“We have reached a time when we must open warfare on mediocrity, greyness and lack of expressiveness and make creative inquiry a rule in cinema.”
His oeuvre rests on this simple rule, which lies framed in his study. On the wall opposite is a poster with a pigeon nesting on tangled strips of film. And for Buddhadeb Dasgupta, too, his concerns zoom through the mesh of life to explore the inexorable truth of life and living.
But, as Dasgupta himself says, “If creative inquiry is a rule for cinema, then a filmmaker never makes one in expectation of an award. But when one gets one, the feeling is good.” And this reaction comes after his latest cinematic essay, Lal Darja, was adjudged the best feature film for 1997.
Lal Darja (The Red Door), whose roots lay in one of his own verses, For Hassan, explores with poetic intensity the knotted tapestry of human relationships in a contemporary urban milieu. The film operates on three levels as it probes the codes of morality as laid down by society when one loses one’s “world of innocence” and whether it is possible to make a journey to recapture that innocence.
The life of the protagonist, Nabin Dutta (Subhendu Chatterjee), although a successful dentist, is dulled by middle-class respectability. He faces the collapse of his marriage when his wife, Bela (the Bangladeshi actress, Champa), ditches him for another man.
In the quest of a new life, Nabin looks anew at his polygamous driver Dinu, who despite being married twice is as happy as ever. And, as Nabin is wracked by these thoughts he realises that the way out is only through a journey – back to the times of childhood. Here lies the escape route from the bourgeois boredom he has been unconsciously seeking.
For Dasgupta, the making of this film was actually a journey back to his childhood when “we used to play with some fascinating red insects in our hands. When I think of my childhood and what I am now, I feel a great pain at the loss of innocence and I would do anything to rediscover that world.”
From rambling through the econometrics of an Indian reality, to scribbling lines on the ennui and decadence of modern living, and translating it all on celluloid from behind the camera, Dasgupta’s has been a stark portrayal of the many questions we face in life. Be it his films or poems, he has always explored the deep layers of the subconscious, the angst of the riven individual as he tries to come to terms with his own reality.
His poetry exudes visual imagery almost bordering on the surreal and his cinema is an extension of his poetic bend of mind. For Dasgupta each has helped the other. Poems and films are the simplest ways of expressing oneself vis-à-vis a creative medium. But, as Dasgupta has kept asserting over the years, one has to be true to the inner laws of the form one chooses for this.
Dasgupta cites the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, and says a combination of poetic vision and imagination in filmmaking is indeed a rare event. But doesn’t one get glimpses of Tarkovsky’s influence in his own films? For instance, the two little boys trying to make something grow out of the soil in Sacrifice and Charachar. He admits Tarkovsky has been a favourite, but argues Luis Bunuel had the maximum influence.
For Dasgupta, cinema at its best is somewhere between poetry and music. It is this sublime poetic vision that has made Dasgupta one of India’s most influential and sophisticated filmmakers today.
Dasgupta’s directorial debut came almost 20 years back with Dooratwa (The Distance), where he explored the role of the radical progressive Indian middle-class and its inherent contradictions and confusions. In a similar vein where Grihajuddha (The Crossroads) and Andhi Gali (The Blind Alley). The three were dubbed a trilogy.
In Neen Annapurna (Bitter Morsel), Dasgupta depicted the ruthless growth of dehumanisation and lumpenisatin that has been going on behind the giltter of progress, development and urbanisation. Sheet Grishmer Smriti (Seasonal Memoirs) showed a theatre personality vouching for sponsorship at the cost of his artistic integrity.
The perennial conflict – whether the artist should surrender to the existing system or not – was also portrayed in Phera (The Return) and Bagh Bahadur (The Tiger Man). The crisis of faith was poignantly shot in the elegies Tahader Katha (Their Story) and Charachar (The Shelter of the Wings). Both are an examination of estrangement and alienation.
But how political are his films? Here Dasgupta talks of timelessness. “You cannot make a film which stays bound to the time period it is set in.” The soft-spoken filmmaker cites the instance of Sergei Eisenstein in Stachka (Strike). “That film was made in another country in another era, but see one can still relate to it.”
Dasgupta contends, “It is the continuity of life that keeps me going. If I can make my audience/reader aware of this then, I believe, it will be something done.” Although he laments the fact that cinema takes “me away from my creative search – poetry and music – since filmmaking is a full-time job,” he gives cinema its due once again: “Cinema at its best is somewhere between poetry and music.” And so after completing a film when he goes back to music and the pen, Dasgupta finds himself perfectly in tune as the lines flow out freely.
Dasgupta says, “When I look at a painting for some time, I see images beyond the lines etched on the canvas. In poetry, I perceive a pattern arising from the verbal signs, which appear, shift and dissolve in the mind. When I make a film, my only desire is to produce those very non-static images that I had seen behind closed eyes.”
Scribbling lines since his early teens, Dasgupta, rated highly today as a contemporary Bengali poet, has published seven books of verse, including Gobhir Arieley, Coffin Kimba Suitcase, Himjog, Chhata Kahini and Roboter Gaan, each of which universalises predicaments of existence. Nothing can be more mundane than “Umbrellas pass and repass all day/ now the last umbrella has gone home/ It stands quietly in a dark corne;/water drips from it, drips/drips.”
A quiet kind of lyricism flows naturally in his art, and, even as he tries to capture the zeitgeist, what emerges paramount is his concern with the offbeat and yet the most commonplace occurences of life – erosion of values, the creeping syntheticity of feelings and the materialism that now threatens the warmth of living “in the unending adversity of this century’s air.”
Underlying it all, entwined in spools of film and woven in direct words is the flowering of simple hope, “This is the time. Come, Let’s go/ to fly away on promising winds…/ The straight sun holds out its arms to us…/Come let’s go away, far, far away, come.”
And even as he continues scripting verses on both celluloid and paper, what Dasgupta conveys are his felt experiences: “I concentrate on the middle-class in which I was brought up, which has its value system and dreams of many hues – socio-political and cultural. We wished to be poets, painters, singers, reformists, revolutionaries, even anarchists or extremists. But we wanted actively to be something.”
In Dasgupta’s case, at least, that wish has been realised.