Padma Bhushan Jahnu Barua spoke to us about making films and choosing Assamese cinema over Bollywood. Here are selected excerpts of a conversation by Simantini Dey.
How were you introduced to cinema?
Cinema was out of my reach as a child. The only films that I ever watched were those that were screened at the tea gardens, under the open sky with the help of a projector. Back then I never thought that I would become a filmmaker.
How did you end up studying filmmaking at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII)?
I was doing my graduation in Assam. During my college days, I was introduced to world cinema, I watched The Bicycle Thief and several of Satyajit Ray’s films as well. During this time, I watched a Romanian satire named A Bomb Was Stolen directed by Ion Popescu-Gopo. I was a Physics student back then and the way the film explained how a bomb was made fascinated me and perhaps this was the film that got me thinking about filmmaking. After college, I enrolled at FTII.
You once said, “The first film my parents saw was the first film I ever made”. How did your parents react when you said that you wanted to take up filmmaking as a career?
[Laughs] They didn’t understand any of it. But you know it was okay. They were very different kind of parents. They said no matter what you do, work hard and do it well.
How was FTII as an experience?
The years in FTII are my most cherished times. But it wasn’t easy. Initially, I found it extremely tough. In my first year, I didn’t understand anything that was being taught in the class. Everything was going over my head and I was losing confidence in myself. But I had some really good friends who helped me and slowly with a lot of hard work, I rebuilt my confidence. In fact, from being a nobody in my first year, I went on to become the president of the student’s union in my third year. FTII changed my perception towards cinema and media and I automatically learned to experiment.
After FTII, how was Bollywood? Was it difficult to get work?
No. I have been fortunate enough to always get work. I started off with Aruna and Vikas Desai’s Shak featuring Vinod Khanna and Shabana Azmi. After that, I got to work with Sai Paranjapee in Jaadu Ka Shankh. I started working as a production manager. Students of direction don’t really like taking this profile. But I had no qualms about it. I was very clear about one thing and that is, I will learn all aspect of filmmaking.
You cannot be lazy and just learn direction. It always helps to know the whole process as a filmmaker, so I also took keen interest in editing during my FTII days.
Why did you decide to leave Bollywood and come back to Assam and make Assamese films?
Well, to be honest, there was no dearth of work in Bollywood, but it constantly irked me to see that not many Assamese films are not being made. Those days Bengali cinema, in fact mostly Satyajit Ray’s films, were representing India worldwide in international festivals and somehow, it kept bothering me that if regional cinema can do that, then why isn’t Assam doing it?
I was extremely envious of Ray and I thought that I should make a contribution to Assamese film industry, and so I returned.
I believe Satyajit Ray loved your work?
Yes,he did and I felt honoured to hear someone like him praise my work. I met him during a film festival and he told me that he was amazed at my work and is looking forward to see more of my films. I felt humbled and happy at the same time.
The stories of your films are often heartbreaking and depicts the plight of common man. Why so?
We as human beings are very vulnerable and I don’t want to shy away from this fact. The fact is, no matter how happy we are and strong we appear to be, we are fragile when fate deals us a wrong hand. That is the truth.
And I don’t want to present a candy-coated version of reality through my films. I am not afraid to make audiences cry. There is nothing that grasps the audiences more than human emotions and so I always make an effort to portray them through my stories.
It has been a long time that you have been associated with the Assamese film industry. How has it evolved over the years?
The Assamese film industry is very old. It produced its first film in the year 1935. But it has a very small market and production is few. At least five to six movies are made per year and the maximum is 10. However, the industry is consistent. It keeps churning out films. But mostly very low budget films.
You have won 10 national awards, so you are already a jury favourite, but how much of commercial success is important to you?
It is very important. If you make a film for the audiences, you would obviously want them to like it, right? Who wouldn’t want their films to do well? But I don’t believe in making a cinema just to please the audiences. I make films to tell the stories that I believe should be told and stories that I feel for. I cannot make a film according to what the audiences prefer to watch. But every story I as a filmmaker chose to tell, I only try to tell it in a way that would reach out the audiences and make them love it as much as me.
As for awards I have been lucky to have got so many of them and it feels great each time I get one. But there has been times that I didn’t win as well and I don’t have regrets for not winning. It doesn’t pain me a bit.
What are the greatest challenges that you as a director face?
As a director, one cannot be lazy. The world has changed so much since I first ventured into films. Especially technology. One has to keep himself constantly undated that is what they can do to be better at their crafts.