‘From Buddhadeb Dasgupta I learned not to equal anyone, but to have my own voice’

Take a look at the first frame of Tope (The Bait, 2016), and you’d know it’s a Buddhadeb Dasgupta movie. It opens with a lone outdoor wooden door frame, with a gramophone and a dancing character. It made me sedated, comfortably sedated. I was immersed in the film, intoxicated by the poetic visual aesthetic, transported to another world. Each of his films bears the inimitable signature of a poet who paints his feelings on the celluloid canvas, without any thrill or gimmick. His aesthetics were deeply rooted in Indian folklore, but he was postmodern in the way he dug them out of the everyday and presented them to the world.

The landscapes in his films – be it Uttara (2000) or Swapner Din (2004) – hark back to his childhood in Purulia. A certain nostalgia – not an explicit reminder of Bengal’s lost past – seeps through the screen and touches the viewer. From his National Award-winning films Bagh Bahadur (1989), Tahader Katha (1992) and Kaalpurush (2005) to his very last, Urojahaj (2019), the master’s subtlety was harshest; he leaves us restless, with unresolved questions.

A still from Tope.

It would have been extremely difficult for the Bangladeshi filmmaker, especially at the time he started out, not to follow the likes of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen. But Dasgupta created an art that was so distinctive. Creating images like none of his predecessors, he took Indian cinema beyond the literal, into surreal and magical realist territories. He showed the world that Indian cinema can transcend the boundaries of realism and still remain purely Indian. He was an avid admirer of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, but Dasgupta’s films never resembled Buñuel’s – the mark of a true author. Once, in one of his interviews published in the Bangladeshi daily Anandabazar Patrika, Dasgupta had said: “Ray er reality amar noye (Satyajit Ray’s reality is not mine)”. From his films I learned not to match anyone else, but to have my own voice.

As a filmmaker, I get enormous inspiration from his films and his words. He was a poet himself, but he would never indulge in textual poetry when it came to filmmaking. Some poets have a habit of indulging too much in lyrics, but he wasn’t that kind. He would always let his images speak. His images would open up new spaces and place the viewer there. As a viewer, you don’t feel bombarded with information, you just float on a calming tide. I remember the day I showed him my first movie. As someone who wanted to make movies but didn’t go to film school and was fascinated by his movies, I was eager to meet him. I met him through veteran Odia filmmaker Manmohan Mahaptra, who passed away last year. I went to Dasgupta’s Ballygunge residence in Kolkata in 2012. He praised the imagery and the use of music in my short film Boba Mukhosh (about the hallucination of a schizophrenic patient), but warned me: “Kobi kintu chhobita noshto kore dichhe (the poet ruins the images)”. He explained how, despite very strong images, the spoken words of poetry would suppress the poetry of my images Even today, when I feel like pampering myself, his words ring and I take refuge in silence.

A still by Tahader Katha.

Silence was an instrument he used vigorously. He would choose subjects that are extremely simple, yet sensitive. He would layer his films with subtexts and analogies. Each layer would reveal a different film. In Uttara (2000), for example, the dwarf plays an alternative at the climax, subtly taking the viewer from the cruel reality into a world of imagination, dream and comfort. Sometimes the dancers, sometimes the flute player, sometimes the dwarfs – there will be characters in his films that act as bridges. Those who separate the transition from the real to the unreal; sometimes one cannot determine whether what they saw was realism or magical realism.

While Dasgupta’s films are groundbreaking and disruptive, his editing was more modest. The shots and cuts came not as a shock, but as an easing. He is revolutionary in the way that he would radically change the mind of the viewer without letting them feel the transition.

Earlier this year, the Arthouse Asia Film Festival in Kolkata hosted a masterclass with Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Luckily I was there. He spoke about various aspects of filmmaking, from the use of the lens to the selection of locations. Sohini Dasgupta, his longtime deputy director, talked about how the team went around selecting great locations, and when the master finally had to finish them, he wouldn’t like them. He would walk alone and pick a very simple location. She recalled asking him once, “How do you know this is the location you want?” He replied, “Just sit there quietly for a while. The location will tell you that I am your location.”

A still from Swapner Din.

He was a philosopher who would never philosophize. The conflicts in his films would make it clear. Dasgupta would never resolve contextual conflicts, but use them to open up new cinematic spaces, as in Swapner Din (2004), one of my favorite Indian films. Reflecting a certain kind of self-honesty, his characters would rarely be heroes or villains. Not archetypal, but very recognizable. You may not feel for them, but you will feel for them.

Its class was in its simplicity. From the lens and technical equipment to camera movements, it was measuredly simple. It’s hard to find a single unmotivated camera shake in his movies. While Dasgupta’s landscapes would always be engraved in the heart of any viewer, he composed some extremely powerful close-ups in between. His choice of shots is a tutorial for any young filmmaker.

One of the strongest pillars of Indian cinema in recent decades – winning several national awards and recognition at top international festivals – his films stand firm against the prevailing mediocrity of our time. He brought a lot of hope to serious filmmakers who care about the medium and who dare to swim against the tide. His passing will leave a void that is difficult to fill. He had even more cinema in him, and enough genius for us to consume and be inspired by. And while some of his films are on YouTube, it is crucial that all of his films are made available on OTT platforms so that consumers of popular cinema can take a look for a change and ask themselves: wasn’t this the Indian cinema that made the most of India missed?

(Amartya Bhattacharyya, director of the National Award-winning fantasy documentary Benaras: The Unexplored Attachments (2015), is based in Kolkata.)

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