He was there to speak with Brajen Baruah and make a proposal for a film. Jaya Saikia, from Bora’s village, accompanied him. Saikia had already made her mark as a Bihu dancer and acted in Baruah's Mukuta (1970), a superhit film. She also worked as an artist in the Assam government’s Information and Publicity Department. Jiban Bora wrote about her: “Jaya Saikia, who acted with us in village theatre, brought glory to Panigaon by acting in the films Mukuta and Lalita (to be released later, in 1972), both directed by Brajen Baruah. Then, the idea of making a film was born in our group. ‘If Jaya, whom we taught, can make a film, why can't we?’”
Multiple people from Panigaon had come together, raised money and were ready to make a film. Brajen Baruah's last two films at that point, Doctor Bezbarua (1969) and Mukuta (1970), had enjoyed unexpected commercial success. He was next making a relatively large-scale film, Lalita. At that point, Baruah would probably be the most reliable name as director for any new producer. Brajen Baruah agreed with Bora’s proposal and asked for the story; Jiban Bora gave him the story he had penned for his dream film.
Bora and his friends registered a production company for the film in Panigaon. Pragati Cine Productions was the first such company based out of a village in Assam. On October 3, 1971, the company and the film were announced at a meeting in the presence of the then Chief Minister, Mahendra Mohan Chowdhury.
There was, however, one issue in Panigaon.
"I have come to this village from Guwahati to direct an Assamese film,” Brajen Baruah said at the meeting, “But, there is no electricity line in the village yet. How can I make a film without electricity? If our honourable Chief Minister can plan to bring electricity to this village as soon as possible, the village will be benefited."
Baruah's request touched the CM, who immediately ordered the state department concerned to take appropriate action. And within a few days, the village experienced something new and unexpected. Electricity supply had reached the Panigaon. The film changed a village before it was even born, before any production began. This development — the steady supply of electricity — because of their film, spurred on the people involved in the production.
In Panigaon, Brajen Baruah stayed at the house of Umesh Bora, a director at Pragati Cine Productions. He was there for ten days when he started the initial work on the film. After asking for electricity (and getting it too), the second thing Baruah did in Panigaon was to reject the story that Pragati Cine Productions had been preparing for the film. “I don't want to make any more melodramatic films with such stories. You may find another story or writer.”
Jiban Bora, though, was not to be disappointed. He wrote up a skeleton story overnight and narrated it to Baruah. Although Baruah didn't like it entirely, he noted that it was better than the previous one and started working on it. Discussions continued on how to go ahead with the screenplay. There were corrections and rewrites — within ten days, the story took a final shape and Baruah had written the screenplay. Baruah and one of his colleagues, Amalendu Bagchi, also revised the screenplay during the shoot.
While making Lalita (1972), Brajen Baruah had thought of changing his approach to filmmaking. One time, he took his actors to show them Satyajit Ray’s 1955 classic, Pather Panchali, during the shoot of one of their films. He was interested in realistic stories, moving away from rhetorical ones as evidenced by his comments on Bora’s original story. Baruah was a high-calibre music director as well, with innumerable melodious and hit songs. All his previous films were famous for their incredible compositions. Yet, he was eager to make Opaja Sonar Mati (My Glorious Motherland) without any song. He told the producers bluntly, “It's absurd to include a song in this film.”
Their interests, however, could not be ignored for long. Baruah finally agreed to add three songs to the film. The producers approached Ramen Baruah and Keshab Mahanta, a close associate of Brajen and a leading poet, for the lyrics. Ramen Baruah recorded three songs at the Technician Studio in Kolkata, performed by his brother Dipen, and Pahari Saikia, Neelima Khatun and Krishna Barman — all three of whom were already associated with Ramen. Those three songs found no place in a commercial gramophone record (which needs a minimum of four songs) that usually provided wide publicity for songs and in turn, for the films. In those days, the first publicity platform was radio, followed by the public address system — the sound system used at meetings, fairs and functions. Sound operators would play these gramophone records before any major programme — this style of promotion contributed immensely to the popularity of the songs. Owing to the absence of the records however, the songs of OSM could not be played and did not get the recognition they might have deserved. Those three songs were born of an assembly of famous and talented people in the film and music industry of the era.
Poster of Opoja Sonar Mati
The fact that he wanted to make Opaja Sonar Mati as a songless film suggests a change in Brajen Baruah's world of thought. His last film was Mamata (1973), where he also starred in a song. After a film's business is over, if the songs are good and readily available, the film lives for a long time. Thus, the songs from Mamata are still popular today.
From the beginning, as an actor, Brajen Baruah was a fan of natural acting, as seen more commonly in Hollywood then. From his first film as music director-actor, Smriti Parsh (1956), to Eto Sito Bahuto (1963), he always acted naturally. In Doctor Bezbarua, he changed his style of acting, improvising an exaggerated portrayal of the character to suit the dramatic nature of the story. He echoed that style of acting in Barua'r Sansar (1970), directed by Nip Baruah, but returned to his usual style in Mukuta (1970). He again went for a dramatic style for Lalita, in demand with the theme and narrative style of the film. He played the role of a village mahajan in Opaja Sonar Mati, assuming a natural acting style to play a rich moneylender and landowner. As a director, however, he preferred realistic films. We can assume that he was inspired by the work of Ray, Tapan Sinha and others.
March 15, 1972: Jyoti Chitraban’s 35mm Arriflex camera, Brajen Baruah’s own sound recording equipment, and some artistes, arrived in Panigaon. Baruah had arrived three days earlier, accompanied by his wife Anu Baruah and two young children — Manjyoti and Manami. Along with the artistes from Guwahati and elsewhere, they had found a place in the spacious house of Umesh Bora.
March 17, 1972: A prayer meeting was held in the morning. The shooting of the film started with a shot of the Namghar Thapna at Umesh Bora's house (prayer room; Namghar is a Hindu temple introduced by the Vaishnavite saint Sankardev. In Assamese society, two types of Namghar exist - one personal, and the other a community namghar. Thapana is the main altar of the Namghar where religious books are kept).
The film was shot in different parts of Panigaon and at the properties of Umesh Bora, Loknath Bora, Praful Bora and Sagar Bora. For the urban part, they did the shootings at the house of Abdul Naser in North Lakhimpur and the shops of Amarchand and Ramprasad. The shooting at Lakhimpur was over on April 20, except for the three songs.
Scenes from the film
The film was simple in story and romantic in statement with a love story between a pair of youths. There was a predictable storyline with a small dramatic element. There were many types of characters, mostly rural. The actors, however, held the film with their convincing performances. Brajen Baruah played a significant role in the character of a greedy village merchant, somewhat of a villain. He tried to play the character within the framework of realistic acting. In one scene, he was reading a kirtan ghosa (religious text) on one side and beating his wife simultaneously. There was nothing else in the film to show off his acting talent or to put a remarkable impression on the audience. The scene's inventiveness entertained the audience with a feeling distinct from what they expected after Doctor Bezbarua.
Although Jaya Saikia was the main inspiration for the film and it was produced in her village, she did not play any character. This film was most important for the lead actor Biju Phukan, who was trying to make his presence known in Assamese films. He had had two moderately successful films before Opaja Sonar Mati, and desperately needed a hit. Fortunately, OSM did it for him. Two of the female leads were newcomers, Meena Das and Anuradha Saikia, who also made their mark with this film.
"Brajen Baruah is one of my favourite directors. He was a master at taking out good acting from a performer. I will narrate to you one of my experiences. They acted out the scene of me being angry with a man and breaking down in hatred. He (the director) told me the day before that I didn't have a shooting tomorrow. But the next day, suddenly, the assistant director came to pick me up and said, 'Aren't you ready for shooting?' I replied that I only knew I had no shooting today. Then everyone treated me rudely. That made me unhappy and furious with everyone. I held back my tears. My acting came out without even trying. I came to know everything after the shot. This was Brajen-da.”
-Anuradha Saikia (aka Manjula Baruah) on Brajen Baruah’s direction style.
The shooting of Opaja Sonar Mati was over; only three songs at Golaghat were yet to be shot. The distance between North Lakhimpur (Panigaon) and Golaghat is 615 km; this kind of location shifting was a task for all. Incidentally, the entire technical unit had a shooting schedule at Golaghat for the film Mamata. Nalin Duwara, the DoP of Opaja Sonar Mati, was Mamata’s director. The unit worked for Mamata and then resumed OSM’s shooting on June 17. They completed the shooting of the three songs on June 25. Brajen Baruah picturised one song in the paddy fields of Naharani village. Another neighbouring village, Barua Bamun Gaon, was the shooting location for another song, with artistes from the same village. The last song demanded a loom and Brajen Baruah found Niru Gogoi's weaving loom perfect for it.
After the completion of OSM, the unit worked for Mamata and wrapped up the shooting work with the picturisation of a song. Brajen Baruah also appeared as an actor in that song. Nalin Duwara completed the shooting of Mamata on the evening of June 26.
The producer of Mamata arranged the stay for Brajen Baruah at a forest department guest house at Golaghat. On June 27, sound engineer Satish Chouhan and makeup artist Jogen Das went to meet him. Reaching the guest house, they discovered that he was unwell.
Nalin Duwara, the director of Mamata and cinematographer for most of Brajen Baruah's films, called in doctors who arrived at the place and took him to a nearby hospital.
At the hospital, Baruah asked the doctor: “Are you helpless, doctor?”
Those were his last words.
Late at night, Satish Chouhan put a spoonful of water in his mouth; the water did not go inside. Brajen Baruah passed away that night.
Later, Nip Baruah, Brajen Baruah's younger brother and a reputed film director himself, edited the film and completed the post-production work. The film went on to win the Rajat Kamal Award for Best Regional Language Film at the National Film Awards.