A biopic, like a historical novel, is not easy to do. Both have to undertake a careful balancing act between hard, documented facts and imagination, between reality and creativity. A biopic is as different from a documentary on a person’s life as a historical novel is from a biography. It is a film about a person, usually a very well-known one, yet seen through the prism of a filmmaker’s imagination. There is a need to dramatize the events, in order to hold the viewer’s attention, yet one cannot stray from the facts which are often very well known to them. It is a very demanding genre, and requires a great deal of effort from both the director as well as the actors, all of whom need to do their homework thoroughly. This is probably the reason that very few of our filmmakers have tried their hand at this genre. For to walk the tightrope between factual representation and imagination is always a difficult thing, requiring both rigour and a freewheeling creative impulse.
It is really heartening, therefore, to find that young filmmaker Bobby Sarma Barua’s second film Sonar Boron Pakhi is a biopic on the iconic folk singer of Assam, Pratima Barua Pandey, who passed away in 2002. The title is both a reference to, and a takeoff from the Goalpariya folk song Sonar Boron Pakhi, popularized by the singers Jayanta Hazarika and Shyamal Mitra in the film Moniram Dewan. This allusion to a song that is embedded in the collective consciousness of the Assamese through its opening phrase that means “The Golden Bird” works at many levels, for indeed, Pratima Pandey truly was a “Golden Hued Bird”.
The story of the singer is indeed fascinating, and though it has been told in bits and pieces over time, it needed possibly a full-length production to do justice to her amazing journey. Born to privilege, in a family of erstwhile zamindars of Gauripur, it was not the music of the elites that attracted her. Her father, Prakritesh Chandra Barua, often known as Lalji, a well-known elephant trapper, encouraged his little daughter to listen to, and learn the songs of the mahouts when he took her along with him to the camps in the forests. Gradually, in the film, she develops into a person whose enthusiasm for her land and the music of the ordinary people surrounding her, becomes an all-encompassing passion. Her quest to search out these songs from the repertoires that are with the people, the way she absorbs their meaning as well as their melody, are sensitively shown. Her journey to the pinnacle of success is documented faithfully, as are the hurdles she encounters.
This genre, which she almost single-handedly took to the stage, the radio and films, confused people at first, thinking that what she was singing was Bengali folk. (Indeed, for a long time, Goalpariya Lok Geet was taken to be a form of Bengali music among the people of the rest of Assam). And yet hers was a journey that culminated with the highest accolades of the land, and, what was more important to her, with her winning over the hearts of the people. Her textured voice, her deep immersion in her music, are beautifully shown in the picture, as is her slow journey through small village stages to her hard won success to the international stage. Hers was a very unusual life, and a successful one, in which she also had the support of people such as her father and her husband, though many were derisive of her habits and the music she was so passionate about. Smoking and drinking were part of her, and were accepted by those who held her dear, though these were also taboos for women at the time.
This is a film in which music forms the backbone. Many of Pratima Pandey’s songs in her own voice are used, to great effect, while working class people, farmers and herders who sing as they go about their work, along with women while at worship, also punctuate it with their beautiful music. These are of many different kinds. Many of them are of high philosophy, such as the luminous Ek Bar Hori Bolo Mon Rosona Ei Manob Deher Goirob Koiro Na. (Do not take pride in this mortal body, take the name of the Lord.) Others are moving in a different way, such as the elephant taming songs through which wild elephants are gradually domesticized.
Indeed, elephants themselves form a leitmotif that runs through the film. This region of Goalpara, so famous for its pachyderms, is full of cultural references to them. The mahout songs, with their pathos, are layered with meanings about the transience of life. Elephant lore and life in elephant camps are reflected in these songs, which Pratima Pandey, through her hard work, talent and single mindedness, rescued from oblivion.
The cinematography, by Avijit Nandi is exceptional. The vast landscape of forests is beautifully captured, as is the unending riverscape. Not only is the film a visual treat, it is fascinating to see that the picturization is sensitive to the layers. The elephant sequences are fantastically filmed, their gentle strength coming through beautifully on screen. There are many moments that are astonishingly captured, such as the scene where buffaloes are herded by a singing herdsman across a road, while Pratima and her musicians walk past. There are also the tranquil scenes where the singer floats down the vast river on a frail boat, evocative of life floating down to eternity. OR the one where she drenches herself in the mud of the river, and comes up covered with it, calm and serene, like the elephants she sings about. Indeed, the film is rich with such visual metaphors.
The actor who portrays a real-life character, one who is very much in the public consciousness, and one who was seen and heard by many, has a difficult job. It is to the credit of Pranami Bora as the youthful singer that she has absorbed the essence of who Pratima Pandey was, and portrayed her with so much empathy. Especially noteworthy is the way in which she immerses herself in the music when she sings, with her eyes closed, oblivious to the world, her head tilted in the same way as the singer did. Her gait, too, and the way she wears her sari, are reminiscent of Pratima. The musicians who work with her also echo the gestures and mannerisms of those who actually accompanied her. Indeed, one or two of them are people who really have accompanied her on stage, through the indigenous instruments of the land.
Another noteworthy feature of the film is the language, that of Western Assam, known variously as the Rajbongshi Bhasha, or Deshi Bhasha. This unique tongue, sweet, mellifluous and expressive, is spoken throughout the film, to great effect. It adds to the poignancy of the film that this is a language whose usage is fading, with the number of speakers declining. Like those great herds of elephants that once roamed the sal forests which themselves are diminishing, like the crumbling buildings that are shown repeatedly, this is a language that is slowly vanishing. However, one does wish that the subtitles had been better done. They could easily have been made to flow more smoothly, and certainly, more expressively. However, that is a comparatively minor quibble. On the whole, though, this much awarded film is one of the best to have come out of our State for a while now.