Having bagged National Awards for all his seven Assamese films, Bhabendranath Saikia belongs to an exclusive club of filmmakers.

“For the first time in nine years, Assam Sahitya Sabha (the highest platform for culture and literature in that State since 1917) thought of celebrating his work on his death anniversary.”

Preeti Saikia is obviously pleased to share with us this long-overdue development about her husband Bhabandranath Saikia. She enthusiastically relates that on his death anniversary on August 13, the Sabha organised a two-day event to discuss not just Saikia’s path-breaking films but his novels, plays written for the vibrant mobile theatre of Assam, short stories and children’s literature in the State’s Nowgong city, his native place. “It was held in Kampur in Nowgong where he shot his first film ‘Sandhya Raag’. We stayed over a month there for it and closely interacted with the people of the area,” she fondly recalls.

“Sandhya Raag” (or “Evening Song”), produced and directed by Saikia, bagged him his first National Award, Rajat Kamal (Silver Lotus), in 1977, and the Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF) took it for screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978. At the recent event in Nowgong, “Sandhya Raag” was played to a packed audience even after 35 years have passed. The movie quite impressively rolled out from a Betacam cassette.

Preeti — in New Delhi to attend a function held in honour of Saikia by the alumni association of Cotton College, his alma mater, explains how, “You need a lot of money to preserve the prints. So my husband had written to Assam Government to help out but on not receiving any response, he used the money received from different awards to preserve two of his films, ‘Sandhya Raag’ and ‘Anirban’ (a Rajat Kamal winner in 1981) in Betacam format.”

She says, “The original prints of his six films are with DFF (since they won National Awards, the prints were submitted to be sent for film festivals in India and abroad). One film is with Doordarshan, Guwahati Kendra. The only Hindi film he made was ‘Kalsandhya’, financed by National Film Development Corporation, so it is with NDFC. Jyoti Chitraban (the only studio then in Assam of which Saikia was also the president for some years) too had a few prints but they are damaged now.”

Preeti doesn’t know in what state are the original prints in the archives of these Government-owned entities. “Now and then, I do get requests for permission to screen his films. The next question I am asked is, where are the prints? I have to often direct people to DFF.”

To fill in for those not privy to Saikia’s life and work, his rise — from abject poverty to the respected circle of academia — is pretty impressive. His brilliant academic record ensured him a seat at the physics department of Cotton College, the first institution for higher education in the North East, and thereby in Presidency College, Kolkata, and in the University of London. He later taught physics at the Gauhati University, a time he excelled not just as a filmmaker who brought to the screen a range of seldom talked about subjects like women’s rights within marriage, exploitation of domestics, etc. but as a prominent writer too. He also edited “Prantik”, a news magazine that perceptive debates in the thick of Assam agitation, and “Xaphura”, a children’s magazine that many in the region grew up with. He was accorded the Padma Shri for his feats in 2001.

After Saikia passed away in 2003, Preeti thought of preserving his plays (there are 28 of them), the film scripts, the short story collections (11), novels (3) the children’s books (5) and the collection of essays (4) in her “own little way.” Three volumes comprising the plays and film scripts of the Sahitya Akademi awardee are in the market now. “We have material for two more. Also, two books have been filled from his diary; two more are being compiled.”

Having suffered immensely due to poverty in childhood, Saikia used the money he received in 1990 from Assam Valley Literary Award to start a trust for poor kids called Aarohan. “At Aarohan, we impart free training to poor children interested in pursuing the art, music and theatre,” says the wife. She has turned a corner of the building into a museum too. “It has the things he liked using. His desk, the radio he was so fond of, his spectacles, some clothes that he liked, also the awards he brought to the State,” she says.

Bhabendranath Saikia’s memory is alive in Assam in some other ways too, say in a road named after him in Guwahati, in a State Government Award. The Kalakshetra in Guwahati — born first as an idea to Saikia, has its library named after him too, and Preeti says, “Assam Sahitya Sabha is likely to institute an award in his name soon”. However, what is crying sorely for preservation is his body of work as a filmmaker, which nobody has come forward to act upon yet.

Saikia’s Screen Presence

“Sandhya Raag”

(Rajat Kamal, 1977)

“Anirban”

(Rajat Kamal, 1981)

“Agnisnan”

(Rajat Kamal, 1985)

“Kolahal”

(Rajat Kamal 1988)

“Sarothi”

(Rajat Kamal 1992)

“Abartan”

(Rajat Kamal, 1994)

“ltihaas”

(Rajat Kamal, 1996)

His Hindi film “Kalsandhya” (1999) was about insurgency in the North East. It was screened at the International Film Festival of India in New Delhi that year and also as part of the Indian section at the Cairo International Film festival.