The ‘unknown’ factor

Print edition : March 21, 2014

Film-maker and poet Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Photo: By special arrangement

Dasgupta and Nawazzuddin Siddiqui during the shooting of "Anwar ka Ajab Kissa". Photo: asdfd grfghdf ghrfsg

Internationally acclaimed film director and eminent Bengali poet Buddhadeb Dasgupta in an exclusive conversation with Frontline, talks of his film Anwar ka Ajab Kissa, recently premiered in the United Kingdom, and various other topics close to his heart.

“THERE is a feeling of “emptiness” in Buddhadeb Dasgupta. It is a sensation not particularly alien to the internationally acclaimed film director and Bengali poet from Kolkata; in fact, it is how he feels every time he has finished making a movie. His recently completed film, Anwar ka Ajab Kissa (Sniffer), was premiered in the United Kingdom, and though a couple of producers have been persistently knocking at his door, he is in no mood to take up a new project immediately. “I am like a vessel that has just been emptied. I need some time to fill up again. I just cannot jump from one project to another,” he told Frontline in a conversation that ranged from his latest film to his own unique method of working, his poetry, his anxieties, and his anguish at the state of cinema in India, particularly in West Bengal.

Anwar ka Ajab Kissa has come almost three years after his last venture, Janala. Though the release of the film has been held up in India owing to certain issues with the Censor Board, its reception abroad has been very positive. The film is a black comedy, essentially about a small-time detective, Anwar, who, at one point realises that all through his life he has been following the lives of others; and his very way of existence takes a turn when he begins to chase his own life. “It is a journey to discover the final missing piece in the puzzle and trace the threads that are attached to his life. We do not know at what point the journey begins, but we come to believe in the journey. And at one point the journey itself becomes magical,” Dasgupta explains.

At the same time, the film is also a unique exploration of urban space. At another level, it is the story of a small-town boy who comes to a cosmopolitan city, and his alienation. Though a luckless sniffer, doing a job that requires interaction with the lives of others, Anwar is an isolated being. In his utter solitude, his only friend and confidant is an abandoned dog. He is not a very good detective either. He messes things up by getting too personally involved in the petty problems of his clients. Yet, it is through these petty problems that one gets a glimpse into the lives of the common people living in a big city.

The two catalysts for the film are also quite interesting. One was the image of the detective. “When I was a child, I seriously thought of becoming a detective. I even used to try and dress like Sherlock Holmes. But I forgot about it as I grew up,” says Dasgupta. However, the concept of the detective continued to fascinate him in an altogether different way. Each and every person, he feels, is curious in his own way about the lives of others, but few would like others to know about their own lives.

The second catalyst was a recurring dream that Dasgupta had for a while. “I was brought up in a joint family. In that house we had a very old gramophone, which could only be handled by my paternal aunt. She would play it for us children on the condition that we fall asleep. I had been having these recurring dreams about my aunt who died young many years ago, and about the gramophone. I realised this image that I had retained wanted be a part of my creative process,” he says. It was with these two images in mind that he began the script for Anwar ka Ajab Kissa. “It sounds funny, but it’s the truth,” he says.

Images are very important in Dasgupta’s film-making. In fact, before the story of a film or even the concept, it is images that first come to him. “Until I get trapped by these images, I do not feel like proceeding with a film,” he says. He does not always feel the need to support the images with reasons. For him, the images exist by themselves.

As with almost all his films, in Anwar ka Ajab Kissa too there is the recurring theme of dreams and the juxtaposition of dream and real life. “What comes through in this film is that dream and reality are not two separate things. The two together make a journey complete. Finally, one submits to this bond and accepts that the dream is also very real,” he says.

The protagonist Anwar’s state of isolation and his inability to integrate into city life may find reflections in the director’s own professed state of isolation, both creative and social. “A sense of isolation is not specific only to the artist. The city can make any person feel isolated. Even after spending five decades in the city [Kolkata], I still don’t find myself belonging here,” he says. But he is also indebted to his state of isolation as he admits that it has contributed immensely to his creative process. However, the film is not a metaphor for his life. “In bits and pieces, you may find me in the film, as in all my films. But it’s not my life,” he explains.

The “emptiness” Dasgupta feels at the end of a project is not due to mental or physical exhaustion. He goes on to explain that the end of a project brings about a strange mixture of exhilaration, excitement, tension and depression in him. “I have stopped trying to deal with the depression at the end of a project. It will occur invariably. I feel deserted after everyone has gone. This depression is clubbed with a fear psychosis: How will the film fare financially? How will the audience take the film?”

This feeling is associated only with his film-making, not his poetry. “I don’t have to sell my poems, but as a film-maker I have greater responsibilities as there is big money involved,” he points out. Dissatisfaction with his own work at the end of a project is also something that he says he is grateful for as it prepares him “unknowingly” for the next work.

So how satisfied was he with Anwar ka Ajab Kissa?

He carefully contemplates the question and finally answers, “I was happy with Anwar.” To understand why he was happy with the film, one must know of one crucial aspect of Dasgupta’s film-making—the element of “unknown” that finds its way into the project during the process of shooting. There are always major departures in his films from the original scripts. These unknown factors that often give his films a totally different shape from the way they were initially conceived are what gives Dasgupta the greatest satisfaction. “I refuse to know everything that I am going to do beforehand and I look forward to unknown elements finding their way into the film. That to me is magic, and in Anwar it happened wonderfully,” he says. The irony is that though nothing pleases him more than to stray from the script, he still painstakingly goes through the process of writing one anyway before beginning filming. It took him a whole year to write the script for Anwar ka Ajab Kissa.

He brightens up at the mention of Nawazzuddin Siddiqui, the highly talented actor who played the role of Anwar. “He did a wonderful, wonderful job. He could identify with the role, and I realised that so many things are common to Anwar’s and Nawaz’s lives. He is an extremely sensitive and cerebral actor and at present one of the best in the line working in Mumbai,” he says. Dasgupta maintains that he has always been lucky in terms of getting the best out of his actors, including some very big stars in the industry. But he feels there is a dearth of good actors in Bengali cinema today. “Satyajit Ray was very lucky that there were so many great actors during his days—Soumitra Chatterjee, Uttam Kumar, Tulsi Chakraborty, Pahari Sanyal, Chhabi Biswas. They were doing both commercial films as well as alternative cinema,” he says.

Throughout the conversation, Dasgupta’s unflinching and uncompromising love for cinema comes through; and it is this love that sometimes makes him come across as one who is intolerant of the scene today. “The problem is that a film-maker deeply in love with cinema is very hard to find these days, and that is why mediocrity has taken over Indian cinema. Frankly speaking, I find it hard to sit through some of the films of today,” he says. However, there are directors whose works he enjoys a lot, such as Ashim Ahluwalia, Vikramaditya Motwane, Girish Kasaravalli, Ajay Bal, Nagraj Manjule, Indranil Roychoudhury and Amitava Chakrabarty. “Ahluwalia had to wait for three years to make Miss Lovely. I like that kind of uncompromising attitude,” he says.

Another thing that saddens him is the politicising of culture in the country. According to him, politics today dictates the world of arts. “So many poets, painters, writers and artists are submitting to the will of politicians. If you submit to the system, you will be rewarded,” he says. But in spite of his disappointment with the state of things as they stand, Dasgupta is not ready to lose hope. “Things will undoubtedly look up, and artists will come along who will not be bought and will stand firmly by their convictions,” he says.