Buddhadeb Dasgupta: Master of surreal art

Print edition : July 02, 2021

A still from "Phera". Photo: The Hindu Archives

A still from “Bagh Bahadur”. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A still from the film “Tope”. Photo: Swarup Dutta

Shooting for “Anwar ka Ajab Kissa”. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

At the Frontline office in Kolkata. Photo: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

With Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s (1944-2021) death, Indian cinema has lost one of its most original, iconoclastic figures who helped put it back on the world stage after Satyajit Ray’s death.

WITH the passing of Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Indian cinema has lost one of its greatest, most path-breaking, and lyrical filmmakers. In a career spanning over 50 years, Buddhadeb Dasgupta carved out a singular path of his own, never once bowing to the pressures of the box office or compromising with his vision of film-making, and emerged as one of the most influential and original icons of alternative Indian cinema on the world stage. He was also a towering figure in Bengal’s cultural sphere, who, apart from being a legendary director, was one of the most acclaimed poets in contemporary Bengali literature. He had been ailing for quite some time with kidney-related problems and was undergoing dialysis. On the morning of June 10, he passed away in his sleep in his residence in south Kolkata. He was 77 and is survived by his wife, Sohini, and two daughters.

Buddhadeb Dasgupta brought Indian cinema back on the international stage after Satayjit Ray passed away in 1992. He was the creator of such masterpieces as Grihajuddha (1982), Phera (1988), Bagh Bahadur (1989), Tahader Katha (1992), Charachar (1994), Uttara (2000), Mondo Meyer Upakhyan (2002), Kalpurush (2005), Janala (2012), and Tope (2016). Few Indian film-makers have won as many international accolades and awards as Buddhadeb Dasgupta did. He won the International Federation of Film Critics Award and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Grihajuddha in 1982; the Golden Prize at the Damascus Film Festival, the Special Jury Award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and the Special Jury Award at the Locarno Film Festival for Neem Annapurna (1980); the Critics’ Award at the Locarno Film Festival for Dooratwa (1979); the Best Film Award at the Asia Pacific Film Festival for Janala (2009); the Best Asian Film Award at the Bangkok International Film Festival in 2003 for Mondo Meyer Upakhyan. He was also twice nominated for the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for Phera in 1988 and Charachar in 1994. In 2007 he was given the Golden Athena Award at the Athens International Film Festival, and in 2008 was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Spain International Film Festival in Madrid. But for all the acclaim he received, including 12 National Awards, Buddhadeb Dasgupta attached little importance to trophies. “No film or director should ever be remembered by the number of awards it or he has won. Those who depend on awards for their legacy are those who cannot depend on their own creative power. Ultimately people remember only great works, be it cinema or literature. A poet of Jibanananda Das’ greatness got just one award in his entire life, and that too a very insignificant award,” he had once told Frontline.

Born in Purulia district in West Bengal in 1944, Buddhadeb Dasgupta studied economics at Scottish Church College and then Calcutta University. Before becoming a film-maker, he was a lecturer of economics at Bardhaman, and then at City College in Kolkata, and had also established himself as a poet. Though his first venture into film-making was in 1968 with a documentary titled The Continent of Love, his first full-length feature film was made only in 1979 with Dooratwa, and from there began one of the great creative journeys in Indian cinema.

Reacting to his death, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “Anguished by the demise of Shri Buddhadeb Dasgupta. His diverse works struck a chord with all sections of society. He was also an eminent thinker and poet. My thoughts are with his family and several admirers in this time of grief.” West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee posted on social media: “Saddened at the passing away of eminent filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Through his works, he infused lyricism into the language of cinema. His death comes as a great loss for the film fraternity. Condolences to his family, colleagues and admirers.”

Unique vision

What set Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s films apart from those of his contemporaries was his unique vision of life, which found expression in his craft. In his films, reality was not just the external element, but also the inner mind of the characters, their dreams and reveries, and the alternate realities that exist within the self and within nature. Madhuja Mukherjee, film-maker and Professor of Film Studies at Jadavpur University, pointed out that while other directors of Indian alternative cinema, particularly those that were supported by the state, were focussing on realism and socio-economic development, Buddhadeb Dasgupta was venturing into various experimental zones. “His representation of landscape, his evocative track shot, his use of characters—who were often marginalised figures—and their relationship to their environment are what made his films poignant and meaningful. It is a different kind of landscape and people that we see in his film. We do not find the usual green, riverine Bengal, but a rugged and often bleak landscape. I feel that through his films he raised questions on ecology and humankind’s relationship with nature long before the pandemic situation brought these questions to the fore. He explored the larger picture of nature in its all-encompassing aspect through his techniques of extreme longshots and track shots. It is also important for us to recognise in his works his deep links with world cinema and his conversations with other film-makers of world cinema,” Madhuja Mukherjee told Frontline.

In fact, Buddhadeb Dasgupta was often compared not so much to Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, but to another great contemporary, Govindan Aravindan (1935-1991). “In my generation, film-makers like Aravindan, Adoor (Gopalakrishnan), Shyam [Benegal] and I, we decided to make films in the way we believed,” he once told Frontline.

For Buddhadeb Dasgupta, the primary aspect of film-making was not the story, nor an idea or a theme, but an “image”. In an interview to Frontline he explained the importance of images in his film-making process. “Images can come to you in such a way that often it seems like a discovery. Alone by myself, I discover images, and those images form the basis of my cinema… Until I get trapped by these images, I do not feel like proceeding with a film,” he said.” He admitted that he never tried to explain these images that would obsess him. “For me these images exist by themselves,” he said. His approach to making a film was also unique. He never allowed himself to be completely confined to the script or to any pre-conceived idea. “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,” he had said.

A poet first

It must be remembered that Buddhadeb Dasgupta was primarily a poet and became a film-maker after he had established himself in the literary world. In fact, critics have attributed much of the lyricism in his films to his possessing a poet’s vision and sensitivity. Though his subject matter was often brutal in its realism, through his images and narrative structure he sought to escape that reality and sublimate it for not just the viewers but also for himself. He created a world existing between a pitiless environment and the eternal human quest for an alternative reality to make life bearable. His characters, like the decadent penniless aristocrat in his magnificent ruined mansion in Phera, or Ghunuram, the labourer who performed the tiger dance in Bagh Bahadur, were lonely, isolated figures existing in landscapes that reflected their state of being. They lived in a world between dream and reality, in which neither of the two was more tangible than the other. As noted film-maker Aparna Sen put it, “He was different from all of us. His works were so surreal. We deal with reality, he worked with something beyond reality. I found his cinema like poetry. I feel empty inside that I will not be able to see such films anymore.”

Just as awards and silverware left him unfazed (though he had won more than most of his contemporaries), big names and banners never impressed Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Though he worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including superstars like Mithun Chakraborty (Kalpurush), Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Anwar ka Ajab Kissa), Tapas Pal (Uttara), he preferred lesser-known artistes from the stage. He never minced words when talking about the scene in contemporary Indian cinema, nor did he hold back his praise when someone, however unknown, moved him with her work. He felt the main reason for the “mediocrity” that dominates Indian cinema today was “fear”. “The film-makers of today are told to produce something that is pure mediocrity which will help them to get the next project and survive for some more time… nobody will remember them 20 years from now… I have seen Aravindan in a state of anguish for want of a producer, but that never made him compromise,” he said.

A critical eye

A gentle and affable of human being, Buddhadeb Dasgupta never shied away from speaking his mind even at the cost of alienating influential people in the world of arts and politics. At an age when political parties in power rope in the support of eminent artistes and intellectuals as a kind of validation of their actions, no party in power in the last 40 years could claim to have secured the unquestioning loyalty of Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Though pronouncedly leftist in his ideology, he was never the poster boy of West Bengal’s Left Front government. The Trinamool Congress government has not escaped his sharp criticism either. Be it art or politics, Buddhadeb Dasgupta refused to be anybody’s man but his own.

His unwavering commitment to his own vision of cinema did not make life easy for him. Concession to mainstream demands and reining in his views on the prevalent scene in arts and politics could have brought certain advantages, but he was never willing to make those compromises. “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,” he once said. He had his own magic—his craft— by which he could deal with the painful sound of the “shuffling of feet leaving the hall while the film is on”. “All directors, including Ray and Godard had to face that sound… but If I have just one person as audience for my film, that is enough for me to carry on,” Buddhadeb Dasgupta said. An unrepentant iconoclast right until the end, his death has brought to an end one of the most important chapters of Indian cinema.

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