biopics

An Assamese biopic reminds us of folk singer Pratima Pandey Barua’s remarkable legacy

Bobby Sarma Baruah’s ‘Sonar Baran Pakhi’ traces the life and times of the artist whose achievements were overshadowed by controversy.

Two scenes from Sonar Baran Pakhi, Bobby Sarma Baruah’s biopic of Pratima Pandey Barua, renowned exponent of Goalporia lokageet or folk songs, linger in the memory long after the end credits have rolled. In one, we see Barua lying on her back in the mud, breathing silently and seemingly at peace. In the other, she has her back to the camera as she stands and smokes at a window in her house. There is a celebratory air about both these images. Barua’s remarkable life deserved no less.

Both these scenes sum up Barua’s often contentious public persona. Her championing of Goalporia folk music was looked down upon by purists and Assamese linguistic chauvinists (the Goalporia group of dialects is often regarded as crude or inferior). Similarly, the contested details of Barua’s married life were often used to downplay her artistic achievements.

Sonar Baran Pakhi (The Golden Wing) will be screened at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (April 5-9). The 86-minute Rajbangshi language biopic not only recreates Barua’s life but also covers a fair section of the indigenous community’s history in Assam. Although this is more of Sarma Baruah’s creative reimagining, the film is aided by archival details, field research and a recollection of Goalporia folk songs. Pranami Bora and Susmita Ray play the character at different stages.

Play
Sonar Baran Pakhi.

Pratima Pandey Barua (1935-2002) was known fondly as “Hastir Kanya” (Elephant’s daughter). She was the niece of legendary filmmaker Pramathesh Chandra Barua and was born into the royal family of Gauripur in the western Assam district of Dhubri. From an early age, Barua’s love for music took her to commoners like buffalo herders and mahouts. Sacrificing the privileges of royalty, she gave a distinct voice to the Rajbangshi community through her songs. The soulful nature and the humanitarian content of the lyrics touched a chord in the state.

In his essay Life as Lore: The Art and Times of Pratima Baruah Pandey, Jyotirmoy Pradhani writes:

“Her life reflects the various phases of the evolving Assamese identity, and how the folk acted as a syncretic energy in the understanding of the Assamese. Her songs, popularly called the Goalporia lokageet, are a part of a cultural community, largely the Rajbanshis, who have been historically dispersed around a vast territory including Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Southern Nepal and even Bangladesh. When Pratima Barua picked up the songs, they were seemingly in their last phase of life in public memory, for the history of the land took a sharp turn forcing the communities living in the periphery to abandon their cultural moorings and acquire new identities to conform to the altered geo-political legacy of the colonial times”.

The biopic attempts to chronicle the linguistic tussle in the region in the 1950s. Goalpara has always been a politically volatile area, especially since independence. As a result, the folksongs of Goalpara have been all but nudged out of mainstream Assamese music.

We are shown how Pratima’s family members shun the people’s music (“These are songs of the commoners, my child. We in the royal palace are forbidden to sing those”). Fighting through personal struggles, Barua continues to dedicate her life to collecting and tuning folk songs.

“These songs are performed with traditional instruments like dotara, sarinda, dhol and so on,” Bobby Sarma Baruah told Scroll.in. “The lyrics are about the human experience that each of us can relate to, so that’s why I believe these Goalporia folk songs are very special for us. And my intention is to preserve them through this movie.”

When Bhupen Hazarika met Barua on his return to Gauripur in 1956, he decided to incorporate her songs in his Assamese film Era Bator Xur (Songs of the Abandoned Road). It was the first step towards appreciating the fluidity of Goalpara’s folk heritage.

Both artists stole hearts as they sang to Lead Belly’s “We are in the same boat, brother” tuned with folk instruments. Unfortunately, we only get a brief glimpse of the duo in Sarma’s movie.

Sonar Baran Pakhi.
Sonar Baran Pakhi.

An artist’s inner turmoil surfaces in Sonar Baran Pakhi as Barua comes to terms with her identity. The coming-of-age section is substantiated by historical data. For example, the scene in which Barua shares her experience of auditioning at Guwahati Radio Centre speaks volumes about the kind of marginalisation she faced. The language of her songs – neither dominant Assamese nor the upper caste Bengali but a mixture of several dialects (Sylheti and tribal influences too) – came under suspicion as they did not qualify to be “Assamese” enough for public recordings.

There has been documentation on this topic. In Dhiren Das’s book O’ Mur Hai Hostir Kanyare, one gets a perspective on the treatment of these songs by All India Radio’s Guwahati station. Barua was asked to translate her music into Assamese first, and second, to focus on the religious nature of the songs. The politicising of folk music made the recording of Bhawaiyya and Chatka (fast-paced songs of an erotic/celebratory nature) music very difficult indeed.

“Hostir noran hostir choran hostir paye beri
Shottya koriya kon re mahut ghore e koye jon naari re
Tumra geile ki aashiben,
mur mahout bondhu re?”
(“You move the elephant, you graze the elephant,
you chain the elephant’s feet;
But tell me the truth, O mahout,
How many women do you have back home?
If you go away my mahout friend, shall you ever back?”)

There is a poignant mix of nature, desire, longing and the futility of worldly vices in Goalparia music. In the film, Barua’s engagement with nature is beautifully shot to convey this mix. As she emerges with clay wrapped sensuously around her body, the fulfillment of being one with nature comes to the fore. It stands as a recurring image of life imitating art. The human body in its corporeal form is bound to perish. Therefore, it is compared to a clay pitcher in the song Ek Baar Hori Bolo Mon Rosona:

“Ek baar hori bolo mon rosona,
arey manob dehai goirob koiro na,
manob deha maatiro bhando,
bhangile hoibe khondo re khondo.”
(“Say the name of God just once
My friend, take no pride in the mortal body
The human body is a pitcher of clay
When it breaks it shall shatter into thousands of pieces.”)

Sarma Baruah said, “This is an imaginative and illusory journey which I have recreated through the film. The beauty of her inner sense, her relationship with nature, all blend together to give a unique portrait.”

Today, the statue of Padma Shri Pratima Pandey Barua stands at Swahid Udyan in Chandmari, witnessing massive changes to its cultural milieu and the threat of the appropriation of folk music. It leaves me, as does the film, with a mixed whiff of hope and hopelessness.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

Play

In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

Play

Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

Play

The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

Play

The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.