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For Buddhadeb Dasgupta, 'Film Language' Mattered More Than the Story

Known as one of a rare breed of filmmakers in the past few decades of Bengali cinema, Dasgupta has been a believer more in the power of images than the content of the ‘story’.

Kolkata: Multiple award-winning Bengali filmmaker Buddadeb Dasgupta, who breathed his last at his Kolkata residence on Thursday morning at the age of 77, has often been described as a poet on the celluloid – one who created moments that blurred the boundaries of dream, magic and reality; who tried to capture the timelessness of time and the limitlessness of space.

Known as one of a rare breed of filmmakers in past few decades of Bengali cinema, Dasgupta has been a believer more in the power of images than the content of the ‘story’. He preferred image-building over storytelling. There was visual poetry, there were surrealistic images, characters who often appeared more metaphoric than real, and glimpses of stories that were allegorical more often than not.

The New York Times in a review in 2005 wrote of his film Mondo Meyer Upakhyan, “Ultimately, the film feels like one long countdown with little promise of a new frontier.” That can, perhaps, be spoken of many of his films. His stories and characters often went “nowhere” and that was his trademark.

Also read: Multiple National Award-Winning Film Director Buddhadeb Dasgupta Passes Away

Perhaps, the chemistry lies in his roots as a poet. Just like most other important Bengali filmmakers, he too drew heavily from literature. But Dasgupta was also himself a man of literature. It was his poetry that earned him a name years before he earned the repute of a filmmaker. “My cinema has no conflict with poetry,” Dasgupta had famously said in the 1980s.

He was also quite deeply influenced by paintings, and his films, especially with the use of landscape, props and frames in them, remain a testament to the influence of these mediums of expression.

Formative years

Born in Purulia district of West Bengal in 1944, Dasgupta wanted to take admission at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune after high school, but his father, who was a railway doctor by profession, did not endorse his idea. So, he studied economics and later taught the subject in a college. It was during his student days at the Scottish Church College in Kolkata that time that one of his professors, Tarun Sanyal, drew his interest towards Western classical music and this genre of music played a pivotal role in his artistic expressions in the later years, both as a poet and a filmmaker.

In a 2017 interview given to a Bengali publication Parabas, while talking about his experience with Western classical music and its relation with images, Dasgupta said, “It’s unimaginable the impossible obsession that used to grip me. My work in the coming years was building images. While building them, I thought the images must be of my own, not manipulated ones. A manipulated image is not authentic. And here, there was no scope for manipulation…all images came from my childhood. They grew with me. Images were required for poetry as well. My poetry is all about images. Even if not the whole, it’s a special part. And that’s why I am indebted to my images. I still spend time listening to music.”

His maternal uncle was poet Samarendra Sengupta, from whom he got the interest in writing poetry as a teenager and got chances to mingle with the stalwart Bengali poets of the 1950s, such as Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Utpal Kumar Basu. During his college days and the immediate aftermath, Dasgupta had some of Bengal’s noted poets of the 1960s as among his close friends, including Bhaskar Chakraborty, Subrata Chakraborty and Shamser Anwar.

Around the same time, he also got deeply interested in cinema and found himself in close connections with the members of Calcutta Film Society, which led India’s first film society movement under the leadership of the likes of Satyajit Ray, Harisadhan Dasgupta and Banshi Chandra Gupta.

Dasgupta got his first poetry book published at the age of 19, in 1963. Five year later, he made a short documentary. But his first full-length feature film, Dooratwa (distance), came a decade later, in 1978. This very first work earned him the national award for the best Bengali language film. Since then, there was no turning back for him.

Influences and potrayal 

He created magical moments on the celluloid and his compositions were often more about timelessness than the immediacy of any matter. He brought to life characters mostly from rural backgrounds living on the margins of the society – Ghunuram in Bagh Bahadur (1989) plays tiger for living, Lakhinder in Charachar is a bird-hunter (1993), Shibnath in Tahader Katha (1992) is a revered freedom fighter who fails to cope with the reality of his post-independence homeland and moves towards insanity, Nimai and Balaram in Uttara (2000) are amateur wrestlers, and the postman in Tope (2017) lives in a tree.

“The world beyond reality, which is another aspect of the reality, attracts me even more,” he had said in one of his interviews in Bengali.

He had also acknowledged the immense role of dreams and magic in his world of imaginations. But he did not want his scenes to be distinguished between reality, extended-reality, dream and magic – he wanted to blend them all so that the barrier between these descriptors go away. He had a similar approach towards dealing with time and space. Therefore, several of his characters were at the same time real and unreal.

Deepti Naval being directed by Buddhadeb Dasgupta in his Andhi Gali, the final segment in his redoubtable City Trilogy (1984). Photo: Twitter.

According to film and literature critic Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, Dasgupta was one filmmaker who experimented with the language of cinema throughout his filmmaking career.

“At a time Bengali cinema became client-oriented, he went beyond the demand of the so-called clients, as he wanted to create a new language of cinema. He took the cause of cinema very seriously which is rare in today’s Bengali cinema. He went beyond story-telling and concerned himself more with the evolution of the language of cinema. He showed that the absence of a subject can constitute a subject,” Mukhopadhyay said.

Also read: Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Films Were Woven Together With a Special Kind of Magic

Mukhopadhyay said that Dasgupta and his group of fellow-poets were quite deeply influenced by the poetry of the French Jacques Prevert and the Chilean Nicanor Parra, and that both of Dasgupta’s favourite international filmmakers, the Spanish Luis Bunuel and the Russian Andrei Tarkovsky, were deeply influenced by poetry.

Dasgupta himself spoken at length about the necessity of ‘language’ during different interviews.

In one such, given to the Bengali publication Kali O Kolom, he had said, “I am immensely grateful to cinema, painting and poetry. I wrote poetry but could not paint, could only watch paintings. But these two mediums have made me quite significantly in one aspect – that is of a distinct style. He realised while writing poetry that a style of one’s own was necessary. I tried it with poetry and people started saying that Buddhadeb’s poetry was different. When I started with cinema, there were the likes of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. Ray created a language that did not exist in Indian cinema. Standing at that space, I had to tell my own tales, in my own way, which will run parallel to their language.”

That love for painting was also revealed when he made a film on the legendary painter Ganesh Pyne, titled, A Painter of Eloquent Silence: Ganesh Pyne, in 1998.

At the end, Dasgupta became known as a filmmaker who had a ‘signature style’, a language of his own. Any experienced eye could tell from a few frames of his films that they belonged to Dasgupta.

Among his films, Bagh Bahadur (1989), Charachar (1993), Lal Darja (1997), Mondo Meyer Upakhyan (2002) and Kaalpurush (2008) won national awards for the best film; Uttara (2000) and Swapner Din (2005) earned him national awards for the best director.

His 1982 film Grihajuddha earned him the FIPRESCI award at Venice film festival, while Uttara earned him Silver Lion for the best director in the same festival in 2000. Charachar (1993) and Phera (1988) were nominated for Golden Bear in the Berlin International Film Festival. However, his international reputation seemed to have waned 200o onwards.

He had also served as a jury in several international film festivals.

Coffin Kingba Suitcase, Robot-er Gaan, Him-jog, Chhata Kahini and Bhombol-er Aschorjyo Kahini O Onyanyo Kobita are among some of his poetry books.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a journalist and author based in Kolkata.