Take a look at the first picture of Tope (The Bait, 2016) and you will know that it is a film by Buddhadeb Dasgupta. It opens with a lonely wooden door frame in the open air, with a gramophone and a dancing figure. It made me numb, comfortably numb. I was captivated by the film, intoxicated by the poetic visual aesthetics, carried away into another world. Each of his films bears the inimitable handwriting of a poet who paints his feelings on celluloid canvas without sensation or gimmicks. His aesthetics were deeply rooted in Indian folklore, yet he was postmodern in that he took them out of the everyday and the world presented.
The landscapes in his films – be it Uttara (2000) or Swapner Din (2004) – are reminiscent of 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 last one, Urojahaj (2019), the subtlety of the master was the toughest; it leaves us unsolved with unresolved questions.
It would have been extremely difficult for the Bengali filmmaker, especially in his day, not to think of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen. But Dasgupta created such an art in its own right. He created images like none of his predecessors and led Indian cinema beyond the literal into surreal and magically realistic areas. He showed the world that Indian cinema can push the boundaries of realism and still remain purely Indian. He was an ardent admirer of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, but Dasgupta’s films never looked like Buñuel’s – a true writer’s trademark. Dasgupta once said in one of his interviews in the Bengali daily newspaper Anandabazar Patrika: “Ray er reality amar noye (Satyajit Rays Reality is not mine)”. From his films I learned not to emulate anyone, but to have my own voice.
As a filmmaker, I find tremendous inspiration from his films and his words. He was a poet himself, but he would never indulge in text poetry when it came to filmmaking. Some poets have a habit of indulging in texts too much, but he was not of that kind. He would always let his pictures do the talking. His pictures would open up new spaces and place the viewer right 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 film. As someone who wanted to make films but didn’t go to film school and was fascinated by his films, I really wanted to get to know him. I met him through veteran filmmaker Manmohan Mahaptra from Odia, who passed away last year. I went to Dasgupta’s Ballygunge residence in Calcutta in 2012. He praised the images 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 pictures)”. He explained that the spoken words of poetry, despite very strong imagery, would suppress the poetry of my images. Even today, when I feel like enjoying myself, his words ring and I fall silent.
Silence was an instrument he used forcefully. He would choose subjects that are very simple but sensitive. He would overlay his films with subtexts and analogies. Each layer would reveal a different film. In Uttara (2000), for example, the dwarf at the climax plays an alternative narrative that subtly leads the viewer from the cruel reality into a world of fantasy, dream and consolation. Sometimes the dancers, sometimes the flute player, sometimes the dwarfs – there will be characters in his films who act like bridges. Those who master the transition from the real to the unreal; sometimes you can’t tell whether what they saw was realism or magical realism.
While Dasgupta’s films are groundbreaking and disruptive, his editing was more humble. The shots and cuts didn’t come as a jolt, but as a relaxation. It’s revolutionary in the way that it would revolutionize the mind of the beholder without letting him feel the transition.
Earlier this year, the Arthouse Asia Film Festival in Kolkata organized a master class with Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Fortunately, I took part. He talked about different aspects of filmmaking, from using the lens to choosing locations. Sohini Dasgupta, his longtime deputy director, shared how the team would go around choosing great places, and when Master finally had to finish them, he would not like them. He went alone and chose a very simple place. She remembered once asking him, “How do you know this is the place you want?” He replied, “Just sit quietly for a while. The location will tell you that I am your location. “
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. His characters reflect a certain kind of honesty and have rarely been heroes or villains. Not archetypal, but very relatable. You may not feel for them, but you will feel for them.
Its class was in its simplicity. From the lens to the technical equipment and the camera movements, it was moderately simple. It’s hard to find a single unmotivated camera movement in your films. While Dasgupta’s landscapes always imprinted themselves in the heart of every beholder, he composed some extremely powerful close-ups in between. His selection of shots is a tutorial for any young filmmaker.
As one of the strongest pillars of Indian cinema in recent decades – with several national awards and recognitions at top international festivals – its films continue to stand above the prevailing mediocrity of our time. It has instilled great hope in serious filmmakers interested in the medium who dare to swim against the tide. His demise will leave a void that is difficult to fill. It had even more cinema in it and a lot of ingenuity that we could consume and be inspired by. And while some of his films may be shown on YouTube, it is crucial that all of his films are available on OTT platforms so that consumers of popular cinema can check it out for a change and ask themselves: Wasn’t this Indian cinema that ? missed most of India?
(Amartya Bhattacharyya, director of the National Award-winning fantasy documentary Benaras: The Unexplored Attachments (2015), lives in Calcutta.)