One of a handful of filmmakers, Buddhadeb Dasgupta has consistently tried to define and re-define the significance of the auteur in cinema. From Dooratwa in 1978 to The Voyeurs in 2007, 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 is 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 ironically even as 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 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.) Another source of inspiration was Tagore's paintings that were instrumental in stirring Dasgupta’s interest in paintings. Folk art and folk dance also 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 then known as Naxalism, which, however, soon became a source of disillusionment and disappointment. While in college, the film society movement pulled him to cinema as a form of self-expression through images and poetry because his involvement with the film society 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. "My fondness for films was a natural offspring of my passion for poetry and painting," he says.
"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 (1974) which won an award," he says, 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," says Dasgupta, taking a nostalgic trip into his past. In 1978, he 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 couple encounters 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 by then it is too late.
Neem Annapurna (Bitter Morsel) in 1979 placed Dasgupta 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; unfolding 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. Stark 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), the same year saw Dasgupta, crossing black-and-white to step into colour. 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 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 and 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.
" The idea of making Phera and Bagh Bahadur (1989) came to me first when I was making a documentary on a great drummer called Dholer Raja in 1973. 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," says Dasgupta about the trigger that set him off to make these films.
Tahader Katha (Their Story) made in 1992 from a Kamal Kumar Majumdar story, described the agony of a freedom fighter, Shibnath (Mithun Chakraborty), 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. "Tahader Katha portrays the crisis of the human being trapped between the world of his dreams and the world of reality," says Dasgupta. "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." The film bagged the Best Actor, the Best Screenplay and the Best Regional Film (Bengali) awards at the National level. "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) is Dasgupta's most lyrical and perfect film to date. The film, 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 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 mélange 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, 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.
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.
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" says 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. Wrestling, a macho, fun sport for men, can easily turn into a killing sport for the same men, says Dasgupta. 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.
With Mondo Meyer Upakhyan (2002), Dasgupta evolves a new form by basing his screenplay on three of his own poems - Anya Graha (Another Planet), Gadha (Donkey) and Beral (Cat) and a short story by Prafulla Roy entitled Akasher Chand O Ekti Janla (The Moon in the Sky and A Window). Dasgupta places a sex worker's 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' as he unspools the upakhyan (story) of a '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). 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.
Swapner Din (2004) 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"” explains Dasgupta. "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."
Dasgupta’s latest film to date is Ami, Yasin arr Amar Madhubala or The Voyeurs that is set for an all India release shortly. He has written the script directly as a screenplay from his story. Summing up his philosophy Dasgupta says, "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 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 out 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.
Other 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.