‘From Buddhadeb Dasgupta, I learnt not to emulate anyone, but to have my own voice’

Independent filmmaker Amartya Bhattacharyya on how the oeuvre of Buddhadeb Dasgupta was the Indian cinema that most of India missed.

Take a glance at the first frame of Tope (The Bait, 2016), and you’d know it’s a Buddhadeb Dasgupta film. It opens with a lone wooden-door frame in the outdoors, with a gramophone and a dancing character. It made me numb, comfortably numb. I was soaked into the film, intoxicated by the poetic visual-aesthetic, transported to another world. Every film of his carries the inimitable signature of a poet who paints his feelings onto the celluloid canvas, without any sensationalism or gimmickry. His aesthetic was deeply rooted in Indian folklore, yet he was postmodernist in the way that he excavated them out of the everyday and presented them to the world.

The landscapes in his films – be it Uttara (2000) or Swapner Din (2004) – harks back to his childhood days in Purulia. A certain nostalgia – not an explicit remembrance of Bengal’s lost past – seeps through the screen and touches the viewer. From his National Award-winning films Bagh Bahadur (1989), Tahader Katha (1992) and Kaalpurush (2005) to his very last, Urojahaj (2019), the master’s subtlety was the most hard-hitting; he leaves us unsettled, with unresolved questions.

It would have been extremely difficult for the Bengali filmmaker, especially at the time he started, to not follow the likes of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen. But Dasgupta created an art so distinct. He created images like none of his predecessors, and took Indian cinema beyond the literal, to surreal and magic-realist territories. He showed the world that Indian cinema can transcend the boundaries of realism and still remain purely Indian. He was an ardent admirer of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, but Dasgupta’s films never looked like Buñuel’s – the hallmark of a true auteur. Once, in one of his interviews published in the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika, Dasgupta had said: “Ray er reality amar noye (Satyajit Ray’s reality isn’t mine)”. From his films, I learnt not to emulate anyone else, but to have my own voice.

As a filmmaker, I find tremendous inspiration from his films, and his words. He was a poet himself, but he would never indulge in textual poetry when it came to filmmaking. Some poets have a habit of over-indulging in texts, but he was not of that kind. He would always allow his images to speak. His images would open up new spaces and place the viewer right there. As a viewer, you don’t feel bombarded with information, you simply float on a soothing tide. I remember the day I showed him my first film. As someone who wanted to make films but didn’t go to a film school, and was fascinated by his movies, I was eager to meet him. I met him through the veteran Odia filmmaker Manmohan Mahaptra, who passed away last year. I went to Dasgupta’s Ballygunge residence in Kolkata in 2012. He praised the imagery and use of music in my short film Boba Mukhosh (about a schizophrenic patient’s hallucination) but warned me “Kobi kintu chhobita noshto kore dichhe (the poet is ruining the visuals)”. He explained how in spite of very strong imagery, the spoken words of poetry would suppress the poetry of my images. Even today, when I feel like indulging, his words ring a bell, and I resort to silence.

Silence was an instrument powerfully used by him. He would choose subjects which are extremely simple, yet sensitive. He would layer his films with subtexts and analogies. Each layer would reveal another film. In Uttara (2000), for instance, the dwarf plays an alter-narrative at the climax, subtly taking the viewer from the cruel reality towards a world of imagination, dream and solace. Sometimes the dancers, sometimes the flute player, sometimes the dwarfs – there will be characters in his films who act like bridges. Those who segue the transition from the real to the unreal; at times, one can’t ascertain whether what they saw was realism or magic realism.

While Dasgupta’s films are pathbreaking and disruptive, his editing was humbler. The shots and cuts didn’t come as a jolt, but an easing out. He is revolutionary in the way he would revolutionise the viewer’s mind without making them feel the transition.

Earlier this year, the Arthouse Asia Film Festival in Kolkata organised a masterclass with Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Luckily, I attended it. He spoke about several aspects of filmmaking, from the use of the lens to the selection of locations. Sohini Dasgupta, his longtime associate director, narrated how the team would run around selecting great locations, and when the master finally had to finalise them, he wouldn’t like them. He would walk alone and select a very simple location. She recalled having asked him once: “How do you know this is the location you want?” He replied: “Just sit there quietly for a while. The location will tell you that I’m your location.”

He was a philosopher who would never philosophise. The conflicts in his films would spell it out. Dasgupta would never resolve contextual conflicts but use them to open up new cinematic spaces, like in Swapner Din (2004), which is one of my favourite Indian films. Reflecting a certain kind of self-honesty, his characters would rarely be heroes or villains. Not archetypal, but very relatable. You may not feel with them, but you’ll feel for them.

His class was in his simplicity. From the lens and technical equipment to camera movements, he was measuredly simple. It is difficult to find a single unmotivated camera movement in his films. While Dasgupta’s landscapes would always be imprinted in every viewer’s heart, he composed some extremely powerful close-ups in between. His choice of shots is a tutorial for every young filmmaker.

One of the strongest pillars of Indian cinema over the last few decades – having won several National Awards and recognition at top global festivals – his films continue to stand tall over the prevalent mediocrity of our times. He instilled a lot of hope in serious filmmakers who care for the medium and dare to swim against the tide. His demise will leave a void which is very hard to fill. He had more cinema left in him, and plenty of genius for us to consume and feel inspired by. And while some of his films might be on YouTube, it is crucial that all his films are made available on OTT platforms so that consumers of popular cinema can, for a change, take a look and wonder: wasn’t this the Indian cinema that most of India missed?

(Amartya Bhattacharyya, director of the National Award-winning fantasy documentary Benaras: The Unexplored Attachments (2015), is based in Kolkata.)

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