Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Buddhadeb Dasgupta: Of dreams and voyages

Often, Buddhadeb Dasgupta is accused of creating a cinema that is overtly literary. But, this is to be expected from a man whose early life was dominated by literature and music. Painting crept in later, but before that Dasgupta taught economics in Calcutta University. If you look at his films – 13 to be precise – you would not only see a strong influence of all these art forms, but also an autobiographical streak running through.

Traces from his life and experiences are marked in his first movies, beginning with “Duratwa” (Distance, 1978) and followed by, among others, “Grihayuddha” (Crossroads, 1982) and “Andhi Gali” (Blind Alley, 1984). The horror of the Naxalite movement in the Bengal of the 1970s forms a backdrop to these.

Most of his other films too have glimpses of his passions and interests. His 1989
Buddhadeb Dasgupta
“Bagh Bahadur” (The Tiger Man) echoes his attraction for the tiger dance, a folk form which he saw during his days at Kharagpur, a railway town near Kolkata. This dance had its origins in the common people of Andhra, a large group of whom lived in Kharagpur. The art’s earthy and essentially secular features find a certain covert reference in “Uttara” (The Wrestlers, 2000, which fetched him the Best Director’s Prize at Venice the same year).

I would say that Dasgupta’s personal observations, which he also translates into sheer poetry, enrich his cinematic canvas that is at once moving and mesmerizing. Winner of four national awards, including one for his latest work, “Swapner Din” (Chased by a Dream, 2004), this director from Bengal still writes verses and essays, even as he continues making movies and trotting along with them round the globe. I wonder whether there has been another Indian auteur whose work has been screened so widely and so consistently outside the country.

He once told me that his films (as perhaps his life) were about voyages, both physical and metaphorical, a description that fits “Swapner Din” very well. This is the story of three people who embark on three different journeys, chasing three different dreams. The terrible Gujarat riots of 2002 and the unrest in the northeast of India provide the background to their lives, a feature common in the Dasgupta repertoire, which invariably has political, economic and social problems factored into it as it deals with the lives of ordinary citizens. Normally, his work focuses on them.

In “Swapner Din”, Amina is pregnant with the child of a man she adored but lost in the Gujarat carnage. An illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, she now wants to return home, where she feels her child would have a secure future.

Paresh is a touring cinema projectionist, whose dream girl eludes him. Is she a mirage? We would never know, but her brief appearances in the plot keep Paresh’s (and our) hope(s) alive, especially in a world where he faces frustration and misery. As he travels across the India-Bangladesh border, his sense of loneliness in an alien land dissipates when he finds his dream girl.

Chapal is Paresh’s assistant, who is all set to journey to Dubai, his dream destination for making money. But he fails, as does Amina in her effort to get across the border. Only Paresh succeeds.

And, the paths of all these three people meet and coalesce in “Swapner Din”, which Dasgupta weaves into a tapestry of happenstance. Although this may look ad hoc, actually it is by no means so. Finally, what we see is a neat structure with an absorbing narrative. Yes, there is a feel of poetry here, an unmistakable Dasgupta trait.

He admits that he is influenced by poetry. After all, he has been penning it for three decades. In a recent Press interview with “The Khaleej Times” he had said that “ when you read poetry some images stay with you, they come from reality but have a different meaning and weight. I have been asked why have poetry in film; it is a process that has got into my system, it just seeps in when I write my script, compose a shot...”

But, there is also cinema in his poetry. John W. Hood writes in his “The Films of Buddhadeb Dasgupta”: “…there is a strong element of his own cinema in his verse”. What Hood emphasises is the arresting visual quality in Dasgupta’s poetry.

In the ultimate analysis, what one sees in a Dasgupta movie is welcome simplicity, shorn of unreal dramatization, so common in Indian cinema. There is a classic subdued feel, particularly when the director handles violence. In “Swapner Din”, Chapal’s death from a bullet, fired by a policeman, is picturised with admirable restraint. There is no move to entertain here. Rather, the appearance of a squirrel – as it scampers about -- soon after this incident on the bonnet of a security force vehicle injects a degree of tranquility. Dasgupta treats death with poetic calm. This imagery is powerful and stays on.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated July 31 2005)

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