One grouse that some votaries of conventional storytelling have about the films of Buddhadeb Dasgupta, who passed away on June 10 at the age of 77, is that they often go “nowhere”. They fail to appreciate that his extraordinarily poetic cinema thrives on just that.
His films hinge on people who seek to break free from the tyranny of expectation. Defiantly, they go “nowhere”. At his best, Dasgupta, a poet and former economics professor, thrived on veering away from the conventional and exploring the inexplicable. That is where the power of his films lay.
The 20-odd narrative features that the meticulous craftsman made in a career spanning over four decades deal with life and reality, both of which have a way of resisting fixed destinations, in a manner that blends visual poetry with a deep empathy for dreamers who do not let their dreams stop them from going beyond.
In Dasgupta’s world, there is beauty and amazement, and frustration and bathos, too. Isn’t that how life is: a mix of magic and drudgery, of relationships that liberate and ties that bind? No Buddhadeb Dasgupta film captures his untrammelled creative spirit more comprehensively than Swapner Din (2004).
The literal translation of the title is “A Day of Dreams”, but the writer-director went with “Chased by Dreams”. With good reason. The film, like many of his others, is peopled by characters “chased” by dreams, which is markedly different from the transitive act of chasing dreams.
One character in Swapner Din, played by Bengali superstar Prosenjit Chatterjee, is an idealistic official who goes from village to village to screen shoddily made government films while being inveigled by the dreams of a demure, beautiful actress he has seen in one of them. The driver of his Jeep dreams of escaping to Dubai with a fabricated passport. A pregnant Muslim woman, wife of an illegal Bangladeshi migrant killed in the 2002 Gujarat riots, is determined to make it back to her own country before the child is born. But they are all likely to end up nowhere, as so many of Dasgupta’s characters do.
Uttara (The Wrestlers, 2000) and Mondo Meyer Upakhyan (A Tale of a Naughty Girl, 2002) told similar composite tales with equal brilliance. He returned to a similar style years later in Tope (The Bait, 2017), which brings together a young nomadic girl who performs tricks for a living, a postman who lives on a tree and communicates with primates, and a royal personage completely out of sync with the realities of the present.
In his studied, unwavering preoccupation with people who turn their backs on conventional wisdom and plough their own furrow in a society that militates against outliers, Dasgupta is truly exceptional, absolutely one of a kind. There have been few Indian directors as steadfast as him in looking for beauty in unlikely places, and for the miraculous in acts of despair.
Phera (The Return, 1986), Lal Darja (The Red Door, 1997), Kaalpurush (Memories of the Mist, 2008), Janala (The Window, 2009), and his last film Urojahaj (The Flight, 2018), are all poignant and profound tales of men struggling, and striving, to claw their way out of steep troughs.
Dasgupta’s first fiction feature was Dooratwa (Distance, 1978), about a Calcutta college lecturer and former Naxalite struggling to start over once his revolutionary zeal has waned. The stark Neem Annapurna (Bitter Morsel, 1979) preceded two films that (with Dooratwa) completed Dasgupta’s trilogy of tales about contemporary Bengal politics and the scars of a failed rebellion — Grihajuddha (Civil War, 1982) and the Hindi-language Andhi Gali (Blind Alley, 1984).
The social-realist underpinning of his early films gave way gradually to a style that abjured the certitudes of political formulations and social developments and wafted into a world of reveries. A series of inimitable films followed.
In Bagh Bahadur (The Tiger Man, 1989), Dasgupta’s first Hindi film, a folk artist famed for his tiger dance is threatened with extinction by the arrival of a real wild feline. In Charachar (The Shelter of Wings), a traditional bird-catcher develops such an obsession with the winged creatures that he begins to trap them only to set them free again.
In Mondo Meyer Upakhyan, set in 1969, the year man first set foot on the moon, a girl desperate for school education is in danger of being handed by her sex worker-mother to an old, lecherous cinema hall owner. The girl’s treacherous fate finds a parallel in the plight of an infirm old couple driven from one place to another by the movie hall owner’s chauffeur in search of an elusive hospital.
No Indian filmmaker of the post-Ray generation, and we aren’t talking Bengali filmmakers alone, has been as active on the international festival circuit. Uttara won the Silver Lion for Best Director in Venice. His Phera and Charachar competed for the Golden Bear in Berlin. He won the Critics Award for Dooratwa in Locarno and a Special Jury Award for Neem Annapurna in both Locarno and Karlovy Vary. That apart, Dasgupta figured in the Masters section of the Toronto International Film Festival with virtually every film that he made this millennium.
More than anything, what defined Dasgupta’s cinema was the lure of the ineffable, and of the barely graspable possibilities inherent in lives headed in the direction of the unknown.