Mise en scène of a Mystic Man: The Iconography of a Suave Filmmaker
‘There is a cure for everything except death’, proclaimed a brooding Antonio Ricci resonating an unfazed tinge of optimism in Bicycle Thieves, one of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s most favourite movies. This 1948 neo-realist classic of Vittorio de Sica along with Indian maestro Sayajit Ray’s masterpiece ‘Pather Panchali’ and few other New Wave films not only cast a spell on Bhupen Hazarika but also infused into him the spirit of cinema and moulded the conscientious filmmaker in him. And those who have taken a plunge into the cinematic world of this living legend have not an iota of doubt about the robust optimist and the conscientious filmmaker he epitomises. In a cerebral article “Chalachitra Sangha Andolanar Uddeshya Ki” inducted in “Sundarar Na-Diganta”(The New Horizons of The Beautiful), a seminal book published in 1967, Dr. Bhupen Hazarika unambiguously gave vent to his take on the essence of films. To him, a good film is not just an unflinching fountain of innocuous entertainment but an efficient and potent tool of mass education and cultural awareness. Throwing lurid light on the mottos of the film associations, he reiterated that the mottos of a film society should include a well-contrived strategy to persuade the filmmaker to make films keeping in view scientific and cultural education for the masses. The film should inculcate an ardent penchant in the society to learn more. He advocated making of scientific, educational, cultural movies and creation of awareness of making a film with all these values.
Dr. Hazarika forayed into Indian cinema at a crucial transitional juncture in the 6os when the Indian New Wave Cinema was fast gaining momentum and all set to give a fresh lease of life to the language of cinema in India. This Parallel Cinema Movement began to take shape from the late 1940s to the 1960s under the stewardship of prodigies such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Bimal Roy, Mrinal Sen, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Chetan Anand and V. Shantaram. This period is considered part of the 'Golden Age' of Indian cinema. Filmmakers of this era collectively created a body of work known for its ‘technical brilliance , artistic simplicity and thematic grandeur’. This cinema heavily drew upon the Indian literature of the times, and hence emerged as an important study of the contemporary Indian society, and is now used by scholars and historians alike to map the changing demographic and socio-economic dynamics as well as political temperament of the Indian populace. They used it to highlight prevalent issues and sometimes to throw open new issues for the public. Certain films of this New genre turned out to be revenue grossers in an industry propelled and dominated by the so-called mainstream films structured round fantastical song and dance, and replete with extravagant action and bizarre melodrama. These films palatably blended features of both art and commercial cinema. Bimal Roy's ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ (1953), which was both a commercial and critical success, was one of the earliest examples of this ‘fusion’ cinema. The film won the International Prize at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival and paved the way for the Indian New Wave. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, one of Hindi cinema's most successful filmmakers, loomed large as one of the few successful exponents of this much raved about 'middle cinema', which, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, carved a middle path between the extravagance of mainstream cinema and the stark realism of art cinema. He was renowned for making films that reflected the changing middle-class ethos in a serious but entertaining way. Another filmmaker to exquisitely mingle art and commercial cinema was Guru Dutt, whose film Pyaasa ( 1957) featured in Time magazine's "All-TIME" 100 best movies list. As a filmmaker making his debut at this transitional juncture of Indian cinema in the 60s, Dr. Hazarika seemed to be inexorably caught up in a rather twilight zone. But as a confirmed philanthropist and mass artist with pragmatic moorings , he naturally showed allegiance to the ‘fusion ‘or ‘middle’ cinema . Thus Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s films are often imbued with the familiar ingredients of a formulaic, run of the mill mainstream entertainer. But then they are always exhilarated with emotionally vibrant and socio-culturally veracious and relevant themes ----themes explored and treated with the panache and dexterity of a serious filmmaker. Always tangible in them is the filmmaker’s longing to serve certain altruistic ends.
Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s directorial debut ‘Era Bator Sur’(Tunes of the Abandoned Road) hit the screen in 1956. His maiden venture unveiled before the discerning audience his conscious endeavour to lend a touch of realism in line with the New Indian Cinema of the time. Dr. Hazarika came up with his own style of cinematic treatment and storytelling which was not just distinct but also cinematically convincing. Teeming with an intense socialistic zeal as an active member of Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association in the fifties, he too, was deeply moved by the weal and woes, relentless struggles and hope and aspirations of the common masses and devoted himself to creative works related to folk music and culture of the common Assamese people. ‘Era Bator Sur’ was an outcome of one such creative effort. The story and the music of ‘Era Bator Sur’ reflect the emotional attributes and effusions of the people of that era. The film is a cerebral , sensitive and highly realistic portrayal of a young artist’s empirical and emotional quest of the essence of his art, the abhorrent exploitation of the downtrodden, the simplicity and credulity of tribal farmers. But ‘Era Bator Sur’ is above all, as Dr. Bhupen Hazarika himself admitted on many an occasion , an intensely autobiographical film. The protagonist Jayanta Duara , a man of sensitive ,dainty and conscientious artistic temperament , who was modelled on Dr. Hazarika himself to a great extent, fell in love with and proposed to Nisha Phukon, a popular actress . But they failed to get along with each other. It was then that Jayanta Duara set out on his mission in quest of the tunes of the abandoned folk songs with a sense of conviction that the soil of his motherland, hopefully, would not misunderstand him. The cast of the movie included seasoned actor of contemporary Hindi cinema Balraj Sahni, stalwarts like Phani Sarmah, Bishnu Rabha, Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s maiden venture could neither create ripples at the national level nor click at the box office. Eclipsed by films like Satyajit Ray’s ‘Aporajito’ and Asit Sen’s ‘Salasal’, ‘Era Bator Sur’ apparently was lost in the maze. But it was a trendsetter in Assamese Cinema in which symbolism of profound suggestivity and poetic beauty was effectively used for the first time. The haunting melody of its songs coupled with sublime meaning has lingered on . Lata Mangeskar rendered her golden voice to present an unforgettable melody in Assamese when she sang for the first time for Dr. Bhupen Hazarika–“Jonakore Rati Asomire Mati....’’to perpetuate Bhupen Hazarika’s credentials .
Dr .Hazarika’s second Assamese film and third directorial venture was ‘Sakuntala’(1961), which was a celluloid adaptation of the classical epic drama “Abhigyanam Sakuntalam”. He dealt with the original storyline of the epic drama in his own innovative style .Although his treatment of the story elicited criticism ,the film turned out to be a crowed puller in its own right. Its music ,which was composed by Dr Hazarika himself, waltzed its way into the hearts of thousands and was extolled for its meaning and melody. “Sakuntala’ is a milestone in his filmography as well in that it was his first film which brought him a coveted National Award in the form of the President’s Silver Medal for the Best Regional Film of the year.
In 1964, Bhupen Hazarika came up with his third Assamese film, ‘Protidhwani’. It was again a trademark Bhupen Hazarika film which was a fusion of stark realism, social relevance, familiar fantastical and melodramatic stuff of the mainstream movies. Lying at the core of ‘Protidhwani’ was a sincere desire to highlight and promote the age old harmony and fraternity that have existed untainted since time immemorial among the different communities and tribes inhabiting the hills and plains of the North East India in a purely apolitical and artistic context. The plot of the film drew blood from a well-known Khasi love story ‘Manik-Raitong’. The film was exulted by both critics and connoisseurs for its art direction, costumes and superb performances of a few characters, specially that of Bishnu Prasad Rabha who played a Khasi King in the film. Dr. Bhupen Hazarika was once more at his best as the music director and its wonderful music and lyrics were rendered immortal by the golden voices of seasoned singers like Talat Mehmud, Sumon Kalyanpur and Bhupen Hazarika himself. His brilliant effort did not go unnoticed and unrecognised. ‘Protidhwani’ brought Bhupen Hazarika the President’s Silver Medal for the second time.
Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s 1966 movie, ‘Lotighoti’ broke away a bit from his usual cinematic narratives and stylistics, but firmly stuck to his creed . He turned a bit experimentative and innovative both in themes and techniques while making “Lotighoti”. The film convincingly conjures up a realistic picture of the numerous deterrents that the film directors from the Eastern part of the country, who had to go to Tollygunge, the Mecca of filmmaking , for making their own films had to encounter. In a subtle yet sardonic tongue-in-the-check tone, Dr. Hazarika admirably recreated a veracious spectacle of the way in which the directors of his own times compromised or rather were made to compromise with the given situation to achieve desired success in their ventures. As part of his cinematic experimentations, he cast characters in roles closer to those in their own life. For instance, Ratna Ojah , an exponent of Vaishnavite culture was cast as Dhanpati Bayan and he had to do in the film what he was accustomed to do in his personal life. Similarly renowned dance maestro Jatin Goswami was asked to play a dance teacher in the film. All that lent an extra touch of realism to the film. He repeated the same experiment in his next film ‘Sikmik Bijuli’ with desired success. ‘Lotighoti’ earned Bhupen Hazarika the President’s Silver Medal for a third time.
Dr. Bhupen Hazarika has directed three more full length Assamese feature films since ‘Lotighoti’. But none of them----‘Sikmik Bijuli’(1969), ‘Mon Prajapoti’(1979) and ‘Siraj’(1988)—could grab accolades from the critics or steal the show at the box office .Some critics allege that the equilibrium of the art cinema and the formulaic mainstream movie had somehow gone wayward in these films . It would be ,however, unjust to dismiss them as mediocre or average stuff. The connoisseurs of Dr. Hazarika’s films never fail to discern the marked improvement of cinematic treatment and techniques in these films. Despite their failure to click at both film festivals and box office, they stand out among the contemporary Assamese films for a variety of reasons and are generally hailed as laudable cinematic efforts. “Sikmik Bijuli”(1969) hit the screen in the same year Assamese Cinema was raving over the emergence of its first blockbuster ‘Dr. Bezborua’(1969). Although the spectacular commercial success and hitherto unknown technical finesse of ‘Dr. Bezborua’ overshadowed the emotion-clad tear-jerking realism of ‘Sikmik Bijuli’, the latter could still manage to find a cosy room for itself in the domain of Assamese cinema. As a realistic portrayal of the seamy slum life , which is an integral part of city life, the film depicts a touching story of the ‘modus vivendi’ of the slum dwellers, their hopes, aspirations, thoughts and values. In the film in which Bijoy Shankar, Bidya Rao and Tasduq Yousuf played the leads, famous Bengali actress Ruma Guha Thakurta was cast in a very catchy role. The film also did a fairly good business. Hailed by many as a thought provoking philosophical exploration of and probing into love relationships and certain other related crucial socio-cultural issues , ‘Man Prajapoti’ broke way from the popular mould and set a new trend of story selection in Assamese cinema. The music of both ‘Sikmik Bijuli’ and ‘Man Prajapoti’ , however, clicked and kept Dr. Hazarika’s reputation as a top ranked music director intact. ‘Siraj’(1988), which was based on a popular short story was literally a remake of Natasurya Phani Sharma’s 1948 film of the same name. The film was redesigned and refurbished keeping in mind the palates and needs of the current audience and presented as a glowing tribute to the legendary artist. Dr. Bhupen Hazarika made a full length Assamese feature film, ‘Miri Jiyori” for Doordarshan on celluloid. He also directed, composed music and sang for ‘Mahut Bandhure’ in 1958, a Bengali film which depicted the eternal bond of love, obedience and tolerance between man and elephant. He produced, directed, and composed music for Arunachal Pradesh’s first Hindi feature film in colour ‘Mera Dharam Meri Ma’ in 1977. He directed a colour documentary for the Arunachal Pradesh Government on Tribal folk songs and dances entitled ‘For Whom The Sun Shines’ in 1974. He produced and directed a documentary ‘Emuthi Saular Kahini’ based on the co- operative movement for the Govt. of Assam entirely in lyrical form. He produced and directed a half-hour documentary for Calcutta Doordarshan Kendra in 1977 on the folk songs and dances of North East India entitled ‘Through Melody and Rhythm.’ He also produced another 18-part documentary entitled ‘Glimpses of the Misty East’ on the socio economic and cultural progress in North Eastern India from 1947 to 1997, assigned to him by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India for celebration of Fifty years of India’s Independence. In a valiant bid to restore the glory of the first Assamese movie “Joymoti’ and its maker Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Bhupen Hazarika went through fire and water to restore the distorted and damaged print of “Joymoti”. With utmost diligence and assiduity , he made a documentary movie on the life of Jyoti Prasad, incorporated it with the restored print ,meticulously edited the whole project in 1976 . The result was a precious docu-feature ‘Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Aru Joymoti, in which he himself rendered the voice over commentary.
Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s outstanding contributions to cinema are not circumscribed to only a handful of good films and documentaries that he made. Connoisseurs of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika would never deny that the filmmaker in him lapses into quiescence beside the colossal singer, lyricist and music composer in him. The film director in him might have failed at times ,but the music director of his films has always triumphed. He has composed music and sung for the maximum number of Assamese films over the last five decades. Apart from his own films, the other Assamese films that he composed music for are ’Sati Beula’(1954), ‘Pioli Phukon’(1955),’Dhumuha’(1957), ‘Kecha Sone’(1959), ‘Puwati Nishar Sapon(1959),’Moniram Dewan’(1964), ‘Khoj’(1975), “Chameli Memsab’(1975),’Palashar Rang’(1976), “Banahansa”(1977), “Banjui’(1978), “Akon”(1980), “Aparoopa’(1982), ‘Angikar’(1985), ‘Juge Juge Sangram’(1986), ‘Ma’(1986), ‘Sankalpa’(1986), ‘Protishodh’(1987), ‘Priyajan’(1993), ‘Asanta Prahar’(1994), ‘Pani’(1995) and Sati Radhika. He grabbed the National Award of Best Music Director for Abdul Majid’s ‘Chameli Memsab’ in 1975. The only Bodo film for which Dr. Bhupen Hazarika has composed music is ‘Jeuni Simang’.(1987). He gave music for one Bhojpuri film entitled ‘Sath Maiya Ki Mahima’(1979).
He directed music in a number of outstanding Bengali films, such as ‘Jiban Trishna’, ‘Jonakir Alo’, ‘Mahut Bandhure’, ‘Kari o Komal’, ‘Asamapta’, ‘Ekhane Pinjar’, ‘Dampati’, ‘Chameli Memsaab’, ‘Dui Bechara’, ‘Simana Periye”, ‘Gajamukta’ and ‘Sopan. Bhupen Hazarika composed music for several well-known Hindi films, which include quite a few award winning movies. They are ‘Aroop’, ‘Meri Dharam Meri Ma’’, ‘Chameli Memsab’, ‘Ek Pal’, ‘Rudaali’, “Papiha’, ‘Saaz’, ‘Darmian’, ‘Mil Gaye Manzil Mujhe”, “Gaja Gamini’, ‘Daman” and ‘Kyon”. Thus Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s outstanding contribution to Indian Cinema in general and Assamese Cinema in particular also consists in his majestic works as a singer, lyricist and music composer of the highest calibre. This is what seems to have had a profound bearing upon Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s selection for the most prestigious film award of our country. When the Dada Saheb Phalke Award was conferred on him in 1994 for lifetime achievements as an auteur , special mention was made of his extraordinary role in giving Indian film music an unprecedented dignity and grace.
No doubt, as a filmmaker reposing faith in ‘middle’ or ‘fusion’ cinema, Dr. Bhupen Hazarika could never elevate himself to the artistic and technical heights of his contemporary illustrious counterparts. He could never amaze the film fraternity with a ‘Do Bigha Jamin’ or a “Pyassa’ or a ‘ Mother India or a ‘Pather Panchali’. But that can hardly undo his reputation as a venerable filmmaker . His charismatic touch as a prodigious music maestro aptly makes up for his lacuna as a filmmaker. Legendary film theorist ,scholar and critic, Andre Bazin opined that it could be misleading to judge the greatness of a great filmmaker always in the light of his creative masterpieces and artistic success as such an approach often undermines the consistency of temperament and tastefulness in a director, his relentless struggle to tide over the impasses inside and outside him. Bazin’s dictum seems pretty relevant to any assessment of an auteur like Dr. Bhupen Hazarika .