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PC Barua: Ahead of his time

For his 113th birth anniversary today (24 October), we uncover the man behind the first talkie version of Devdas.

Sonal Pandya

The now forgotten actor and filmmaker, Pramathesh Chandra Barua (PC Barua), entered films at a time when Indian cinema and its filmmakers were shaping its identity. Barua himself had a big hand in leaving his own indelible mark in the annals of Indian film history. Skilled in all aspects of filmmaking, Barua was Bengali cinema's biggest star. When he appeared as Devdas in Dhaka, all the cinema houses were shut as the whole city wanted to see him in person performing on stage.

PC Barua was a highly intelligent, worldly artist with a keen thirst for learning the new techniques in cinema. He came from a wealthy royal family background in Gauripur on the border of West Bengal and Assam. Barua travelled to Europe as a young man and learnt cinematography in Paris at the Fox Studios. His first Bengali film as an actor, Debaki Bose's Apradhi (1931), was the first in Calcutta to use artificial lights to light a scene. Afterwards, it became commonplace to shoot interiors with artificial lights.  

Barua in a still from Adhikar

His close affiliation with Rabrindranath Tagore allowed him to include his poem Shesh Kheya (The Last Boat) in his Bengali film Mukti (1937). It was the first time Tagore had been used in an Indian film. Music composer Pankaj Mullick incorporated the poem in his score and sung the song himself. Two other songs by Tagore, 'Aaj Shawbaar Range' and 'Taar Bidaaye Belaar Mala Khani' were also used in the film. Barua shot on the film on location near his home in Gauripur, using his pet elephant, Jung Bahadur, in several scenes. Before this, Bengali films stayed close to the city and its studios.

As a director, Barua took up films that addressed social issues such as arranged marriage, infidelity and economic disparity. The Bengal Film Journalists' Association, one of oldest film awards in India, awarded his film Adhikar (1938) the honor of Best Film of the Year. The films he directed for New Theatres were all successes. In particular, his take on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhayay's Devdas became the film with which he is remembered by today.

Barua was not the first filmmaker to take on Devdas. Director Naresh Mitra made a silent version in 1927. Later, film historians would note that Devdas was a character Barua most identified with. He was drawn to make the same film thrice and in three different languages — Bengali, Hindi and Assamese. He cast himself in the Bengali version as Devdas and ended up marrying his leading lady, Jamuna Devi, who became his third wife.

Barua's performance still holds up when compared to later actors who became Devdas, KL Saigal and Dilip Kumar. His style of acting was restrained with none of the theatricality usually associated with actors at that time. Barua changed his performance for the medium of cinema as he seemed aware of the different audience from stage to the cinema hall. Many actors followed suit.

Even the writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhayay told Barua that he was born to re-create his story for the screen, just as he was born to write Devdas. His productions of Devdas, particularly the film's ending, elevated him to the upper echelons of directors in the country and turned the character into a cultural icon. Barua used jump-cuts in editing to heighten the sense of tragedy between the two lovers.

Unfortunately, like the character he came to be connected with, Barua died an early death at 48, his latter years marred with illness and alcoholism. Barua had always been a highly economical filmmaker, always on time and sticking to a strict schedule while shooting. Barua experimented with many new ideas and compositions during song picturisations, voiceovers and credit titles, proving he was always breaking new ground. Barua was always thinking ahead and after his death remained a legend in Indian cinema, in fact, Ritwik Ghatak referred to him as India's best director. He influenced several Indian filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and even Bimal Roy, his cameraman on Devdas (1936) who went on to direct Dilip Kumar in his interpretation of Devdas.