Remembering National Award-winning Bengali director Buddhadeb Dasgupta

Two decades have passed since I saw Uttara, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August 2000 and bagged Buddhadeb Dasgupta the Silver Lion for Best Director, but the film will always have a special place in my heart. I admit I sat down to watch it somewhat reluctantly. I was visiting my sister-in-law and with only a few hours left, I would have preferred a chat to a film. But my nephew, Ayan, insisted I see it, pointing out that it was just an hour-and-half long.

Through a story of two wrestlers fighting for the physical possession of a woman one of them brings home as his bride, he touches on issues like male vanity, jealousy, social anarchy in the world of “tall people”. They play out against a backdrop of pastoral beauty, the pace lyrical, the climax leaving you reeling. I’ve been recommending Uttara to everyone, wanting it to go beyond cinephiles.

Commercial reach was something Buddhada had to fight despite several national and international honours. I remember how excited he was when Kaalpurush, which featured mainstream actors like Mithun Chakraborty, Rahul Bose and Sameera Reddy, had bagged the National Award for Best Film, enjoyed a run of 40-50 international fests and was finally lining up for a theatrical release after two years. The wait was painful, he admitted, because he so wanted his own people to see the film after the accolades abroad.

Mithun was equally upset, reasoning that while everyone always spoke about the need to upgrade our cinema, there were no buyers for a nationally and internationally acclaimed film. “That’s how this business works,” he groused. Interestingly, I got my first interview with the actor when in response to his query “Why do you want to interview me?”, I pointed out that he had bagged two Best Actor National Awards for Mrigayaa and Tahader Katha. I had to wait three months for the interaction, which finally happened on a depressing, rainy day. The sun was in his smile when I brought up the subject of his second National Award. “I was beginning to think no one was interested,” Mithunda joked, then confided he’d cried when given the news, accompanied his parents to Vaishno Devi, walking up to the shrine in one go.

I remember how excited he was when Kaalpurush, which featured mainstream actors like Mithun Chakraborty, Rahul Bose and Sameera Reddy, had bagged the National Award for Best Film, enjoyed a run of 40-50 international fests and was finally lining up for a theatrical release after two years.

For me, Buddhada’s films are like a window — one of them was titled Janala after the window a former student decides to donate to his alma mater — not just to another world but to the soul. I’d been warned the former professor of economics and published author was hard to please and could be abrupt. But he always treated me with affectionate warmth, calling me over whenever he was in Mumbai visiting his daughters and I got to see a loving father and a doting grandfather.

He once insisted I listen to a song his younger daughter, Alokananda, had composed for the Marathi film Shala. Penned by her sister Rajeshwari, Behne Do was a semi-classical track sung by Rekha Bhardwaj. I was enchanted and Buddhada beamed proudly as I complimented his girls.

In 2011, he shared that he’d been approached by the Ministry of Culture through NFDC to bring to the screen 13 Rabindranath Tagore poems to commemorate the Nobel Laurette’s 150th birth anniversary. The 30- minute shorts sourced in poems like Krishnakali (The Dark Maiden), Pukur Dhare (From The Pool Side) and Istition (The Station), which spoke about a poet’s fascination with a woman he meets in the countryside to another woman’s observation of life around a pond through her binoculars to the life stories of a thief, a prostitute and beggar. They were trademark Buddhada in their use of images, music, sound montages and minimal use of dialogue.

Buddhada’s films are like a window — one of them was titled Janala after the window a former student decides to donate to his alma mater — not just to another world but to the soul. I’d been warned the former professor of economics and published author was hard to please and could be abrupt.

Our last meeting was in April 2014. Buddhada was angry because for the first time in his career he had to delete a scene and alter a line in his upcoming Hindi film, Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa, after a six-month battle with the censors. In a scene featuring three characters, one confides that he hasn’t excreted in two days, another reveals she hasn’t slept in 10 years and a third moans, hands inside his pants, “Teen saal mein maine kisiko lagaya nahin.” Buddhada had translated the line from his published verse, Crap Series. That hadn’t fanned any fires, but the censors still made him alter “lagaya nahin” to “kiya nahin”. He was even more aggrieved when he had to delete a scene between a prostitute and a client in a brothel because they couldn’t stomach a line that went “Aag to tumne laga diya, ab tumhi ko bhujana hai.”

I’d heard that he wasn’t keeping well, but it was still a shock to learn that he was gone. The only way to accept this is to believe that Buddhada has moved to a better world where commerce and censorship will never come in the way of his creativity.

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