Interview: Buddhadeb Dasgupta

Journey to the unreal

Print edition : August 19, 2016

Buddhadeb Dasgupta shooting "Tope", which is based on Narayan Gangopadhyay's short story of the same name. Photo: Courtesy: Buddhadeb Dasgupta

A still from Buddhadeb Dasgupta's upcoming movie "Tope", or "The Bait". It is a metaphor striking at the tendency of artistes submitting to the system and compromising their artistic integrity and credibility for short-term gains. Photo: Courtesy: Buddhadeb Dasgupta

A still from Buddhadeb Dasgupta's upcoming movie "Tope", or "The Bait". It is a metaphor striking at the tendency of artistes submitting to the system and compromising their artistic integrity and credibility for short-term gains. Photo: Courtesy: Buddhadeb Dasgupta

A still from Buddhadeb Dasgupta's upcoming movie "Tope", or "The Bait". It is a metaphor striking at the tendency of artistes submitting to the system and compromising their artistic integrity and credibility for short-term gains. Photo: Courtesy: Buddhadeb Dasgupta

Interview with Buddhadeb Dasgupta, film-maker.

FOR more than four decades, Buddhadeb Dasgupta has been one of the most prominent Indian faces in parallel cinema. What continues to stand out in his long and hugely acclaimed career is his steadfast resolve never to compromise his vision of film-making. He remains an unrepentant nonconformist and loner, and his latest film, Tope, or “The Bait”, which will be released soon, is also a metaphor striking at the tendency of artistes submitting to the “system” and compromising their artistic integrity and credibility for short-term gains. In an exclusive interview with Frontline, he dwells on a diverse range of topics, from his credo to his techniques, his friendship with the Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami, who died recently, and the present state of Indian cinema. Excerpts:

When you told me your next film was based on Narayan Gangopadhyay’s short story “Tope” (about an autocratic zamindar who uses a young boy as bait to shoot a tiger), I was a bit surprised. Generally your subject matter is not so stark and brutal. What made you choose this story?

It is one of the best stories I have ever read in Bengali literature. I loved the story when I first read it as a 12-year-old and I kept going back to it. Around 20 years ago, I had decided to make a film on the story, but I had to discard the idea because, as you said, it is such a story—so real and so gruesome—that my style of film-making did not match it. Through cinema I always try to go beyond reality and expose the magic and the unreal, and that was the problem I was facing with this story —it is too real.

The reason I finally decided on doing the film was that I saw another aspect to this tale. Forget about the story, my interpretation is altogether different. Look at the society of West Bengal, you’ll find everybody is ready to be the bait, and what matters finally is the price and what he will get out of it. We have seen painters, poets, litterateurs and film-makers submitting themselves to the system. This never happened in Bengal before. Think about Tagore and other great figures who never compromised their work and beliefs. The moment a creative person submits himself to the system, he loses everything. Instead of the system coming to them and getting enriched, it is artistes who are now going to the system for rewards, and finally they are being used as baits. This is a very dangerous trend which will ruin our culture.

Whenever a new party assumes power, intellectuals will declare support to it. This never used to happen 50 years ago. Tagore never compromised, neither did [Satyajit] Ray. This is what instigated me to rethink the story, and finally I was able to take the story out of its gruesome reality, and I made a lot of changes. The story was working in my mind for so long that the zone of the unreal was created by itself, making it possible for me to work with the story.

Technically, what is it that you do to create the sense of the unreal in your film?

One particular thing that I do is, I always use a wide-angle lens; in a wide-angle lens everything looks very real. It also helps me to slip in the unreal aspect into the frame. I believe in the power of image. It should stay with a person and repeatedly come back to him.

We see millions of images every day, but only a few we cling on to. I am all for that kind of image and that is why composition is very important for me. If the composition is wrong, you cannot place your idea and your characters.

Your last film, “Anwar ka Ajab Kissa”, or “The Sniffer”, was made three years ago. Why this gap between the two films?

I really don’t like jumping from one film to another. I need some time. It is not as though I have not done anything these three years. I have written a lot of poems. My new collection of poetry has come out. All the time I spent writing and reading finally helps me to find new images. Images can come to you in such a way that often it seems like a discovery. Often, alone by myself, I discover images, and those images form the basis of my cinema.

Is there something new that you have tried to do in this film? I mean “Anwar…” is also based on harsh reality.

Tope is definitely very different. What I prefer to do in my work is to infuse poetry. It starts with reality, and through the journey across the real, the zone magic or the unreal is discovered. But as you have journeyed through the real for some time, you start accepting the unreal that you finally reach as real. That is what happened to Anwar.

In Tope also, the journey to the unreal happened—which is why I had to wait a long time; but this time it is a different kind of journey. In the journey in Tope you find anguish, anger, deprivation, everything. Because the system or those who run the system need people to sacrifice. The question that the film poses is how long should we allow ourselves to be used as baits by the system? It is not only killing us, it is also poisoning our social environment.

Did you never think it might have been easier for you if you made a few compromises in your art?

Things have often been very hard for me—full of anguish and a sense of isolation. But that never ever tempted me to compromise. I feel submitting to the system is like riding a tiger. I had decided never to ride the tiger because I know the tiger will ultimately take you to the forest and finally kill you. Submitting to the system means losing my identity and freedom. First and foremost, one has to respect oneself. You cannot ask others not to compromise if you yourself make compromises. I know so many people who have compromised, even though they never really needed to.

It is one thing to believe in a cause, however unworthy and vile that cause may be, like Nazism, and another thing not to believe in an ideology and still submit to it for personal gains. That is dangerous as it is false and serves to misguide. Often we see the system, as a reward for their subservience, placing these people in positions in which they are complete misfits. Look at what happened at the FTII [Film and Television Institute of India] and the controversy surrounding the selection of its chairman [the actor Gajendra Chauhan, best known for his role as Yudhishtira in the TV serial Mahabharat]. I have nothing against him. I have not seen his acting; maybe he is a great talent. But one thing I know for sure is that Gajendra Chauhan is not the right person to run a film institute. But since he has served the system, the system is bound to give him back something. Whoever is in power will place his sycophants in high positions. This has been happening in India for so many years. It may happen in other countries also, but not on this scale. I could certainly have achieved much more if I had made even slight compromises, but I didn’t want to.

You know, the sound of shuffling of feet leaving the hall while the film is on is a very painful sound indeed. And practically all directors, including [Jean-Luc] Godard and Ray, have had to face it sometime or the other. It has happened to me so many times, but in the end there are always those who will remain and who will truly appreciate your work. If I have just one person as audience for my film, that is enough for me to carry on.

Indian cinema today

What do you think of Indian cinema today?

Barring a few, mediocrity has taken over. The main reason for the growth of mediocrity in Indian cinema is fear. Think of Ritwik Ghatak and his film Ajantrik. At that time, so many years ago, he wrote the script of a man and his relationship with his car! He was not chased by any fear as to how it will go down with the audience or how it will fare commercially. That kind of courage does not exist any more.

Why only Ritwik Ghatak. Look at Barin Saha, who only made one film, Tero Nadir Paarey—such an exquisite film! When Ray made Jalshaghar, Apur Sansar, Paras Pathar, he never thought whether these films will be commercially successful or not; and most of them were not successful commercially. But nobody could stop Ray. That is why Ray and Ghatak are still valid.

The problem of the film-makers of today is that they are told to produce something that is pure mediocrity which will help them to get the next project and survive for some more time as a film-maker. This may give you some money immediately, but nobody will remember you 20 years from now. As long as this fear exists among film-makers in India, it will be very difficult for the country to make great films.

G. Aravindan or Adoor Gopalakrishnan never thought about what kind of profit they would enjoy by making their films. It was their love for cinema that drove them to make films. I have seen Aravindan in a state of anguish for want of a producer, but that never made him compromise. That time has changed. There is only one film-maker in the history of cinema who could make the two worlds meet (make films that were hugely successful commercially without compromising his artistic integrity), and that was Charlie Chaplin.

But there is only one Charlie Chaplin. Nobody had that kind of genius, including Ray. In my generation, film-makers like Aravindan, Adoor, Shyam [Benegal] and I, we decided to make films in the way we believed. It is also very unfortunate that for quite some time, especially more so after Narendra Modi came to power, independent film-makers have not been supported by the government. If Maharashtra can support its film-makers, why cannot other States follow suit?

Kiarostami, strokes of a master

You knew the great Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami, who passed away recently. Please share some memories you have of him.

The last time we met was three-four years ago at the Toronto Film Festival. There is an important section in the festival called the Masters of World Cinema during which I had met him three times when both our films were being screened together. Every time he was very generous with his praise for my films.

Later I learnt more about Abbas as a film-maker and teacher from his disciple Jafar Panahi [the internationally acclaimed Iranian director whose works include Taxi, This is not a Film, The White Balloon, etc]. The thing I really respect and love most about Abbas Kiarostami was his passion for cinema. I remember once sitting in a cafe drinking beer with him, when he told me of the sadness he carried with him for having left his country. This was something for which even Jafar was a little critical of his master.

Not only Kiarostami, but so many Iranian film-makers left Iran because they felt—and rightly so—that it would be difficult for them to continue making the kind of films they wanted to. Interestingly, Kiarostami told me that had he known that there would be such a huge change in making cinema, he would have stayed back in Iran. Even 15 years ago, it was very difficult to think of making cinema without celluloid and all the accompanying equipment like a big camera and films.

But directors like Jafar have proved that you can still make a film with just a cell-phone camera; Taxi was almost made that way. Kiarostami remained very sad throughout his life from the pain of having left his country. A truly wonderful film-maker. His films have the strokes of a master.

You have also been very vocal on political, social and cultural issues. Have you ever considered whether that is always wise?

If I don’t protest or make my voice heard, then what am I here for? Every poet, artist, film-maker must react to society. This reaction gives them courage and strength.

A director named Amitava Chakraborty recently made a film, which was initially censored. The film was on “Deha tatya”, the ancient “Doctrine of the Body”. Finally, after a few cuts it was cleared by the censors, and the film was set for release, but Nandan [the West Bengal government-sponsored film and cultural centre] refused to screen the film. My question is who are they to decide what is morality. I raised my voice against Nandan’s decision and I felt that I did the right thing. But I was also saddened that other film-makers of Bengal remained silent.

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