Bengali Luminary Profile

Buddhadeb Dasgupta

One of a handful of filmmakers who represented the now decadent off mainstream Indian cinema, Buddhadeb Dasgupta has consistently tried to define and re-define the significance of the auteur in cinema. From Dooratwa in 1978 to Urojahaj in 2019, the stamp of his individuality is marked cinematographically, as well as through his choice of his literary source. One easily notices the consistent undercurrent of the increased alienation of the individual in his films. His cinema has been a cinema of journeys as much as it is a cinema of the loneliness of man in a world where one-to-one communication is being increasingly threatened. This, ironically when technology is trying to make the world a smaller place everyone can reach out to.

The third of nine children, Buddhadeb Dasgupta was born in February 1944 in Anara near Purulia in South Bengal. “I am not a city boy. I am grateful for having spent my childhood in the proximity of nature, in interaction with simple rustic folk.” Dasgupta’s father Taranath, was a railway doctor who traveled frequently from one village to another, and the family moved with him too. Dasgupta was brought up in an enlightened, liberal and middle-class environment. His father’s emotional moorings lay in the politics of Mahatma Gandhi and later, in the post-Independence period, in Marxism. His mother used to sing Brahmo hymns and Tagore songs with the piano as support, and read out to her children from the Puranas, the Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita. This helped them develop a deep sensibility towards music and a feel for tradition.

Dasgupta discovered quite early, the intricacies of characterization and vitality in the novels of the three Bandopadhyays – Bibhutibhusan (1899-1950), Tarasankar (1898-1971) and Manik (1908-1956.) Later novelists also inspired him while Tagore’s paintings were instrumental in stirring Dasgupta’s interest in art. Folk art and folk dance, too, gave him great pleasure. Apart from the arts, he was drawn to politics since he was a boy when his idol was Netaji. But as he grew up, he felt drawn to the ideology of extremist Leftist politics, which, however, soon became a source of disillusionment and disappointment.

While he was in college, the film society movement pulled him to cinema as a form of self-expression through images and poetry. His involvement with the movement offered him access to a large and varied corpus of films across time, geography, filmmaker and theme. His membership of the Calcutta Film Society exposed him to the films of Charles Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Antonioni, triggering within him, a secret dream to make films himself.

Young Dasgupta was sensitive to the beauty and richness of the life around him, which spoke to him through images. “I always used to think in terms of images which I kept storing in my hard disk through the years, and whenever I want to, I can recall and `translate them into the idiom of cinema.” Most of these memories belong to his boyhood days. The image of his mother playing the piano in the evenings, of trips to nearby villages in railway trolleys, listening to the tales of railway labourers, of the various annual festivals which were marked by the acting participation of the Telengis, the expatriates from Andhra Pradesh. Added to this was the culture consciousness of the family, the poetry reading and the piano lessons. “My fondness for films was a natural offspring of my passion for poetry and painting,” he recalled.

“I began in a small way with documentaries. I made a ten-minute documentary in 1968 titled The Continent Of Love. I did several more in the following years, including King Of Drums (1973), which won the Best Documentary Award” he remembered , going on to state that he never honed the skills and the art of film-making at any film school. “I learnt about my craft from watching films, reading about them and listening to people talk about them.”

In 1978, Dasgupta made his first full-length feature film, Dooratwa (Distance.) Based on a short story by noted Bengali littérateur Sirsendu Mukhopadhyay, the film was completed in just 16 shooting days on an incredibly low budget, exposing just 20,000 feet of film in totality. It tackled the delicate issue of a husband-wife relationship that breaks under the tension the couples encounter when the husband discovers that his bride is pregnant. She says that she had been a willing participant in whatever has happened and is not ashamed of it. The husband leaves, but begins to question whether honesty in marriage is more important than virginity in the bride. There is an attempt to mend fences, but it is too late.

Neem Annapurna (Bitter Morsel) in 1979 placed him on the map of international cinema. The film received awards at the Karlovy Vary and Locarno International Film Festivals. Based on a story by Kamal Kumar Majumdar, the film is a brutal and stark celluloid representation of grinding poverty, exploring how differently people respond to it, cope with it and react to it. A mother, who can kill for a morsel of rice for her daughters, throws up the same rice herself. One, because she has eaten it on an empty stomach that has not known rice for a long time; two, because the guilt of having killed someone comes up through the purging of the food she has eaten. Raw Black and White images created by Kamal Nayak’s cinematography add to the texture of the film. The individualization of poverty and hunger in the film transcends the personal to step into the political and then moves on to the universal.

Sheet Grishmer Smriti (Season’s Memoirs) (1982), based on a Dibyendu Palit story, was produced by Doordarshan. The story is about Saibal, director of a semi-professional theatre group, who writes a play that is the title of the film. The narrative of the play harks back somewhat to The Gift of the Magi. A poor clerk and his wife are desperate to save up secretly to give gifts to each other. There is a parallel narrative within the play dealing with retrenchment and a subsequent suicide. Saibal seeks funds to produce the play, which he gets without much difficulty from a businessman who is vulnerable to flattery and empty praise. However, as rehearsals begin, the cast’s involvement with the play is overshadowed on the one hand by worries about being paid or not paid, and on the other, by problems that crop up in their personal lives.

Grihajuddha (Crossroads) in 1982 was based on a Dibyendu Palit story. This was Dasgupta stepping into color. He uses the format of a slickly made political thriller to unfold the story of a family’s victimization to corporate politics. He goes on to portray how one member, the daughter engaged to be married to her dead brother’s runaway friend, draws strength and moral courage from the very oppression they are victim to. The story is built around a few individuals whose lives are trapped in an urban corner where all the exit points have suddenly been closed. Which is tragic considering each one of them is fighting a war (griha– meaning ‘home’ and juddha meaning ‘war’) and is seeking his/her own way out of this war. If one is fighting a war for love, another is fighting a war for integrity, and a third is forced to wage a war for the very basic reason of survival. Somewhere along the way, these separate, individualistic ‘wars’, congregate and the difference between them is nothing more than a confused blur. Grihajuddha won the Fipresci Jury award at the Venice International Film Festival in 1982.

Phera (The Return) in 1986 was based on a story by Prafulla Roy. Phera unspools the story of Sasanka, the last descendant of a feudal aristocratic family. His passion is to write plays for the jatra, a folk touring theatre of Bengal that portrays larger-than-life characters often borrowing from Hindu mythology and folklore with a moral at the end. With the influence of the gaining popularity of cinema as a mass entertainment medium, Sasanka discovers to his shock, that the traditional character of the jatra gets compromised to suit the tastes of a cinema-hungry audience. He retreats into his shell, like he did when his wife ran away with his friend many years ago. An introvert by nature, Sasanka’s only contact with the outer world is through a strange form of relaxation – watching his two hired wrestlers wrestle in his compound. In this deserted milieu, enters his wife’s widowed sister Saraju, with her small son Kanu. Through disillusionment and frustration, Phera marks Sasanka’s return to his roots – his roots of his obsession – the jatra, and to the roots of his emotionally starved life – through Kanu. Phera won the National Award for Best Screenplay, Best Regional Film (Bengali) and Best Child Artist at the National Awards.

Quoting Dasgupta, “The idea of making Phera and then Bagh Bahadur came to me first when I was making King Of Drums on a great drummer called Dholer Raja. I discovered that his rare art was in danger of extinction because neither his son nor his grandson wanted to learn to play the drum, because there is no money or respect in it. So also, other priceless performing arts are dying out for want of patrons.”

Tahader Katha (Their Story) made in 1992 from a Kamal Kumar Majumdar story, described the agony of a freedom fighter, Shibnath (Mithun Chakravarty), who, after spending precious years of his life in the British prisons of the Andamans, confronts an independent India with its moral fibre twisted badly out of shape. Recalling the film, Dasgupta said, “Tahader Katha portrays the crisis of the human being trapped between the world of his dreams and the world of reality. Still, I think the world is meaningful because such dreamers exist. It would have been dreadful otherwise.” According to critic Chidananda Dasgupta, “Tahader Katha is a striking, unusual, disturbing film, both in story content and in the way its form develops.” “One of the film’s strength lies in the timelessness and the universality of its theme, conveyed with simple conviction,” said Derek Hill of The Times, London.

Charachar (Shelter of the Wings) made in 1993, is the story of Lakhinder, a bird-catcher, who sells his catch. In the process of his trade, Lakhinder discovers the cruelty of imprisoning a species of winged creatures whose very survival is determined by their freedom. His obsessive love for the very birds he is supposed to sell becomes his undoing. His wife leaves him for want of basic needs of food and clothing. The film is an exploration of the universal phenomenon of estrangement and alienation resulting from an obsession, all of which go to create an impressionistic melange of memories, insights and concepts. Lakhinder’s one-ness with the winged creatures also stands for his own craving for freedom – freedom defined on his own terms, where the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are neatly replaced by his love for his winged friends who wake him up at daybreak, filling every niche in his hut, perching themselves on his waking body, as he wakes up to the reality of freedom for himself and freedom for his winged friends. In the opinion of this writer, Charachar is Dasgupta’s most lyrical and perfect film to date, seamless in its editing. The film evolves a rhythm of its own as it moves on. Soumyendu Roy’s brilliant cinematography of the sea and the sky that often appear in Lakhinder’s dreams, match the wavy movements of Lakhinder’s birds.

Lal Darja (1997) reflects the vision of nothingness that haunts this century. This vision expresses itself through a man like Nabin Dutta who had lost touch with his childhood magic in his search for materialistic ascendancy. When he realises this sense of loss, does he get it back? Dasgupta’s script moves back and forth within Nabin’s mind, blending reality with fantasy, the present with the past, the individual with the collective. “Most of the story took birth from bits and pieces of my own childhood, which took me from place to place because my medical practitioner father had a transferable job. I realized that when we grow up, we do not really grow up from being a child to becoming an adult, but we become two separate entities altogether. Adulthood is not just a natural and logical extension of our own childhood. As we metamorphose into adults, we take within us the chemistry of the world and the experience around us. We also shed a few precious things of which, innocence is the most crucial. To some people like Nabin in my film, this can make the difference between living and loving, or losing the power to do both.” said Dasgupta.

On the surface, Uttara (2000) could be interpreted as a triangular love story where two, simple, unlettered men are torn between their close friendship on the one hand and their love for the same girl, Uttara, on the other. But to label it a triangular love story, would be an oversimplification. Perhaps also, a misinterpretation. Uttara speaks of lovelessness rather than of love. A dwarf may be slighted and ignored by the majority of non-dwarfs. But his heart could be taller than the tall men who tower over him. The fundamentalists may have killed the pastor. But the masked dancers have rescued his heir, Mathew, to take up from where Padri Baba left off. The film is cinematically brilliant, with excellent cinematography, a dream-like setting that lends itself ideally to the volatile changes in the ambience and mood of the film. It exudes a strange feeling of actual heat, giving credibility to the rising heat within the two main characters.

Mondo Meyer Upakhyan (2002) was based on a short story by Prafulla Roy entitled Akasher Chand O Ekti Janala (The Moon in the Sky And A Window), Dasgupta has woven into the script, three of his own poems, Anya Graha (Another Planet), Gadha (Donkey) and Beral (Cat.) Thereby, he evolved a new form by basing his screenplay on three poems and a short story from which perhaps, a third new form will emerge. Dasgupta places a sex workers daughter, Loti, at the centre of Mondo Meyer Upakhyan. Perhaps, this is where he draws his title from since mondo, meaning ‘bad’ and meye meaning ‘girl’ , unspools the upakhyan (story) of ‘bad girl’  – a common synonym for a girl with loose morals, or, more aptly, a prostitute. The film marks several ‘firsts’ for Dasgupta. For the first time, he is working around a story that focusses heavily on the woman question. He did it earlier too, with intense impact, in Andhi Gali (1984), his first Hindi film with Deepti Naval in he central role. But in this film, he is dealing with the most marginalized, oppressed, exploited and humiliated section of womanhood – the sex worker. It deals with the lives and dreams of several women, individually and collectively. Dasgupta is known for his constant explorations into different forms of breaking the conventional storyline into fragmented narratives, collages, flashbacks and flash forwards, elements of surrealism and postmodernism in his films. Lal Darja explored elements of postmodernism and surrealism, while Uttara tapped the potential of the film medium to present multiple narratives within the same film.

Swapner Din (2005) starring Prasenjeet, Rimi Sen and Rajesh Sharma is based on Dasgupta’s own story written out completely as a script. “It is based on my favourite theme – never mind how ordinary we might be in life, we never stop dreaming. We are in fact, born out of dreams and dreams are born out of us. All I can say at this moment is that the film weaves itself around the dreams of three different persons and their journeys in search of their dreams which intersect at a point.”

Kaalpurush (2005) is drawn from two published novels of mine – America America and Rahasyamoy. Since I work with a loosely structured narrative and do not believe in a linear narrative, I have no problem dealing with several strands and bringing them together. This film is about the relationship between a father and his son and how the relationship undergoes mutations over time and space, influencing in turn, their relationship with others. The father and the son are both failures in life, if one is to take ‘failure’ in the common-sense meaning of the term in an era of globalization and material success. They choose their way of living and have no problems with doing so. But is the world they live in prepared to accept this ‘choice’? These are questions I hope, the film has raised.”, said Dasgupta

For Ami, Yasin Arr Amar Madhubala or The Voyeurs  (2007), Dasgupta wrote the script directly as a screenplay from his story. “Our world is obsessed with security and ordinary human values like love and kindness have been mechanized. The masters of advanced technology reinterpret them as ‘dangerous.’ But do web cams and CCTVs that are constantly intruding into our private space make us any less vulnerable to terrorists than we are to ourselves? Are the police and security forces really protecting us? These are some of the core issues I have tried to raise in the film.” The ‘ami’ of Ami, Yasin Arr Amar Madhubala is Dilip, deeply involved with his computer and his camera, a young man who has come to Kolkata in search of a vocation. The story unfolds from Dilip’s point of view. Yasin, another young man from the suburbs, joins him as a roommate. Rekha is a young woman who comes to live next door. But Dilip is so used to communicating with his computer, that he has lost the ability to communicate with Rekha, who he falls in love with. He keeps watching her like a peeping tom, photographs her secretly, for the sole reason that he cannot express his love for her. Earlier, as a child, he would communicate with his screen idol Madhubala, whose ethereal beauty would fascinate him. In essence, he hardly ever communicated his feelings to any real woman. When he falls in love with one, and finds an alternative way of satisfying his desires, all hell breaks loose. The girl misunderstands his intentions; the police are hot on the chase of these two young men, with Yasin’s communal identity easily converting them into suspected terrorists.

His Hindi film, Anwar Ka Ajeeb Kissa, (2013) based on his own story, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui turned out to be a rather confusing damper unfolding the story of a bumbling detective who gets emotionally involved in his cases that leads him to trouble. It did not succeed in narrating either the characters or the story with the kind of efficiency Dasgupta showed in his films and was more of a jigsaw puzzle than what one expected it to be and Siddique could not save it one bit.

Tope (2016) is based on a rather scary story by Narayan Gangopadhyay. Tope, the film, takes Tope, the story, so far away from its core that by the end of the film, you feel like you are one of that huge crowd from Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes – a scathing indictment on autocracy that forces his subjects to speak out a lie in collective chorus even when this leads to public humiliation of the autocratic emperor. The subjects were afraid to tell the emperor that he was not wearing clothes, new or old, but that he was stark naked. A little boy chirped above other voices and told the king that he was naked. For once, I would take the risk to add my voice to that little boy’s. Even if one did not compare the story with the film, the final product – the film, is neither here nor there. Though it had some wonderful actors like Paoli Dam and Chandan Roy Sanyal essaying very interesting characters, the film turned out to be a damp squib.

But fortunately, Dasgupta redeemed our faith in him with his last film Urojahaj (Flight).Dasgupta radically  changes the concept of home as fixed to a definite place by creating a wall that turns into a room whenever Bacchu (Chandan Roy Sanyal) and his wife (Parno Mitra) are making love or chit-chatting or lying down together, putting forth the message that home can be any place where you are with your loved ones and not alone. This is a beautiful add-on. The poetic metaphors of long, head-gear wearing folk artists moving in the distant horizon and the toy seller walking across are redundant even if they are expressed as visual metaphors of the versatility of dreams. When Bachchu is working on the plane he thinks he possesses because he has found it, two trees keep moving behind him as if guarding him from encroachers. This is a moving touch.

Magic realism has turned into Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s brand identity which sometimes tends to dominate and overpower the core of his narrative. But in Uro Jahaj, he has kept magic realism to the minimum and in some places, such as the friendly ghosts who appear in the jungle to make friends with Bacchu Mandal, their sudden appearance near the small stream choreographed like a silent mime performance, offers a solid and lyrical sub-plot to the main story. It somehow reminds us of the appearance of the cut-out ghosts in Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.

Little-known facets of Dasgupta such as his love for and talent in painting, the deep influence of poetry on his life and on his films, his deep admiration for music in all its myriad forms emerge at different points in Portrait, a 21-minute documentary on the filmmaker by Sankho Ghosh, a documentary filmmaker. The film is essentially intended to offer an insight into the self-imposed loneliness of a creative artist who glides over his poetry as smoothly and effortlessly as he does through his films. The film clips from the archives of Dasgupta’s works however, are silent because the funds-crunch offered no better a view. But they bring across a collage of visual images that stand independently on their own as clips from separate films as they also build up to a totality of images that could perhaps be defined as a jigsaw puzzle that offers a capsule of Dasgupta’s oeuvre.

Dasgupta, who was keeping unwell for a while and suffering from kidney related ailments, passed away in Kolkata on June 10, 2021.

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