In the busiest part of Guwahati, aficionados of Indian films flock to pay homage to the Chandranath Baruah clan and their home, resplendent in its heritage architecture reflecting the family’s status in films. To the unversed, this is the very nucleus of one of the most important chapters in the history of Assamese Film Industry, embodied in a structure that is simultaneously tangible, personal, and public. Not very often do bricks and mortar vouch for the multifaceted contributions of a single family to the ephemeral silver screen.
Photo by Rituraj Gogoi
It is thus a happy coincidence that almost a century ago in 1923, Chandranath Baruah completed the construction of his family home adjacent to the Latasil playground, the most famous and oldest playground in Guwahati. An engineer by profession, his engagement with the Public Works Department of the Assam government kept him on the move through various districts of the state, not all of which offered satisfactory educational opportunities for his children. He deemed it appropriate that his family should be settled in Guwahati and the onus of a transferable job should rest only on his own shoulders. Thus began the construction of a house and home that was unique in more ways than one.
The House of Baruah stands tall for its architecture that went beyond the traditional Ikra design (adopted and made famous as the Assam Type House by the British). Though Baruah used novel materials, he retained the basic Ikra plan of a single storey structure built on a raised plinth. Instead of the locally sourced wooden pillars, the structure was supported by an iron post and bars imported from Sheffield, UK. The walls were a combination of the new and the old – bricks were used to construct the lower walls, while the upper walls were made from clay in the traditional Ikra style. The conventional hay thatched roof was replaced by a shining tin roof, designed by Chandranath Baruah himself. When viewed from the outside, the high tin roof on the two corners gave the facade an impression of being double storied. Despite accommodating as many as thirteen rooms, the building remained aesthetically appealing and unique, in comparison to contemporary structures of early twentieth century Assam. Baruah would probably have never imagined that the home he built for his family in Guwahati would be transmuted into a treasured legacy for its architecture and the family’s manifold contributions, especially to the music and cinema of Assam.
Photos by Rituraj Gogoi
Chandranath Baruah’s busy schedule left a major part of the household of thirteen children in his wife, Jonprabha Baruani’s able hands. The home had its unwritten daily ritual where all the children would pray for Gosai (evening prayer) and sing songs. Though Jonprabha herself was not an acclaimed singer, she regularly sang traditional religious songs she learnt from others. Her son Ramen added one of these songs in the film Mukuta (1970). This song – ‘Ae Pran Gopal’ – became an instant hit, and listeners still consider it as the signature song of singer Anima Chaudhary.
The thirteen Baruah siblings were Padmabati, Dwiten, Dwijen, Rambha, Brajen (b. 1925), Nripen (b. 1926), Dwibon (or, D’bon), Girin, Pratibha, Ramen (b. 1940), Bibha, Niren and Dwipen (or D’pen). Each of the boys had names ending with the Assamese ’Na-’ (ন) except Nripen (who popularly became Nip). All the siblings were self-taught musicians and Brajen became the music teacher for the younger ones. Among the brothers, Brajen, Nripen, Dwibon and Ramen took music more seriously. Brajen played the harmonium, Nripen the flute, and Dwibon the tabla. Both Brajen and Ramen were the recognised singers in the family. Dwipen, however, ran contrary to the proverb “morning shows the day”. He took every opportunity to escape music lessons from his elder brother and did not take part in the practise sessions that were regularly held in the courtyard. Nevertheless, he honed his musical skills covertly, by keenly following music on the radio and singing in the privacy of the bathroom. The youngest of the Baruah brothers, Dwipen then went on to become a successful playback singer in Assamese films.
Sports was another field in which the Baruah siblings excelled. Dwipen and Girin played first class domestic cricket and were part of the Assam state team for Ranji Trophy. Girin even carried the mantle of being the captain of the Assam Ranji team. Nripen was a well-known footballer, playing as a centre forward for the famous Maharana Club. It is a measure of his popularity that Nripen ultimately became known as Nip, from his football matches where the spectators would cheer him on, shouting, ‘Nip! Nip!’
Brajen Baruah was a multifaceted individual with a never-say-die attitude in all his endeavours. He began his career composing songs, singing, and teaching his younger siblings to sing and play musical instruments. When the Guwahati station of Akashvani started working in 1948, Brajen became a regular singer there. Despite the paucity of instrumental musicians in Guwahati at that time, he organized an orchestra, besides composing and conducting musical creations himself, in an attempt to fulfil his creative aspirations, unmindful of the limited resources. When Brajen stepped into the film industry, he successfully shouldered the multiple responsibilities of a music director, singer, and lead actor in the directorial debut of his brother Nip. Brajen continued this role when he produced Nip’s second film, Mak aru Maram (1957), which won the President's Silver Medal at the National Film Awards. Brajen Baruah’s indelible and mellifluous music carved a niche of its own from his very first film. In a brief span of time, and with each subsequent film, he became a much sought-after music director and a contemporary of Bhupen Hazarika. Even when the latter shifted base from Guwahati to Kolkata, and subsequently to Mumbai, Brajen continued to be Assam-centric.
Brajen started a film production company named JP Cine Arts based on his mother’s name – Jonprabha – and directed his first film, an Assamese comedy, Ito Sito Bahuto (1963) with her as the producer. Outdoor work took place across various locations in Kolkata and Guwahati while the indoor shooting was completed at a Kolkata studio. He undertook the herculean task of moving the entire cast and crew to Kolkata for the shoot. This was even more creditable as the financial investment in an Assamese movie was not proportionate to the narrow margins generated for Assamese films. His second film used houses available on location for the indoor shoot in Assam, which was a quantum shift for Assamese filmmaking. After this, all directors followed the same pattern. This was instrumental in shifting the Assamese movie-making operations from Kolkata to Assam, a giant leap and glorious chapter in the history of Assamese cinema.
Dr. Bezbaruah (1969); Rangghar Cine Productions
Brajen Baruah’s second foray into filmmaking, Dr. Bezbaruah (1969), was the one shot fully on location and used typical Assamese houses for indoor shooting. He purchased a second-hand Nishikura audio recording machine from Kolkata. Brajen’s background as a Physics graduate lent him a good degree of technical confidence; he was able to suitably alter the recording machine with the help of junior technicians from Guwahati and use it for location sound recording and dubbing. Prior to these initiatives, film technicians had to be brought in from Kolkata. Brajen formed a local team, bringing together young people interested in filmmaking and teaching them the technical aspects of film – primarily make-up, art direction, light, and sound. He also devised the lighting equipment for the shoot. This team of film technicians, mentored by Brajen, went on to become the leading technicians of the later Assamese cinema. “I can still earn my bread because of Braj-da, who had taught and engaged me in cinema,” comments Satish Chauhan, a leading sound recordist of Assam. Dr. Bezbaruah created a stir in the Assam box office and initiated the ‘Brajen Baruah mode’ in filmmaking – shooting indoor on location. As a result, the cost of filmmaking and initial investment decreased, allowing for the growth of film production in Assam. The boom in the Assamese film industry is indebted to this in situ style of film production and out-of-the-box thinking of Brajen.
His own filmmaking successes almost equal his contributions to the Assamese film industry; he directed five films, penned stories-screenplays-dialogues for four, wrote lyrics for four, directed music in eight, and acted in eight films. A repertoire, near impossible for its sheer virtuosity. In the first three of the films Brajen acted in, he was a romantic hero. In Dr. Bezbaruah he had a dual role, of which one was as a dreadful villain. The stylized acting and dialogues of this character are still famous in Assam. After its success, he concentrated only on character roles. His choreographic pursuits are evident in Narkasura (1962), Ito Sito Bahuto and Dr. Bezbaruah, though he is not credited specifically. Brajen belongs to that exclusive and rare film fraternity of multifaceted individuals who can shoulder the responsibility of many divergent film departments and bring them to successful fruition.
In 1956, Nip Baruah moved out from the sports ground and picked up the director's megaphone for the film Smritir Parash (1956), based on his own story and screenplay. He went on to create thirteen Assamese and two Bengali films on varied topics (and this is a record in the Assamese film industry). Almost all of them were crowd pullers. He made the first six films in studios in Kolkata. Subsequently, following his brother Brajen’s footsteps, he started making films in Assam. He was a committed filmmaker and always tried to expand the ambit of Assamese films, which also extended to the two Bengali he made. The first Assamese film in Eastman Colour was shot by Nip Baruah. He was also a film actor, besides being an expert in drawing, painting, and sculpture. One easily finds his signature on the cover designs of many notable books in Assam, and in the logos of various social organisations.
Nip Baruah was always preoccupied with his work and was media shy. He hardly attended any public meetings or seminars. The popular media was never privy to his thoughts and thinking. I will never forget what he said to me during the shooting of his Bangla film Dadu, Nati aar Hati (1986), “Proper leadership can transform Jyotichitraban into the filmmaking hub for the entire northeast India, and even West Bengal and Odisha” It was a rare but matchless revelation of his wide perspective and vision; I remain privileged to have heard it in person.
Dwibon Baruah made his film debut as a lyricist, and subsequently took up acting. Brajen made Mukuta with Dwibon’s screenplay and it was an instant hit. Dwibon’s directorial debut, Jog Biyog (1971), was also a blockbuster. He directed seven films, and four of them enjoyed phenomenal success at the box-office. His forte was an emotional story close to real life and captivating performances, supported by melodious songs. He was the first director to depict Bihu geet and Bihu dance successfully in Assamese films. As a lyricist too, he successfully transformed the traditional Bihu geet to a cinematic song for his films. He surprised the Assamese audiences with a bilingual song – he combined the words of an appointment letter written in English that the protagonist receives, with a Bihu song sung to express his elation, for Jog Biyog.
Girin Baruah too made his debut as a playback singer. He later shifted to acting, working in three films. However, neither acting nor singing attracted him more than business and he then gravitated to other professional services that included transportation, and he became the first taxi-cab businessman from Assam.
Ramen Baruah made his debut as a singer in Smritir Parash and worked as joint Music Director with Brajen in the film Amar Ghar (1959). For reasons unknown, Brajen did not undertake music direction for Dr. Bezbaruah and entrusted the work to Ramen. This marked a glorious watershed moment; till date, Ramen Baruah has directed the music for twenty-nine Assamese films, in Assamese, Hindi and Bengali, and has been the playback singer for six films (of which three were his own and rest for Brajen). Ramen was instrumental in offering the first opportunity to several singers through his films who then achieved the rare distinction of being successful in their very first endeavours. He also holds the record for directing music for the maximum number of Assamese films.
Ramen Baruah (Photo by writer)
Niren Baruah was also famous for his voice. A newsreader at All India Radio, he took leaves from office to work in films and was the first assistant to Nip Baruah in a few of Nip’s films. He also acted in a few films himself.
When we speak of D’pen Baruah, only one sentence is needed to describe him – ‘The first successful male playback singer of Assamese cinema and the last till date.’ Brajen identified D’pen’s inborn singing talent and introduced him in Dr. Bezbaruah. Till date, his popularity has not lost its sheen. He has rendered his voice for 48 films – another record in Assamese cinema.
Dwipen Baruah and Dwibon Baruah
The Baruah family had three daughters – Rambha, Prabha and Bibha. Rambha Baruah acted in films and Bibha Baruah took part as a vocalist in the film Smritir Parash. Two daughters-in-law of the Baruah family were also involved in films. Niva Baruah was the leading lady in the Smritir Parash and later tied the knot with Nip, going on to be the co-producer in three of his films. Dwibon Baruah’s wife, Anju, also acted in two films as leading lady.
Manjyoti Baruah, Brajen Baruah's son, worked as an assistant director in multiple films, but unfortunately met with a fatal accident in 1996 in Kolkata, while working for a film His sister Monami Bezbaruah starred in Mimangsha (1994) screened at the Indian Panorama. Anshuman Baruah, Girin’s son, was the director of Shivam (2011), the Hindi remake of Dr. Bezbaruah.
The House of Baruah is truly a vibrant cultural landmark that has completed a historic century, marking 100 years of achievements. I am confident that it will be the exception rather than the norm to find all members of one family, within one generation, remodelling the parameters, image, output, and cultural standards of the cinema of a province. It is my privilege I was able to witness and closely spectate this unparalleled achievement in Assamese cinema.