There's something unreal about the setting: a sparsely furnished room, basic seating arrangements, posters of two iconic films – Taxi Driver and Scarface – loom over you from the walls, 'Mere desh ki dharti' and 'Aye meray watan ke logon' blare from loudspeakers in the vicinity (it's 26 January) while a sixty-four-year-old film-maker talks about 'finally' making a film about love.
As Anjan Dutt readies for the release of his new film Finally Bhalobasha, the first question that occurs to me is why 'finally'. "Well, I have never seriously dealt with love. Since I ventured into direction, I've been trying to work with issues that belong to my surroundings – broken families, my city, the crisis of the middle class, changing values, the global Bengali, at the same time incorporating the marginalized Bengali, not the typical Hindu Kolkata, the new-age youth, Christians, Bengalis but outsiders, with music of course playing an important role. So, that has been my forte rather than dealing with love per se."
Like quite a few films of late in Bengali, Dutt's too makes use of the multiple-story format. What makes it different, he says, is that all three stories deal with "tabooed love". "I am aware that other films have dealt with each of these aspects, but I have infused each with a darkness that is uniquely mine. I don't want to make it sentimental. While writing this I have faced certain uncomfortable questions about my life. For example, tomorrow if Neel (his son) comes and tells me that he wants to hang around with a man, even as a thinking, 'radical' individual, I would take time to accept that… or if today I am attracted to a young woman, I will not be able to face my wife, or if I had a daughter who tells me she wants to move in with a man in his mid-sixties, I will have problems."
The three strands that make the film are titled inventively enough – 'Insomnia', 'Arthritis', and 'HIV Positive'. 'Insomnia' deals with the efforts of a physically abused wife (Raima Sen) to escape the marriage she is trapped in. 'Arthritis' explores the 'affair' between a young music-loving junkie from a broken family (Sauraseni Maitra) and a depressed old man (Anjan Dutt) who is looking for sex as a way out of his condition. The third story addresses the issue of homophobia through the relationship of a man dying of AIDS (Anirban Bhattacharya) and the male nurse assigned to him (Suprobhat Das) at the hospice. "Physical love then becomes a malady – it is necessary, but it's a necessary malady, and it is through these maladies that you finally reach bhalobasha, love," he adds.
"I am aware that other films have dealt with each of these aspects, but I have infused each with a darkness that is uniquely mine. I don't want to make it sentimental. While writing this I have faced certain uncomfortable questions about my life," says Anjan Dutt.
In 'Insomnia' even as the wife is trying to escape a violent and possessive husband (Arindam Sil) she is not averse to using her feminine charms as a means towards that end. "In a way it makes that section a thriller … you know the husband is a beast, but you are never sure of the wife's motivations." In 'Arthritis' the old man only has sex on his mind even as the young girl seeks comfort in his company. And in HIV+ it is a gay relationship. "Most of the time when we look at gay relations in Indian cinema, one of the characters is a transgender. Why? Why can't two men actually find love? Because by making one character effeminate, a transgender, we are in some way making it conventional. We all say we must be tolerant – I would say it's much easier to be politically or religiously tolerant; it's difficult to be sexually tolerant."
Casting Arindam Sil (the man who has made Byomkesh Bakshi a bestselling franchise in Bengali cinema) as the brutal, abusive husband is an interesting choice. "What I like about Anjan-da," says Arindam, "is the out-of-box characters he creates and the space he allows you to interpret it. The character I play is brutal, crass, crude – but in the hands of Anjan-da he becomes three-dimensional, because there's a true core to him, he has the capacity to love that is genuine."
For a man who says that he will stop making films once he turns seventy, it is interesting to watch him exploring love at the age of sixty-four. "Well, I felt the need to look back and explore the concept of love consciously. Some of my best films are love stories but address it tangentially. Here I am trying to understand what love means to me in today's context. The word "finally" is important because I realise today that to achieve love it is necessary to go through a huge crisis in a society where everything is breaking, changing too fast."