Buddhadeb Dagupta’s journey began with a ten-minute documentary in The Continent of Love (1968). My King of Drums (1974) won the Best Documentary Award. He learnt my craft from watching films, reading about them and listening to people talk about them. In 1978, he made his first full-length feature film, Dooratwa (Distance.) Based on a short story by noted Bengali littérateur Sirsendu Mukhopadhyay, the film was completed in just 16 shooting days on an incredibly low budget, exposing just 20,000 feet of film. Dooratwa was followed by Neem Annapurna, Grihajuddha and Andhi Galli form a loose trilogy because the common thread that links the three films is the notion of disillusionment with idealism and political commitment and the spilling over of this discontent and restiveness into the personal lives of the subjects concerned. Each film has an independent story sourced from an original literary piece, re-scripted to suit the needs and interpretations of the director and his medium of cinema. Each film has its own statement and its own plot and theme. Each film is complete unto itself.
The third of nine children, Buddhadeb Dasgupta was born in February 1944 in Anara near Purulia in South Bengal. “I am not a city boy. I am grateful for having spent my childhood in the proximity of nature, in interaction with simple rustic folk. Dasgupta’s father Taranath, was a railway doctor who traveled frequently from one village to another, and the family moved with him too. Dasgupta was brought up in an enlightened, liberal and middle-class environment. His father’s emotional moorings lay in the politics of Mahatma Gandhi and later, in the post-Independence period, in Marxism. His mother used to sing Brahmo hymns and Tagore songs with the piano as support, and read out to her children from the Puranas, the Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita. This helped them develop a deep sensibility towards music and a feel for tradition.
Much like a dream he explored in every recent film such as Swapner Din, Kaalpurush, Janala, Ami Yasin O Amar Madhubala, Tope and Flight. His award-winning film Janala and his first Hindi feature film Anwar Ka Ajeeb Kissa, (2013) based on his own story, after a long time since Bagh Bahadur and Andhi Gali many years ago. The film starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui turned out to be a rather confusing damper unfolding the story of a bumbling detective who gets emotionally involved in his cases that leads him to trouble. It did not succeed in narrating either the characters or the story with the kind of efficiency Dasgupta showed in his films and was more of a jigsaw puzzle than what one expected it to be and Siddique could not save it one bit.
Dasgupta discovered quite early, the intricacies of characterization and vitality in the novels of the three Bandopadhyays – Bibhutibhusan (1899-1950), Tarasankar (1898-1971) and Manik Bandopadhyay (1908-1956.) Later novelists also inspired him. Another source was Tagore’s paintings that were instrumental in stirring Dasgupta’s interest in paintings. Folk art and folk dance also gave him great pleasure. Apart from the arts, he was drawn to politics since he was a boy when his idol was Netaji. But as he grew up, he felt drawn to the ideology of extremist Leftist politics then known as Naxalism, which, however, soon became a source of disillusionment and disappointment.
To Dasgupta therefore, filmmaking, as also his poetry, was a mission and a quest. His radical commitment remained the hallmark of his genius. “We used to dream not of practical things as career and wealth but of a new world,” he said a bit wistfully. “For me, filmmaking is a quest. There are many questions we have to face in life and I am trying to find answers for some in my films. But I am not absolutely satisfied with any particular film of mine. It is this dissatisfaction that leads me on to the next film, and I must say this is a continuous quest,” he would say.
When asked about how he conceived films, in an interview with this writer, Dasgupta said, “My methods, if there are any, have evolved over the years. I have never had a ‘method’ to speak of but have allowed ideas, memories and dreams to float from within me. Today, I think in terms of images and keep storing them in the hard disk of my mind. I can recall and translate them into the idiom of cinema whenever I wish to. These images keep coming back in my films in different ways over different phases. A simple childhood mantra of chhoti moti pipra boti, lal darwaza khol de came back in little Navin’s fists in Lal Darja. The Telugu performers found a voice in Bagh Bahadur and the village magician turned up in Tahader Katha. The idea of making Phera and Bagh Bahadur (1989) came when I was making Dholer Raja. I discovered that his rare art was in danger of extinction because neither his son nor his grandson wanted to learn to play the drum, because there is no money or respect in it. So also, the other arts like the jatra and the tiger dance.”
The most outstanding feature of Dasgupta as a filmmaker is that he constantly went on reinventing himself, moving from literature to poetry to films inspired by his own poetry as he was a poet of known and recognised excellence. Therefore, quite naturally, over time, his films were filled with poetic metaphors and sometimes, the audience was more confused by so many allegorical and poetic references than understanding them. But that did not seem to deter Dasgupta much as he made films on his own terms and though he once expressed he was disappointed that his home audience had not seen his later films, he did not change his style of filmmaking in any way to bring his home audience. But the sad thing about this is that even the Bengali audience has missed out on his latest masterpieces.
From straight, linear narratives adapted from noted post-Tagorean Bengali writers like Sirsendu Mukhopadhyay, Dibyendu Palit, Prafulla Ray and Kamal Kumar Majumdar, he slowly but very surely drifted towards a poetic language often inspired by his own beautiful poetry centred around ordinary men and women who would normally be considered “failures.” In effect, if we look at his later films. We find men and women we do not even hear, look at or read about and how they either keep searching for an illusory world like Kusumpur (Kaal Purush), or a bird-catcher like Lakhinder (Charachar) who sets birds free instead of selling them in the market because through their ‘freedom’ he finds his own liberation in some strange way. The growing girl in Mondo Meyer Upakhyan, born to a sex worker and growing up within a brothel, wants to go to school and also, to go to Kolkata to watch man’s first landing on the moon.
Or, let us remember the crazy postman of the local post office (Tope) who perches himself on the branch of a huge tree and makes the neighbouring monkeys his “family.” Repeated requests from his wife, mother, the village head and other elders cannot shift him from that tree branch. He throws away all the letters he is supposed to deliver to their addressees but he decides he will not do this. In Uro Jahaj, Bacchu Mandal, a mere motor mechanic, chances upon an old WW2 plane, paints it and is determined that he will fly in it one day. He is suspected to be a spy, captured and tortured ceaselessly by the police but he refuses to let go of his dream.
His cinema could well be described as the cinema of journeys and of loneliness. He agrees with this contention. “This might sound cliché to others but the fact remains that images of my childhood are closely linked to my adult life and so, to my cinema. The family never stopped moving from one place to another. My homes in all these places were so thickly crowded that I never ever had the chance of being alone with myself. My association with literature, music and painting from childhood unknowingly pushed me to the zoom of loneliness which might have been painful at times but is also creative in many ways,” he elaborated.
“Many a time, going from one room to another was more than taking a journey while flying from one country to another was not a long journey at all. I have discovered that the most important thing in life is to be able to relate to these two things – journeys and loneliness and to try and discover how you respond to them. All I know is that I can neither write nor make films without these two essential elements of my life. At times, they might appear allegorical, but they are real, believe me, so real that they touch the tail of reality. I never stop mixing a bit of dream and magic with the reality around me. Otherwise, it becomes very predictable, repetitive, boring and tedious. This is a process of evolution that started a long time ago. I was in primary school and a magician came to perform for us. My first encounter with the magician and his magic taught me many things in life – that one can blend magic with love and magic with loneliness. I believe that dreams are so essential an ingredient of life that in its absence, one might actually invite nightmares, which is also a part of reality at times. Dreams and nightmares are just a part of reality and not the whole of it,” he summed up, cryptically.
Contrary to popular opinion, Dasgupta was interested in his audience’s interest in his films. “The audience is a big part of my plans. I want my audience to watch my films. Never mind the fact that I do not follow the linear narrative in the conventional way, never mind that I chase the illusion-reality paradigm with passion, never mind that my films often reflect a throwback into poetry, my audience is a very important part of my plans,” he said. His later films were hardly released theatrically in West Bengal but they continued to bag awards nationally and internationally. Janala (The Window) won the Best Feature Film Award at Taipei’s 54th Asia Pacific Film Festival over the other 55 films from 18 countries in the Asia Pacific region. Kaalpurush was made in 2005, won the Golden Lotus for the Best Film of the Year in 2006 and took two more years to get a public release. Swapner Din, starring Prasenjeet in the lead with Rajesh Sharma and Rimi Sen (Bollywood) doing two major roles also won the Best Film Award at the National Film Awards. The same goes for Mondo Meyer Upakhyan. But most of these films got a very limited release in Kolkata or did not get any release at all such as Ami Yaasin Aar Madhubala.
Buddhadeb Dasgupta is perhaps one of the very few Indian filmmakers who changed his style, treatment, form and content as a filmmaker without bothering about whether this would alienate his audience from his films or whether they would come closer to his films. He turned his entire oeuvre into a distinctive genre of his own.
-- Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a veteran Indian journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata, India. She has authored around 26 books on cinema, gender and short fiction. She has won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema twice - I991 (Best Journalist on cinema) and in 2002 for Best Book on cinema. She has juried at several Indian and International Film Festivals over the years. She has done her Ph.D. and post-doctorate on cinema and has won several Lifetime Achievement Awards
 Founded in 1828 by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in Calcutta, the Brahmo Samaj is a religious movement. At its centre is the belief that there is one God, who is omni-present and omniscient. It initially evolved in India where it differed from existing practice, as it did not believe in idol-worship or the caste system. The Brahmo religion is now practiced in many parts of the world. The Brahmo Samaj has played a significant role in the renaissance of India, and the roots of much of the modern thinking in India can be traced back to the Brahmo movement. Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate, was one of the luminaries of the Brahmo Samaj. As British rule consolidated in India during the 18th century, two factors contributed to the formation of the Brahmo Samaj in the following century. Firstly the Hindu social system had begun to stagnate and placed too much of an emphasis on traditional rituals. Secondly an English educated class of Indians began to emerge to fulfill the administrative and economic needs of British rule. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a Bengali, was a product of the latter trend. (Source: Supriyo Chanda:http://www.chanda.freeserve.co.uk/brahmoframe.htm)
 J.Geetha: On Life and Times – The World of Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Frontline, September 2-15, 1989.