The release of Assamese film Dr Bezbarua in Dibrugarh’s Rangghar cinema hall on November 7, 1969, marked a pivotal moment for the industry. Produced by Rangghar Cine Production, it was the first Assamese thriller to see instant commercial success. It was also the first Assamese film to be shot completely outdoors. According to film critic Utpal Dutta, before Dr Bezbarua, filmmakers were dependent on studios in Kolkata for resources, including facilities for indoor shooting, editing and technical staff. “The film brought freedom to the Assamese film industry from the rule of studios and technicians in Kolkata,” Dutta said.

Dr Bezbarua began for the industry a phase of successful commercial cinema. The film used familiar elements from popular Hindi films of the 1960s, such as a lost-and-found plot, in which family members separate and reunite, romantic songs, dance numbers choreographed in the Western style, and elements of comedy.

Brajen Barua, the film’s director, was also the main lead. Barua cast himself in a double role, as the eponymous doctor and the villainous character, whose cynical grin and wicked expressions made him one of the most memorable villains of Assamese cinema.

The multifaceted Barua was also one of the finest music directors of Assam, whose compositions from the ’50s remain popular. However, for this movie, he chose to entrust his brother, Ramen Barua, with the music. “It’s still a mystery to me why [he] asked me to take [this] responsibility,” said the younger Barua, who was initially apprehensive about the audience’s reaction. His doubts were misplaced as the music went on to become very popular.

A song from Dr Bezbarua (1969).

The movie also played a major role in the acting career of Nipon Goswami, then a fresh graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India. Goswami, who had made his debut in Piyali Phukan (1955) as a child actor, underwent rigourous training for the dance and action sequences. This helped him give a highly stylised performance of the kind Assamese film audiences had not seen before.

However, for all its cinematic brilliance, Dr Bezbarua may have been lost to the present-day cinephiles but for the efforts of Jayanta Sharma, whose hometown, Dibrugarh, formed the backdrop of the movie. Sharma had been fascinated as a schoolboy with the excellence Barua achieved with minimal resources. As Sharma developed a greater interest in cinema, it dawned upon him that Barua’s immaculate understanding of the psychological time factor was key to the movie’s success.

However, to Sharma’s dismay, the movie was unavailable in a proper format. Both the producer and the National Film Archive of India had damaged prints that could not be played on a projector.

Undeterred, Sharma contacted Film Services, a laboratory in Kolkata where the negatives of the film had been originally processed. He was turned down when he requested a print. Bengali thespian Soumitra Chatterjee offered to help Sharma. The laboratory found a print in a highly damaged state in a building on its premises.

Sharma was eventually rewarded for his persistence when, in 2002, he managed to rediscover the movie through a source in Guwahati. The print being in the outdated U-matic (High Band) format, Sharma took help from an old studio in Guwahati to find a compatible player and convert the print into an accessible format.

Thanks to Sharma’s efforts, Dr Bezbarua returned to the Assamese audiences. The film was screened for the first time in many years on June 27, 2006, in Guwahati.

Jayanta Sharma.