Where to begin with Pradipta Bhattacharyya? His fantastic body of work, which includes inventive telefilms and shorts made with low budgets, need to be seen by critics and cinephiles alike, appraised, discussed, dissected, and probably marvelled at.
But let’s begin with his first feature, Bakita Byaktigato (The Rest is Personal), a film so romantic that it aches. It’s about many things: about Bengal, and the bohemian spirit of its folk arts; about imagination; about cinema, and its power to make illusion seem real. But of all the things it is, what is Bakita Byaktigato most about?
Recall the feeling of wanting to fall in love, a fairly universal desire, but one which can’t be satiated as instantly as, say, sex, or food. The film creates a fascinating device to make it possible. Pramit, an amateur filmmaker, desperately wants to fall in love, a feeling he has never felt before. He goes in search of it — and takes his cameraman, Amit, along. A documentary about love.
They meet interesting people along the way. A fortune teller with two wives, an old retired physics teacher who lives alone in a crumbling house, a married woman who may or may not be happy — all of whose lives have been touched by Mohini, a village where whoever goes inevitably falls in love. Few people know about it, fewer know how to get there (somewhere in Nadia district in West Bengal). I’ll leave it for you to find out whether Pramit and Amit find true love, but Mohini turns out to be a total trip, a wonderland of sights and sounds, and just seems like a great place to go to. Mohini is a drug I’d like to take.
I happened to watch the film a few months ago on YouTube, six years after it had come out in theatres — a real shame. My friend’s reaction, when we paused midway to take a break, summed it up: How had we not seen this before?
For Bakita Byaktigato, it can be argued, is one of the greatest of all Bengali films. I could go on.
But let’s also consider Bhattacharyya’s other work, his telefilms and shorts, which seem to mark a different phase in the filmmaker’s life: darker, funnier, more cynical films, but just as exciting in cinema language and full of ideas. They are characterised by Bhattacharyya’s core unit of actors (Ritwick Chakraborty, Aparajita Ghosh Das, Amit Saha), entertaining minor characters, lucid hand-held camerawork, resourceful use of location, playful titles and lively editing.
In Kotha Theke Je Ki Hoe Gelo (2008), his feature-length telefilm, a young, unmarried couple’s woes to find a place to rent in a middle class neighbourhood in Kolkata becomes a fucked-up, hilarious sly on religious intolerance and corporate culture (and which, somehow, reminded me of Being John Malkovich).
In the 24-minute short Biswas Nao Korte Paren (2008), the protagonist wakes up one day to find out that his name has changed from Shyamal to Salim, a predicament that gets much worse than you’d imagine.
Pinky I love you (2011), the wonderfully loose, unpredictable telefilm, is about a daydreaming slacker whose paranoias get the better of him. It becomes a critique of the ill-effects of on-screen heroism.
Watch Parashuram (2009), if you know the language and don’t need subtitles, the 40-minute short he made for Roopkala Kendro (his film school), in which the recruitment of the protagonist, an unemployed youth, at a killing syndicate is treated with shocking, deadpan plainness, as if he has joined a dull job at an insurance-policy selling company. He is given his first assignment: a list of three targets. He bumps off the first two with surprising ease — and falls in love with the third.
These films have largely remained underground because Bhattacharyya prefers to work from outside the system — not only that of the Bengali film studios but also the festival circuit. He says films with festivals in mind end up having a certain design, which he wants to be free from. Besides, all his energies during Bakita Byaktigato went in releasing the film in the theatres, and the battles that came with it.
These films have largely remained underground because Bhattacharyya prefers to work from outside the system — not only that of the Bengali film studios but also the festival circuit. He says films with festivals in mind end up having a certain design, which he wants to be free from.
His telefilms, made for Tara Muzic, have got lost in the transition phase between cable TV and digital. Shot on HDV (mov) on cassette tape, they have suffered significant loss in quality in the process of being transferred to YouTube, where they are available in Net mp4 format. The pixels and the lo-fi-ness give these films a certain vintage.
This quality somehow adds to the appeal of Bhattacharyya’s aesthetic, that seems to say that in narrative cinema, pristine High-Definition will only take you so far if you don’t have an interesting enough story. A fan of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Dogme 95 era Lars Von Trier, Bhattacharyya’s knack for locating fantasy within the real and the ordinary makes him come up with strange, unpredictable plots for his movies. This, he says, helps him get away with the limitations of low budgets, which is a choice he has made to enjoy full creative freedom. What’s extraordinary is how under these circumstances he finds the right treatment.
For instance, when the producers of Bakita Byaktigato gave him the option to use a RED camera, he went for a Canon 7D, a lesser, lighter and cheaper camera. It’s a choice that made perfect sense given that the use of out-of-focus shots, grain and blur was built into the screenplay, things that would’ve been difficult to achieve with a higher model. (The illusion that what we are seeing is documentary footage as shot by an amateur makes it easier for us to buy the outlandishness). Since that brought down the production costs, it was also a move that helped him gain leverage over the producers when, later, they wanted to shorten the length of the film and use established playback names for the songs. Bhattacharyya is very particular about the way he uses songs in his films, and the songs of Bakita Byaktigato are as much of a revelation: the compositions by independent singer-songwriter Anindya Sundar Chakraborty are deeply personal, surprisingly baroque, and the folk songs, non-professionally recorded, are pure joy.
The producers had originally been sold on the story of a documentary filmmaker going to the village of love, without giving much thought to the treatment.
“When the main producer saw the film, he told me that I’ve made a documentary, and that he’ll sell it to Fox Travels,” said Bhattacharyya when we met at his office, a flat in a tiny lane near Ganguly Bagan, South Kolkata that he shares with Chakraborty, former flatmate, friend, and his best man on screen. He opened a packet of small gold flake and lit a cigarette. It was the post-lunch lull part of the afternoon. A cycle rickshaw passed by, honking away. Bhattacharyya told me all that happened to the film after it released in theatres, how it was re-released not once but twice but didn’t run for more than a week all three times, and how the bad show times didn’t help.
How he took it to Tehatta, his ancestral village that the film fictionalises, going door to door selling tickets to people, many of who appear in the film. He said the film, which later won the National Award for Best Bengali film, might have reached more people if Facebook was as instrumental in promoting independent film as it is today. “But it is still there, and people are discovering it. Everyday, someone or the other posts a comment. Bakita Byaktigato is probably more celebrated in Bangladesh than in Bengal, or India. Sometimes they come and meet me,” he said.
He is a pleasant chap, with a wry sense of humour. His obscurity is compounded by a complete lack of desperation to be famous. This, I suspect, comes from the contentment of making films as he pleases. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and his IMDB profile lists only the work he has done in others’ films as an editor. He said he doesn’t ‘network’ and has “no presence in the industry”, and he never sounded angry, or bitter. According to Bhattacharyya, unlike the new Malayalam or Marathi cinema, there is no sense of a ‘movement’ happening in contemporary Bengali cinema. “There are 2 or 3 filmmakers who are doing it differently, but there needs to be more,” he said.
Through his films, Bhattacharyya hopes to show places and landscapes in the state we don’t usually see in films: Ayodhya Hills in Purulia; Mousuni Island near Sundarban; the banks of Rupnarayan River near Kolaghat. “Bengal is not just Kolkata and North Bengal,” he said. Bhattacharyya frequently goes to Tehatta, and Berhampur, Murshidabad where his family lives.
According to him, in the villages and mofussils strange things lie hidden in plain sight. This is where he gets his ideas from, notices amusing things on his visits. He tells me about a local phenomenon, where women of a village started gifting each other saris, for no apparent reason. “Suddenly, the sale of saris will go up. It’ll go on for a month or two. And then it’ll stop,” he said. “These things will not come out in newspapers. You’ll have to be in touch with the people, travel in local trains, listen.”
Bhattacharyya has a name for his genre of stories: “Aschorjo Bastob” (which can be roughly translated to “Wonder Real”), which is different from magic realism.
Bhattacharyya has a name for his genre of stories: “Aschorjo Bastob” (which can be roughly translated to “Wonder Real”), which is different from magic realism. He has just shot a musical short where live action will merge with stop-motion animation, drawing and 3D. Playing on the soundtrack will be blues. It’s about a guy who one day decides to bunk office, stay at home all day and do nothing particularly useful. He has another short coming up, about Artificial Intelligence.
His new feature film Rajlokkhi O Srikanto is based on Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s wandering hero, and is his most expensive production till date: Rs 65 lakh. With its aerial shots and almost no hand-held camera, it looks unlike anything Bhattacharyya has done before. But he said that it’ll be his take on the classic text.
A strange coincidence links Srikanto and Bakita Byaktigato. They both have the same release date: 20 September. What are the odds that, at two hours and twenty three minutes, they would’ve also end up being of the same length?
Pradipta Bhattacharyya’s Rajlokkhi O Srikanto releases this week.