In Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s highly regarded 1992 film, Tahader Katha, a freedom fighter, Sibnath (Mithun Chakraborty) is released after 11 years in prison for the murder of a British officer. His journey home along with his friend, Bipin (Deepanker De), is composed of signature Buddhadeb Dasgupta shots. Superb distance shots of the men, almost reduced to a speck, against the startling rural Bengali landscape. Suddenly Sibnath wiggles away to the corner of the frame, holding his dhoti. He squats and starts dumping. When Bipin asks him what’s going on, Sibnath replies matter-of-factly that he has no control over his bowel movements after his rectum has been violated for years. He continues his musing tale of his years in prison as he takes a dump. “In the beginning, when they tortured me like that, I thought of my homeland. Then I slowly started to lose my mind. I would imagine taking my wife with me while I am being tortured.”
In the span of a few minutes, Buddhadeb takes you into the deepest, darkest corners of his protagonist’s mind, as he shows you how the trauma has touched him physically. And it’s all done with a sense of self-effacing, almost bawdy humor.
When he wanted to, the self-proclaimed proponent of magical realism in Bengali cinema could layer information into his frames, elevating a scene to an almost subliminal level. He also had the rare gift of making us believe that his characters are actually part of the landscapes he has so lovingly captured. That they are (or could be) one with nature. He’s really one of those filmmakers that you’ll have a relationship with if you like film itself, rather than the superficial aspects like story and stars. Here is a list of Buddhadeb Dasgupta movies that are essential to watch.
Grihajuddha, released in the 1980s, starring his favorites Mamata Shankar and Anjan Dutta, could have easily been mistaken for a Mrinal Sen movie. After all, the stalwart of Bengali cinema has also made some very relevant films about the Naxalite movement. But Buddhadeb, who was only a few movies old when he made this, made Grihajuddha different from all the other movies dealing with the matter. Grihajuddha spoke about the Naxalite movement, which has shaped the consciousness of a generation of Bengalis, through the eyes of the female protagonist. Losing her brother to the movement, Nirupama (Mamata Shankar) is much more than a passive recipient of fate. She is the embodiment of hope and pragmatism of the future.
Bagh Bahadur (1989)
The film that earned him national recognition is adorned with a career-defining performance by Pawan Malhotra, who plays a bahurupee (a traditional rural Bengali dance form) dancer, Ghunuram, whose act as a bagh (tiger), is challenged when a traveling circus with a pass captive leopard visits his village. Buddhadeb deftly addresses themes of displacement and loneliness in this film, but his stance here is more political than ever. Ghunuram, who is also a migrant worker, wants to hold on to the respect that the generational art form he has mastered affords him. He will not compromise on the last bit of dignity he has left in his life. But life has other plans for him.
What happens when a poet becomes a birdcatcher? In one of his most underrated films, Buddhadeb Dasgupta tells you about Lakha, a birdcatcher, who is driven by a great empathy for the creatures he captures. His wife, Sari, is pushed to the limit because he simply refuses to indulge in worldly affairs. While Charachar is probably one of his most poetic films, Buddhadeb Dasgupta makes us fall into his premise easily. We are comforted by the sense of timelessness. In that respect it is more of a fable.
A still from Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s movie Charachar. (Photo: Express Archive)
Probably the most imaginative film in his oeuvre, Uttara is fraught with symbolism. On some level it talks about fundamentalism and how it spreads its tentacles in our society. Created right after the Graham Staines murders, it earned its share of controversies for the way it reflects the case. But Uttara is much more than that. It is about the bond between two wrestlers, which is tested when a woman enters their lives. It says how toxic masculinity shapes a flawed, pompous society. And in the most subversive way, it speaks of sexual liberation from the oppressed.
Mondo Meyer Upakhyan (2002)
Set in a brothel in the middle of nowhere, Mondo Meyer Upakhyan is a perfect example of the undiluted magic-realistic style of his later films. We can’t always tell reality from dreams in this film shot in the stark landscape of Purulia. The story of Lati (Samata Das), the runaway daughter of a sex worker, unfolds in a finely etched, familiar world, even as they are ruled by a magical yet disturbing dream logic.