Obituary: Dr Bhabendranath Saikia

The child of a school teacher who led his life in penury, Dr Saikia sold chillies by the side of the road while in school. “But I sold my vegetable honestly. I never shortchanged my customers,” he was to later say in an interview to a magazine. That was how close Dr Bhabendranath Saikia, the filmmaker from Assam who passed away this morning, was to reality. So perhaps were his films.
“I classify him as one of the 10 major filmmakers that this country has produced,” says Saibal Chatterjee, film critic, and editor of the recently published Encyclopaedia Britannica of Hindi Cinema. “The only thing was that unlike other filmmakers, he was someone who was simply not into public relations, which is why he isn’t as well known as he should have been. As a chronicler, he has no peer in Assam.”
There is a certain, almost unmistakable starkness of portrayal that marked Dr Saikia’s low-budgeted films. One walks onto the sets of Anirbaan to the harsh echo of bamboo being cut to make a stretcher to carry the dead, a sangi as it is called in Assamese, on a hot, humid, and otherwise silent, afternoon in an Assam village. The story in Anirbaan: the life of a school teacher and his wife whose children die, one after the other. Agnisnaan tells the story of a zamindar’s wife who decides to have a baby with a village youth after her husband takes a second wife. In Xandhyaraag, the tale is of two sisters who, after having spent their youth in the comfort of a city household as maids, have to return to the grime of the village they were born in, and adapt.
Life though wasn’t exactly scripted the way Dr Saikia perhaps would have wanted. Apart from cancer, which he battled for years, Dr Saikia remains a representative of that rare breed of filmmakers who, despite their critical acclaim, didn’t make money out of their craft. “But I never got into debt making films,” he would say. “But give me Rs 35 lakh and I will give you a beautiful Assamese film.” The most expensive film he made had a budget of Rs 15 lakh. “Dr Saikia was ahead of his time,” says Chatterjee. “He, for example, spoke of women’s emancipation long before it became fashionable to do so. He was the face of cinema in that region for over two decades.” Enforced with what could only be defined as the most authentic idiom of Assamese culture and society, Dr Saikia has left behind a legacy that younger filmmakers in the region would now have to live up to

By Pranab Bora (