Buddhadeb Dasgupta has had a long and unusual list of leading men in his movies, from Pawan Malhotra (Bagh Bahadur, 1989) to Mithun Chakraborty (Tahader Katha, 1992) to Rajit Kapoor (Charachar, 1994) to Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa, 2013). Chandan Roy Sanyal’s first first film with Dasgupta was as a part of an ensemble in Tope (2016); he played the lead in Urojahaj (2018).
Roy Sanyal was going to be in Dasgupta’s next, but the filmmaker passed away last week at the age of 77. He was suffering from a kidney ailment and undergoing weekly dialysis when they shot Urojahaj in 2018. The actor reminisces his time with the filmmaker, his unique way of shooting, and their Mithun Chakraborty connection.
I grew up in Delhi in the 80s and 90s. Our family was movie crazy, particularly one of my uncles. One of my fondest memories is of him taking the whole family — 25-30 of us — to watch Andha Kanoon on a very rainy day.
I was a huge Mithun Chakraborty fan. One of my uncles used to own a little book store and I would sometimes help him out in the shop after school. It used to have everything from porn magazines to Reader’s Digests to foreign magazines, and I used to look at everything. There were film magazines like Mayapuri and it’s in one of those that I first read of Tahader Katha. I waited to watch the film until it came on Doordarshan. As a child, I obviously didn’t understand things like direction, camera, editing. I didn’t understand the language of Buddhadeb Dasgupta. I was interested in Tahader Katha only because my favourite actor was in it, and I realised it’s a totally different world: I could feel the difference in Mithun’s acting in this film, which was real and stark.
It also opened up these other kind of films—Ghatak, Ray, Adoor, Shaji Karun. Their films would play on Doordarshan on Sunday noons. I wouldn’t understand them, but I would watch them nevertheless, sometimes dozing off, and waking up again. I must have seen Dasgupta’s Uttara on one of those Sunday afternoons. A few years later, I was watching films at the British Council or the French Embassy in Delhi, or using the student pass to watch as many films as possible in the film festival. A whole new world of films had opened up.
Years later, Dasgupta would approach me for a role when I was in Venice for the film festival for my film Island City. This was 2015-16. Dasgupta’s daughter, Alokananda, the composer, and I have a mutual friend; he told me that Dasgupta wanted to speak to me. We had a Skype call—me in Venice, he in Kolkata. He introduced himself and I was starstruck. It was a 5 minute call, during which he asked me if I am afraid of monkeys. I was told I have to act with monkeys. My character is of a postman who renounces everything and goes and joins monkeys and starts living with them in a tree.
I have worked with Vishal Bhardwaj, Subhash Ghai, Sanjay Gupta and Nandita Das among others but Buddha da’s process was completely unique. He would shoot only two shots a day
The other thing he told me was that I wouldn’t exactly get a conventional script. Buddha da’s scripts are very thin — some 25-30 pages. It doesn’t follow the usual format where you have Interior/Exterior of scenes written. There would be some dialogues. The rest would be in his head. The way he explained me my character in Tope was most unusual. Usually, the briefs would be that X character’s wife died, he wants to avenge and so on. I was just told that my character will sit atop the tree day all day, in rain and sun, through the day and night, and that I’ll be surrounded by monkeys.
We were in Purulia for two weeks for the shoot. Every morning I used to climb up the tree and come down for lunch — which would often be rice, dal and omelette — and go up again. I started talking to monkeys. That’s how I did Goja in Tope. I thought the character was very Darwinish. All his films are about these dreamers, who don’t fit into these societal boxes. Goja is a postman, he was a wife and suddenly one day he has an epiphany that all this is pointless. He connects with animals, thinks that’s where he belongs. So it was like evolution, but of man becoming monkey. At least, that’s how it was in my head.
I have worked with Vishal Bhardwaj, Subhash Ghai, Sanjay Gupta and Nandita Das among others but Buddha da’s process was completely unique. He would shoot only two shots a day—one in the day in the twilight, and one in the evening. The rest of the day you are chilling or rehearsing. I think he didn’t like harsh light and wanted to shoot in light that is a little mellow and dreamy. His shots are complicated, so the whole day would go into preparing the shots.
I remember the local tribal people built a bamboo ramp on the tree. The tracking trolley was created on the tree for the camera to revolve around it. The whole day went to do just do that. The sun would setting at 5, rehearsals began at 5:15 and the shot would finally be taken at 6. And just one take.
Our next film Urojahaj had around 42 scenes in total. He must have done it in some 43 takes. Can you believe it? There’s probably just one close-up. Otherwise the whole film is just track, trolley and one-takes, shot in one lens: a 32mm. Generally, filmmakers have a standard—one close, one cut, axis change, change in light and so on. Buddha da is the only guy I have seen who had this mad, mad way of shooting.
He would never take extra shots, unless and until the DOP is making a mistake. People generally cut in between a shot, they are not bothered so much about focal length etc. They know they can always take another shot. But not in Buddha da’s set, not at least in my experience. Of course, there would be a lot of rehearsals. The cinematographer, Ashim Bose, would amazingly incorporate all his ideas in one shot. I have never seen track (100 metres) and trolley so long. The camera would come, there would be a close-up, a mid, character would exit the frame, the camera would go up—all in one take. Working with Buddha da made me look at his films with new eyes. Most of the shots you see in Uttara, or Tahader Kotha, are long takes.
He took a liking me, I don’t know why. He would tell me a lot of stories about working with Mithun da during the prep of Urojahaj. Like the story of Mithun da not taking a shower for a week when they were shooting in Orissa.
We were shooting Urojahaj in the forests and lakes just outside Jamshedpur. His kidney was failing at that time and he would undergo dialysis at least twice a week. Which meant that there were times we were shooting only two days a week, with two shots on each day. Sometimes he would pack up in the afternoon because he wasn’t feeling well. We would go back home, then get a call two days later. Imtiaz Ali’s family lives in Jamshedpur and one day I went for dinner to their place. When I came back, I found a note in my room. Buddha da had asked me to call him.
I broke into a sweat even though it was winter. I couldn’t sleep that night. We were 10 days into the shoot. Before the shoot he had told me, “Chandan, this film is resting on your shoulders. If you fail, I fail.” I was freaking out. Buddhadeb Dasgupta, in what turned out to be his last film, is telling me, “Boss if you don’t do it right, I am fucked.” I was under a lot of pressure and next morning, he told me that I am not getting the character yet. The character, Bacchu, has a family but he gets fixated with an abandoned aeroplane he finds in the forest. He told me the character needs the innocence of a child. “If you look clever, this film won’t work,” he told me. So I worked on that on a subconscious level. The fear helped. It was almost like being scolded by a man, a teacher, a father. It was like his reputation was at stake. I didn’t want people to say ‘Who is this actor, and why has Buddha da worked with him?’
I think I lived in that costume for 45 days— two jeans, one jacket and two shirts. Sometimes for continuity, I would just keep the costume aside, not take a bath and pass out and let the sweat dry. It was a magical trip for me in 2018 to spend that whole winter with Buddha da. And it was hugely satisfying when he told me that he really enjoyed my performance.
He took a liking me, I don’t know why. He would tell me a lot of stories about working with Mithun da during the prep of Urojahaj. Like the story of Mithun da not taking a shower for a week when they were shooting in Orissa. Apparently Yogita Bali came to the set and told him “Sir, what are you doing? He doesn’t take a bath and comes and sleeps next to me.” And Buddha da was be like, “Na na, Let him do it. Mithun is doing well.” Tahader Katha was very close to him. It feels really nice that I was a part of his journey, and that there is connection with Mithun da in a poetic way.
The last time I met Buddhadeb Dasgupta was in the 2019 Kolkata film festival where they showed Urojahaj in Nandan. There were around 700 people and the audience stayed back for the Q n A. He told me during that screening that he is thinking of another story and I have a role to play.
As told to Sankhayan Ghosh