It took over 30 years after the release of the first Assamese production, Joymoti, in 1935 for a serious-minded and realistic film to be made. The honour belongs to Padum Barua’s Gonga Chilonir Pakhi (The Wings of the Albatross), which was released on March 12, 1976.
Jyotiprasad Agarwalla’s Joymoti was followed by several Assamese films, but most of them were populist entertainers. Even Piyoli Phukan, the first Assamese film to receive the President’s Certificate in 1956, had melodramatic overtones. Box office milestones included the comedy Ito Sito Bahuto (1963) and Dr Bezbarua (1969), but it took Gonga Chilonir Pakhi to buck the trend.
“When it comes to realistic and humane films, after Jyotiprasad it was Padum’s turn to defy prevailing norms,” said film critic Manoj Barpujari. “Against the backdrop of neo-realism in the Indian cinema of the 1970s, his maiden venture was a realistic film with questions on the post-independence development model told through the story of a widow.”
Barua based his debut on the novel of the same name by Lakshminandan Bora. Shot in black and white by Film and Television Institute of India graduate Indukalpa Hazarika, the movie features mostly non-professional actors. It’s the story of Basanti, a young woman who starts dreaming of a new life with her former lover, Dhananjay, after her husband’s death. The film was produced with the savings of Barua and his friends and relatives. Barua also composed the musical score.
The opening images of a deserted river bank, a tern and a bamboo forest wordlessly introduce viewers to the solitary world of the protagonist. Dhananjay and Basanti communicate largely through letters. Other narrative motifs include the boat and the cycle – the boat signifies the yearning for love, while the cycle serves as a sign of freedom. The sounds of a toad’s croak, a vixen’s howl, the clicking of the loom, the pounding of the husking pedal, the chirping of birds and hymns from the prayer hall combine to bring an ethnographic realism to the narrative.
According to renowned Assamese critic Hiren Gohain, “The tragic failure of a social evolution is reflected movingly in a story of crushed dreams of individuals. This is not just an issue of the village versus the town; rather this is a story of a tragic premature death of a possibility of a complete society.”
Born on February 11, 1924, in Jorhat, Barua was exposed to the films of Pramathesh Chandra Barua, Debaki Bose, V Shantaram, Himansu Rai and Bimal Roy as a child. In 1943, he enrolled at Banaras Hindu University, where he experienced the cinematic innovations of masters such as Vsevolod Pudovkin, John Ford and Victor Fleming.
In 1948, Barua started working as a statistical officer for the Assam government in Shillong, which was then the capital of Assam. His cinephilia grew deeper in Shillong. He watched several American, British and Russian films. The post World War II works of Ford, Charlie Chaplin, William Wyler, John Huston and Billy Wilder left a deep impact on Barua’s cinematic sensibilities. The book Film by renowned film critic Roger Manville also helped Barua enrich his cinematic sensibilities.
In 1962, Barua and other film enthusiasts formed the Shillong Film Society, the first in northeast India. The society held seminars, conferences and festivals on the art of cinema. During this period, Barua also became acquainted with filmmakers and critics, including Ritwik Ghatak and Marie Seton.
After years of being a student of cinema, Barua established himself as a worthy practitioner in his debut feature. However, he never made another film. Gonga ChilonirPakhi impressed the critics, but it was a commercial failure. Barua did make a documentary on Assamese folk dances for the Assam government, titled Ojapali, somewhere around 1986 or ’87.
The cineaste continued to work in the Department of Statistics until his retirement, said film critic Bitopan Borborah, who is also a relative. “Padum was an intellectual, he never tried or pushed for financiers,” Borborah said.
Barua continued to pursue his interest in cinema in other ways. His book Chalachitra Prasanga (About Film) is an outstanding contribution to film studies. Barua was also an accomplished flute player and a music connoisseur. He died on July 26, 2006, in Guwahati.
Gonga Chilonir Pakhi has largely disappeared from circulation. Its screenplay was published as a book that is out of print. The movie is available on a two-disc VCD. The National Film Archive of India in Pune does not have a 35mm print. There is a version on YouTube that has been uploaded by Himjyoti Talukdar, who runs the webzine Enajori, but it is without subtitles.