Tope (The Bait, 2016) | Buddhadeb Dasgupta | MFF

I have been following Buddhadeb Dasgupta's career since I watched Grihajuddho first, on Doordarshan. I know, this sounds extremely precocious. What I meant to say is that I watched his films, read his writings on cinema and culture, read his poems, and heard him talking on cinema since my childhood. It is debatable whether he brought anything new to cinema. He tried, however. Repitition of shots, as tool for emoting (in quite an Eisensteinian, and Bruce Lee, way), as well as perpetually moving camera in Dooratwa (1978); use of static frame in Neem Annapurna (1979), Use of first person narration in Grihajuddha (1982), to the slow death of scopophilia from Tahader Katha (1992) onwards.

                                     Tahader Katha (1992) | Full Film | VC: Shemaroo Bangla

I worked on his film Ami, Yasin aar Amar Madhubala (The Voyeurs, 2007) as intern, in the Cinematography department. I noted two things - his meticulousness (Buddhadeb operated camera to show the starting and end frame, as well as the camera movement along with the character choreography to the Cinematographer of the film, Sunny Joseph. Buddhadeb depended a lot on the camera-character choreography since his first feature length film - Dooratwa. His narrative depends largely on the narration. This used to be his strength in the beginning years. 

This has been his weakness in all films made after Tahader Katha (1992) ) and his impractical shooting schedule (he becomes so immersed in the storytelling that he forgets the practicability of shoot. In The Voyeurs, on most of the days of the Kolkata schedule, shoot started at 9:30 am and continued till 4:30 am next day, to start at 9:30 am again, after a five-hour gap. An inhuman schedule indeed. I understand this, partially, as I had to work similarly in Mumbai both as a film-school teacher and Cinematographer. Working on ludicrously low-budget has its problem. But, Buddhadeb does not work on low-budget any more!)

                                                         A still from Tope (The Bait)

The problem of artificiality began when Buddhadeb started showcasing the rural Bengal space. In Pather Panchali (1955), Ray depended largely on Bibhutibhshan Bandhyopadhyay's depiction, so much so that he was hesitant to change even one dialogue from the novel. Ray reminisced that in an essay in the compilation Speaking of Films. Buddhadeb brought an urban presentation of a created rural presence - a construction to be showcased as a documentary exoticism of the Indian rural noumenon. Surprising as it is, Buddhadeb's enterprise since Charachar (1994), is to present noumenal presence, which is impossible by definition. Exactly this is where the filmmaker's hypocrisy lies. I call this hypocrisy because he knows what he is doing. (In Charachar, for example, Buddhadeb's obsession for frame within frame (I call it parascopophilia) is highlighted and foregrounded for no narrative or aesthetic reason, as metonymy for the film frame, and the camera tracks around Lakhi (Rajit Kapoor) to end at the window frame (acting as a metaphor for the film frame) for no particular reason.)

Just like the previous films, Swapner Din (Chased by Dreams, 2004, released in 2007), Kaalpurush (Memories in the Mist, 2005, but released in 2008), The Voyeurs (2007), Janala (The Window, 2013), Woh (He, 2011) and Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa (Sniffer, 2013), Dasgupta lingered on his habit of grotesque combination of Foreground and Background imageries, in frame within frame, on Wide Angle lensing. His love for gramophone (it is so well known that the Hindi program guftagoo introduces Buddhadeb with a golden gramophone) extends to featuring it as an action (or emotional) prop in his films.

                                                       PC: DD Rajya Sabha 

His latest film, Tope, inspired by a short story by Bengali writer Narayan Gangopadhyay, begins with a gigantic gramophone shot through a bamboo frame in the landscape of some forest near Kolkata. A nostalgic Bangla song by Nazrul is playing. Soon, a thin man with ropy muscles is seen dancing in a typical urban, Tagorean, way with the song.

The whole thing is as absurd and surreal as the sea storming in in his film Janala (The Window, 2009), or the poor people walking with a sofa at night on the road of Kolkata.

Another major problem in Buddhadeb's films from Laal Darja (The Red Door, 1997) onwards is the characters do not move realistically on screen. They are made to move like mime actors, like spring-puppets. Buddhadeb has been conscious of geometry of the screen space and classical movement and rest magnifications of the character as well as the camera-character choreography since Dooratwa (1978). But, such reflexive treatment has been cliché for decades now.

This statement demands a separate article on what is meant by the classical movements and stops, and why it is cliché. Stay tuned for that article - especially the students of filmmaking!
                                                 Another still from Tope (The Bait)

However, it is not for no reason that Buddhadeb's filmmaking does not create any expectation in most viewers from any generation. Quite a few liked Uttara (2000). But, all cinephiles found that film to be highly synthetic. His infusion of what he calls magic realism created a disturbing powerplay that goes against his professed philosophy of taking stance against the power pyramid and its dynamics. Here, Buddhadeb is pretty similar to Q, the filmmaker, whose professed stance of close reading of patriarchy actually instigates parochial, patriarchal, politics through the politics of his cinema. (yet another article on this topic)

Q is actually more innovative. Buddhadeb is not. In Uttara (2000), Buddhadeb started grotesque layering - apparently opposite emotions in the Fore, Middle and the Backgrounds. A peculiar figure - marginal, rather abnormal - looks at the foreground scene until the focus racks on him or her. It appears a mark of intellect to some viewers.

Buddhadeb has not adapted the short story. He was inspired by it. There is nothing similar between the story and the film, including the emotions to be generated. That is perfectly fine. We do not go to theater to watch a book on screen (although how the screen is reading the book, with the assumption that the book is reading the screen at the same time, is an interesting study. Many filmmakers still indulge in that study.) The main accusation against Buddhadeb is his use of similar motifs in exactly the same ways for the last sixteen years at least.

The story may be synopsized in two lines. A megalomaniac King lives in a palace and loves to hunt tigers. A team of documentary filmmakers has come to the palace to shoot the King's trophies. When the request the King to record the shooting of a man-eater, the King permits. In the same palace, there is a captive lady. In the same village, there is an alienated postman, who has taken up abode in the trees, with monkeys. There is a family of banazarans - a little rope-walker girl and her parents, who earn their daily bread from madari-ka-khel (tight-rope-walk).

The nameless Princess in the pervert (my use of the word pervert is in the Lacanian sense) King's palace dreams (or sees?) a prehistorical man coming out of the water in the lake - a man perhaps burdened by the creepers and algae wrapped around his body. That man is middle-aged, fat, not a charming Prince in any way. The Princess wants to run away with him, while the mad King dances on the beats of his gramophone music day-in and day-out, drunk or sober.

Such magical overtones look fake. It may remind a reader of Shankha Ghosh's poetry the beginning lines from Panjare Darer Shabdo, but it fails to resonate with a spectator who has been following Buddhadeb's career since its inception. It irritates such a spectator.

The only thing that still keeps his films sometimes watchable is his occasional choice of somewhat good actors, and the classical composition.

This film saw an empty auditorium. Buddhadeb complains against that, and compared this to a full theater in the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where the film had is premiere this year.

But, India has nothing to gain from Buddhadeb's wide angle nostalgia and sophisticated, repetition of mediocrity. When a race thrives only in its history, it reaches the peak of stagnation.

Buddhadeb has become senile like such races. That is a good lesson for us, younger people, who want to make films for today's spectators. We can see how one becomes senile.

It is to be seen if Buddhadeb comes out of this senility.

                                                  Trailer of Tope (The Bait, 2016)

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