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Copyright 2004

ARCHIVES - INDIAN CINEMA

Classics

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Uttara: Framing political realism

BUDDHADEB DASGUPTA'S canvas holds enormous artistic talent. The 11 films that he has made have been delightful to watch all right. But movies such as these are becoming rarer in the face of a surge of distasteful and poor Hollywood copies.

Dasgupta's latest creation in the Bengali language (he is a Bengali, living in Calcutta), ``Uttara'' (subtitled in English as ``The Wrestlers'') won the unique distinction of clinching the Best Director's Golden Lion at the just-concluded Venice International Film Festival.

The movie is set in a small village in West Bengal, where the idyllic existence of two railway employees - who keep loneliness at bay by having friendly bouts of wrestling - is shattered by jealousy and religious intolerance. When one of them marries and brings home his bride, the new relationship drives a wedge between the two men. There is a hint of homosexuality here, though Dasgupta tells this writer in the course of a recent interview in Chennai that it is for the audiences to draw their conclusions.

What, however, is central in the picture is lumpenisation of India's rural life. When a group of thugs burn down a church and murder its Christian priest, one may be tempted to read a lot more into it, given the kind of communal tension sweeping the country.

Although ``Uttara'' appears to talk about such cold-blooded, deliberate acts of violence, Dasgupta avers that he is more concerned with what is happening to India's social fabric, which is being stretched and even torn by inconsiderate and prejudiced elements.

The work seemingly ends on a note of despair: while the two wrestlers are fighting to finish each other, obviously over the woman, the villagers are being devoured by leprosy, perhaps a more visible manifestation of the creeping hatred in the community.

But look a little beyond these images and there emerges the glistening ray of hope. We see the priest's adopted son being rescued by a group of masked dancers. We see life in its pristine form.

Dasgupta's use of symbols is fascinating: he shows the disease as a metaphor to underline the growing malaise in the countryside. He reveals beauty in the midst of all this squalor and stench by letting the little lad breathe.

Even Dasgupta's handling of the camera has a certain bewitching touch about it: captivating visuals are framed and frozen in a sequence that is lyrical and literary.

Most of what he shows is subdued and suggestive, almost in a poetic way. (Dasgupta is a renowned Bengali poet and novelist). There is nothing loud, there is nothing vulgar on the screen.

But what triggered him to make ``Uttara''? ``I think living in a country like India and not getting disturbed is almost next to impossible. You and me are getting distressed. A creative person gets all the more tormented, and what is happening here today is almost nightmarish. You have religious fundamentalism here. You have sexual and physical fundamentalism. You have, above all, intellectual fundamentalism'', Dasgupta explains.

``Although ``Uttara'' is an attempt at commenting on all this, I have managed to club this darkness with some light and joy. I have presented a magical reality, and have given each of the characters the right to present his or her view, which is both negative and positive.

``The wrestlers have something to say. The killers have some thing to say. The masked dancers have something to say. The dwarfs have something to say. The dwarfs feel that the world has gone to the dogs, and they are eager to take over. They want to change the world with their dreams. The masked dancers - who have been singing songs about life and love for ages - represent culture that has the energy to save the world from the catastrophic course it has taken. They save Matthew, and the little boy realises that life can still be beautiful, life can still be lived''.

Dasgupta's deep love for poetic realism has enabled him to say all that he wants to without harshness or bitterness. He uses subtle nuances to punch messages. For example, while we all know that it was a Christian priest who was murdered, the identity of the killers has been left unsaid.

``It is not important'', Dasgupta feels. ``What is, is the state of society, the way it has been brutalised, the way an entire generation has been brutalised. What is even more frightening is that even a creative person has not been left untouched. This is very dangerous.'' Coming as it does from a poet, this sounds all the more ominous.

Dasgupta has been writing verses for 40 years now, and despite dabbling in a medium like cinema, with its overpowering strength, he has never given up writing poems. He has 10 volumes to his credit.

``I am greatly indebted to poetry'', Dasgupta confides. ``It has taught me minimalism. The first thing that a good poet learns is how many words he can do without''.

``Even in cinema, this is very important. I do not feel that I have to explain everything to my viewer. I do not even think that I have to make everything transparent. There are patches of confusion in ``Uttara''. I let them prevail. Once you make everything lucid there will be no need to go back to a film. A good movie must be able to draw one time and again.''

Dasgupta returns to his camera, but more often, one should think, to his pen. Better still, he takes comfort in idleness. He has a hideout outside Calcutta where he takes refuge in - listening to music, reading poetry and massaging his soul with refreshing thoughts.

``So many memories stored in my `hard disk' come tumbling out. They help me build one more movie'', he smiles. And, gets set for one more round of celluloid creativity.

(This story/review appeard in The Hindu dated October 13 2000)

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