Pramathesh Chandra Barua was the man who played perhaps the most important role in the rising fortunes of New Theatres in the 1930s.
Born in Gauripur, Assam,in 1903, the son of the king of Gauripur, Barua graduated in 1924 from the Presidency College, Calcutta. He then went to Europe, taking interest in all arts including film and saw much of the work of filmmakers like Ernst Lubitsch and Rene Clair. He returned to India and served for a time in the legislative Council of Assam. But he preferred the heady life of Calcutta and settled down there and soon got involved with the film world.
He made a small investment in Dhiren Ganguly's British Dominion Films and also acted for him. He then returned to Europe, observed production at the Elstree Studios in London, went to Paris and purchased lighting equipment before returning to Calcutta where he built a studio and formed Barua Pictures Ltd. Apradhi (1931), produced by the studio, was a critical success and was the first Calcutta Production to use artificial lights. The film starred Barua and was directed by Debaki Bose. He also played the villain in Ganguly's Bhagyalaxmi (1932).
When British Dominion Films collapsed, Barua hired Ganguly. But he was no more ready for sound than Ganguly was. Further, his father, angered by his association with the film world, refused to help him. Finally Barua, like Ganguly and Debaki Bose joined New Theatres Ltd.
Barua's breakthrough film at New Theatres was Devdas (1935). The film was an all-India sensation. It was first made in Bengali starring Barua himself as Devdas and then in Hindi with KL Saigal in the title role. Both the versions released in 1935. Barua used Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's novel as just raw material, creating his own structure and transforming what was purely verbal into an essentially visual form. Avoiding stereotypes and melodrama, Barua raised the film to a level of noble tragedy. The film's characters are not heroes and villains but ordinary people conditioned by a rigid and crumbling social system. Even the lead character, Devdas, has no heroic dimensions to his character. What one sees are his weaknesses, his narcissism, his humanity as he is torn by driving passion and inner-conflict. The film was a complete departure from the then prevalent theatricality in acting, treatment and dialogue. Barua initiated a style of acting that was natural and unaffected. His method was to underplay, to convey emotion through the slightest tremor of the voice and use significant pauses in between the dialogue to maximum effect. Devdas established Barua as a front rank filmmaker and New Theatres as a major studio. The Bombay Chronicle hailed it as,
"... a brilliant contribution to the Indian Film Industry. One wonders as one sees it when shall we have another."
The film took Saigal to dizzying heights. His brooding looks, the vagrant lock of hair, the resonant voice filled with love and despair drove the nation into a frenzy. Devdas was remade by New Theatres in Tamil in 1936, Bimal Roy (who photographed Barua's films) in 1955, and twice in Telegu in 1953 and 1974 but Barua's films remain the definitive versions!
Barua followed up Devdas with a series of high quality films - Manzil (1936), Mukti (1937), Adhikar (1938), Rajat Jayanti (1939) and Zindagi (1940).
In Mukti, Barua played the role of a romantic young artist who, to free his wife for another marriage carries out a perfectly simulated suicide and vanishes into the forests of Assam. When the wife and her new husband go on a hunting party, all three meet again. The artist rescues her from kidnappers and is killed thus giving her 'mukti' again. The film has one of the first elaborate filmic uses of Tagore's lyrics with the original tunes - Sabar Range Rang, Mesa Te Hobe, Tar Biday Belar Malakhani.
Adhikar continued with Barua's fascination for showing the urban - rural (modern - traditional) split through the personalities of the two women. The film was voted by the Film Journalists Association as the best film of 1938 while Rajat Jayanti is an interesting film that reveals Barua's flair for comedy and his inept and nervous hero is perhaps his most accomplished screen performance. Zindagi, which reunited him with Saigal, showed an unmarried couple living together albeit platonically. The film is remembered till today for Saigal's haunting rendering of So Ja Rajkumari So Ja...
Barua wrote most of his own screenplays. He was deeply concerned about the tragic dilemmas of his native land, its extremes of wealth and poverty, spirituality and cruelty. He planned his work minutely and never showed an actor how he wanted a scene played. To him an actor was an interpreter, not a mimic. Whenever a film of his was ready for release, Barua would avoid the premiere, predicting the film's utter failure and be off to Assam or Europe before returning with notes for a new film. The films of course were mostly big hits!
Barua was pursued by Bombay financiers to make films for them but he could not think of making films there. To quote him...
"It is not my field. It is a bazaar."
Barua left New Theatres in 1939 and freelanced thereafter. Among his later films, Shesh Uttar/ Jawab (1942) is perhaps the only film that stands out. Once again Barua shows the urban - rural split through the personalities of the two women - one poor, earthy and world-wise and the other a rich, strident feminist. The Hindi version is also remembered for Kanan Devi's rendering of her all-time hit song - Toofan Mail.
In the 1940s Barua planned an ambitious version of The Way of All Flesh but was unable to carry it out. He used to drink a great deal and his health had declined rapidly. He underwent an operation in Switzerland but soon collapsed.
When he died in 1951, his obituary referred to him as 'Pramathesh Chandra Barua, the creator of Devdas ', thus pulling him back to his early triumphs and fine work for New Theatres.