Jamuna Barua’s film career began — and ended — with the redoubtable Pramathesh Barua who probably does not have a match in Indian cinema in terms of achievement. Among his many achievements is his discovery of Jamuna Devi.
Starting with a bit role in Barua’s first film for New Theatres’ “Rooplekha” (1934) — the first film to have the flashback technique—Jamuna married “Barua Saab” the same year. The following year came her second film — and first as heroine — Barua’s “Devdas” (1936), in which she starred opposite her husband in the Bengali version, and did the Hindi version with K. L. Saigal. The rest as they say is history.
Jamuna Barua’s last film was “Phulwari” (Bengali version: “Malancha”) based on a Tagore story and released in 1951. The film starring Prabhat Mukherjee and directed by Prafulla Roy petered out at the box office, being described as “a difficult Tagore plot”; with P. C. Barua’s death the same year, it also signalled the end of Jamuna Barua’s career.
Jamuna’s parents came from U.P., though Jamuna herself was born and brought up in Calcutta. Hindi and Bengali, therefore, came to her as twin mother tongues and she had learnt a little Urdu, too, to facilitate her film career. Married to the late P. C. Barua right at the beginning of her film career, she fortunately did not have to face any domestic opposition in entering a career which, in those days, was not exactly considered angelic, especially in the case of women.
“Devdas” proved to be a celebrated landmark in the annals of Indian talkies and was, for that time, what would now be called “offbeat” in the columns of cinema critics. Just a little before Kanan Devi had signed a long contract with New Theatres, P. C. had offered the role of Parvati to her, but Kanan Devi was unable to accept because of her current contract with Radha Films. It was written in Jamuna Devi’s fortune to portray Parvati eventually. Apart from its importance for students of cinema, “Devdas” was also a big box office hit and almost overnight, Jamuna Devi was made.
She consolidated her early success the same year with “Grihadaha” (Hindi version: “Manzil”), another hit with Barua as leading man and director in both the versions. “Grihadaha” was also a Sarat Chandra story and to have two thumping triumphs in as important films as these in the space of a year was no mean achievement, more so in an era when most film artistes took on two or three pictures a year. “Grihadaha” was another film which left an indelible mark on film history. Then came “Maya” — a bilingual — with Pahari Sanyal which was one of the very few films Jamuna Devi did with a hero other than Barua himself.
In 1938 she did another bilingual, “Adhikaar” which was to prove a rich influence on film makers. Starring and directed by P. C., “Adhikaar” was the first film to make a conclusive analysis of the relationship between the haves and the havenots.
A role after her heart was the Hindi “Zindagi” with Saigal, and directed by P. C. — a role which Suchitra Sen did again in as recent a film as “Priya Bandhabi” (1975) and won the Filmfare Award as Best Actress. “Zindagi” then, as “Priya Bandhabi” now, proved a super hit.
But due to reasons never really divulged, “Zindagi” became the last film for Jamuna Devi under the prestigious New Theatres banner. She left it in 1940-41 and joined the other equally important studio, M. P. Productions and gave them something to remember with the only two films she did for them: “Uttarayan” (a bilingual with Barua as hero and director) and “Shesh Uttar” (Hindi: “Jawab”).
Both films were among her biggest hits, “Jawab” (1942) earned an unprecedented box office collection of Rs. 28 lakhs (while the double version cost only lakhs) which, in terms of money value, could still stand up to any of the modern-day box office bonanzas. This film brought together for the first time, Jamuna Devi and Kanan Devi, and its commercial draw, with the added attraction of Barua himself acting and directing, should be evident. Both Kanan Devi and Jamuna Devi received critical acclaim too by their winning the Bengal Film Journalists Association’s awards.
Jamuna’s role in “Jawab” was an acknowledgement of her talent because she had been almost typecast as a tragedienne. And although in this film, too, she played the sympathetic character of Reba who eventually sacrifices her lover for the sake of Meena (Kanan Devi), Reba’s was a glamorous role of a sophisticated lady from the upper class, something which was quite contrary to Jamuna’s usual roles emanating a certain raw simplicity.
Pioneer Pictures cast her later in “Amiri” (Hindi), Indrapuri Studios signed her up for “Pehchan” and “Rani” — all three with P. C. as hero and director. These were followed by another big hit, “Sulah”, in Hindi (Sumitra Devi doing the Bengali version, “Sandhi”) and directed by another cinema colossus, Debaki Bose and starring his nephew, Apurba Mitra, as hero. But this was not the kind of success Jamuna Devi had been tasting so far, and it was made further desultory by two Bengali non-successes, “Neelangari” and “Dever”, the latter with Chhabi Biswas.
By now, her status as a popular star had been established and these lukewarm years did not affect Jamuna Devi in any manner of gravity. In fact, it was after this, around 1948-49, that Ram Dariyani and V. M. Vyas came from Bombay to make films with her in Calcutta.
Dariyani’s “Hindustan Hamara” and more particularly, Vyas’ “Ghar”, both in Hindi, brought back the taste of success in Jamuna Devi. While “Hindustan Hamara” starred P. C., “Ghar” proved to be a bigger hit although it had opposite her, an unseeming hero in Iftekhar, today’s resident policeman of Bombay films! She was to appear with Iftekhar as hero in yet another film, “Taqraar” (Mansata Pictures) which, however, did not excite the cash registers over much.
In between, she managed to do a Bengali film, “Chander Kalanka” with Barua as her leading man and director and an Indrapuri Studios’ Hindi venture, “Iran Ki Ek Raat”, which was left incomplete. In 1951, came P. C. Barua’s death and with it, Jamuna Devi’s last film “Phulwari” (Bengali: “Malancha”)—after which Jamuna Devi went into voluntary retirement.
Apart from “Zindagi” in which Jamuna Devi found “great satisfaction”, her role of Parvati in “Devdas” was evidently her best. Besides, having a definite penchant for the tragic character, it is not very surprising that this role stands out as her most prominent. Indeed, Jamuna Devi fancies herself as a veritable Paro even today. “Paro was simple — like me. I hate overdressed people. The `Devdas’ role was something which I liked best, it was me,” she said.
Although Jamuna Devi has severed all connections with films, she keeps herself well, informed and very much in touch with today’s cinema. Though she regards Dilip Kumar as the best artiste after her era, her talk is frequently punctuated with the names of Amitabh Bachchan and Gulzar. She refuses to comment on Barua’s “Devdas” as compared to Bimal Roy’s in which Dilip created cinematic history, but is quite obsessed with Gulzar’s forthcoming “Devdas” with Dharmendra, Hema and Sharmila in the lead, a film of which she “hears a lot”.
Commenting on the changes that she sees on the screen before her now, she said: “In our times, there was no such thing as make-up or hair-dressing. Today, our heroines manage to make themselves look extremely beautiful, not so then. Today, people like Sanjeev Kumar can do old men’s roles with the help of careful makeup, we couldn’t. It is because of this that in our times, the audience looked for a good story and most of all, good acting.
“Another very notable thing is the lack of discipline today. We did our work with tremendous concentration and exclusive attention. Barua Saab used to work regularly from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. — and outside these hours, no films! Once we came to the studio, it meant a solid 8 hours of work — we couldn’t go away to a restaurant in between shots!”
Jamuna Devi is not a particularly effusive lady — and somehow gives the impression that she came from and lived in, a rather closed social environment. Added to this naturally taciturn exterior is her rather cold approach to journalists. An obviously stern lady who talks hard, Jamuna Devi seems to have this inner resistance to strangers.
Jamuna Devi has three grownup and married sons; and she seems younger than she is — a brisk gait, features that age hasn’t been able to soften too much, a firm voice. She lives with her sons in a large bungalow and keeps herself occupied with household matters. She feels she has given enough of herself to films, and does not feel any necessity to do anything actively for anything connected with films.
Even when in films, she participated only in acting and although she did sing a line or two in “Adhikaar”, she herself says: “I was not much of a singer, so I didn’t do roles that would require me to sing.” On the screen Jamuna Devi feels that her strongest point in portraying tragic characters was her special brand of dialogue delivery.
Asked whether she had any other interests in cinema apart from acting, she replied sharply: “No. My husband was good enough in that — he has taught so many eminent editors, directors, cameramen.” (As told to Anil Grover in 1977)