Though he made relatively few films over his span as director, Bappaditya Bandopadhyay’s films made quite a mark in international circles. He was soft-spoken, gentle and extremely grounded never losing his cool under pressure while working or off work. Young, strapping and fit, few knew that he had a pacemaker in his heart and had a persistent lung problem which he hated to share with anyone and only his close friends in the industry were aware of it. Few know that he was also a poet of repute. His published work of poetry includes Pokader Atmiyaswajan (Friends and Relatives of Insects) and his poetic sensibility was reflected in his films.
Born on August 28, 1970, Bandopadhyay ventured into independent direction with a film for a satellite channel. The film Sampradan (1999) was selected in the competitive section of the 6th Dhaka International Film Festival in 2000. The film won the Best Supporting Actress Award, the Best Supporting Actor Award and the Best Female Playback Singer award at the Bengal Film Journalists Association that year and the Dishari Award for the Best music. It is about a young girl choosing her mother to ‘give her away’ as part of the wedding rituals, conventionally done by the father. She rejects the father’s request because he deserted the family when she was a little girl.
His second film Shilpantar (2002) was based on a short story by Sirsendu Mukhopadhyay, which was quite scary. Shilpantar was premiered at the Sofia International Film Festival in Bulgaria, in the competitive section of the Art Film Festival at Bratislava in Slovakia in 2003. It was the only Indian film other than Devdas that was selected for screening at the Helsinki International Film Festival in Finland in 2003 and Debasree Roy won the Kalakar Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film.
Shilpantar, based on a story by noted writer Sirsendu Mukherjee, unfolds the sad tale of Nibaran Potua who makes colour dyes at home to paint the specialty he is known for – pictures of the Devil. To sustain his market, he blends modern themes and ancient myths evolving around the Devil. But his paintings are characterized by a quality that reminds one of the rough truths of life. This strange character is pitted opposite another stranger one – Miss K. Nandy who makes a living out of eating live chickens and snakes as part of a circus act. In other words, she is a modern-day witch. No director would have dared to touch this story but Bappaditya did. The film borders on the horror genre without diluting the aesthetics of the medium. The cinematography and the acting by the two main actors – Debasree Roy and Subhashish Mukherjee was outstanding.
He then made three films – Devaki (2005), Kantatar (2006), and Kaal (2007). Devaki starring Perizaad Zorabian and Suman Ranganathan was in Hindi and English and dealt with the contradictions between a city-bred modern woman and a rural woman to conclude that though they were distinctly different, this did not prevent them from being victimised by a patriarchal society. The film drew accolades abroad but in India, it did very bad business and appeared to have been done for a niche market which also did not take kindly to the film. The film was selected and screened at the Indian Osian section of the 7th Osians Cinefan Film Festival, in the competition section of the Temecula Valley International Film Festival and Idaho International Film Festival both in U.S. as well as in the San Paulo Film Festival in Brazil. It was also screened at the World Film Festival in Montreal and Festival Di Rio in Brazil.
Kantatar based on a story by Debashish Bandopadhyay, the film is the story of Sudha (Sreelekha Mitra) and centers on a young woman’s search for a country that can give her permanent shelter which she does not have. She keeps changing her religious identity by switching her name that gives her a particular identity in order to gain acceptance and avoid being caught and placed behind bars. This tries this by attaching herself to a man belonging to a given communal faith. The entire narrative is placed against the backdrop of the sudden cross border threat of terrorism that changes the socio-political situation in a remote village close to the frontier. Finally, she takes refuge in a temporary weather camp on the fringes of the village. But does this help her escape the ‘barbed wire’ (Kantataar) existence she survives in? The film was screened at around 17 film festivals across India and beyond. It bagged for Sreelekha Mitra two Best Actress Awards and one Best Supporting Actor Award for Rudraneel Ghosh.
Kaal is a sort of sequel of Kantatar and centers around the trafficking of naïve girls who live in desperate poverty in a village on the India-Bangladesh border who are trafficked for prostitution through the doors of a beauty parlour that forms the entry and exit point for the girls. Gang-rape is one way to force some of them into prostitution while fake marriages to traffickers are another way. However, what one finds intriguing and confusing about the film is the way the girls merrily accept this change in their lives and lifestyles and instead of trying to get away, they dream of migrating to better pastures where prostitution will bring them more lucrative incomes such as Dubai or Hong Kong or Singapore. The ugly question that comes up is that – if the girls have ambitions of climbing the ladder of success through prostitution, then why the hell should we break our heads trying to rescue them? But the film had rave reviews beyond Indian shores because it offered a different perspective on trafficking.
Houseful (2009) was a partly autobiographical account of a film director who makes off-beat films that fail to draw an audience and the director watches the film in empty theatres. It was screened at the Osians some years ago The one quality that distinguishes Bappaditya Bandopadhyay’s Houseful from other films that concern themselves with cinema-within-cinema is that it has strong autobiographical elements. Prosenjit’s look is fashioned after Bappaditya who wears a beard. Each time Nikhil’s mobile rings, it is Bappaditya’s cell-phone ring tone that belts out Gautam Chatterjee’s famous Mohimer Ghodaguli number. Bappaditya is known for giving breaks to new girls in his films. Nikhil does the same, sometimes by force of circumstance because top heroines openly give him the cold shoulder, shrugging him off with sarcastic barbs. Yet, it does not bracket itself with films like Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool.
Kagojer Bou (Wife on Paper, 2011) was based on a work by Sirsendu Mukhopadhyay, known for his strikingly unusual perspective on the marginal man or woman. Responding to the question what triggered in him the desire to make Kagojer Bou, Bappaditya said, “Though Kagojer Bou was written 30 years ago, it is extremely contemporary in terms of its content. In fact it is more contemporary than many contemporary novels of today. But Kolkata, the backdrop of the novel has changed considerably especially over the last five years. Kolkata at that time did not have the huge shopping malls and multiplexes. So, it was important to interpret the story in today’s context. The marginal in our city have become more marginal, and Kagojer Bou is about marginal people. I have written the script.”
Elar Char Adhyay (2012) based on a Tagore novel, captures the ideals of the Bengal Renaissance of the 1930’s and 40’s. Bappaditya Bandopadhyay has adhered strictly to Tagore’s story and lived up to the challenge of bringing across a poetic, lyrical and romantic interpretation of a political novel. After this film, he made the disastrous Nayika Sangbad (2013) that vanished with a whimper. But that did not rub the smile off his face. He conceived of a film featuring the marginalised migrants of Kolkata such as the Chinese girls who work in beauty parlours or the boys who work in Chinese restaurants, and so on. No one has done a film on these people before but Bappaditya thought of making one which did not see the light of day.
His latest film Sohra Bridge (2015) has just been selected for screening in the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India. The film stars Harsh Chhaya, Bidita Bag, Rajshri Deshpande and Merlvin J. Mukhin. It is said that he caught pneumonia while shooting continuously in the rains in Cherapunji for 19 days and this affected him. The story of the film is sourced from excerpts of a poem by Albanian author and poet Ismail Kadare. Bappaditya thought
Bandopadhyay also directed a television serial, Ananda Nagarir Kathakatha, on the architectural history of Kolkata for the popular Bengali television channel Alpha Bangla. His documentary on tribal masks was broadcast on Doordarshan.
45 years is too tender an age to say goodbye. But Bappaditya did that and passed away on November 7th, 2015 in a Kolkata nursing home due to multiple organ failure consequent upon pneumonia.