Far from the madding crowd, the technology and the intellectual ferment of urban life, in a lonely flag-cabin of a far-flung and idyllic Bengal village, live two men who endlessly pursue their favourite occupation of wrestling. Nemai, the signalman, and Balaram, the gateman, beat the boredom of their loneliness by grappling with each other in joyous rivalry. The village, largely populated by tribals, has a Christian pastor who ministers his small flock of converts, besides serving the leprosy patients of the area. This widower’s only family is an adopted seven-year-old, Mathew. Also populating this serene landscape are a group of dwarfs who pass by the village every morning on their way to work, and a troupe of traditional masked dancers who perform in the village.
This world of contentment and tranquillity, created with the masterly brush of filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta in his latest movie, Uttara, is meant to be shattered by the forces of intolerance and evil.
While the likes of Deepa Mehta get embroiled in controversies let loose partly by their own publicity machinery, before the first frame is even canned, Dasgupta is more intent on filming as art. So, he unobtrusively packed off with his unit to a remote village of Purulia district in West Bengal, made infamous by the as-yet unexplained air-drop of arms in 1995. The story of Uttara has explosive contemporary connotations, and it was important in these party-politicised times that the filming at least be a low-key affair.
Remaining strictly within the genre of the non-narrative poetic style that he has mastered, the internationally acclaimed filmmaker has emerged from Purulia with a work that condemns both religious fundamentalism and the callous human response to the sheer beauty of life. To drive home his point, Dasgupta draws from a real-life very-recent incident that rocked India’s claims to tolerance: the burning of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in Orissa. But the film itself is based on a short story of the same name by the late Bengali novelist Samaresh Basu. With producers reluctant to finance a film that had all the ingredients of controversy, the director himself produced the project with some Swiss assistance.
Cracks appear in the serene world of the village when Balaram (Shankar Chakraborty) brings home the beautiful bride Uttara (Assamese actress Jaya Sil). Balaram’s easy relationship with Nemai (Tapas Paul) evaporates, and soon the two friends’ healthy passion for wrestling is transformed into a real fight over a woman. Elsewhere in the village, a group of Hindu extremists are setting out to exterminate the pastor (played by Asad from Bangladesh). He is burnt alive in the church, a dwarf train guard is killed, while Uttara is raped and murdered by the zealots.
“More than a story of intolerance and brutality, the film is about innocence and simplicity that gets fractured and destroyed by a combination of factors. And this is in no way a political film. If viewers interpret it so, it would be a misinterpretation,” says Dasgupta, who made the out-and-out political film Grihayuddha in the 1980s. Uttara is very much in the genre of Dasgupta’s later national award winning films like Bag Bahadur(1989), Charachar (1994) and Lal Darja (1997).
Fundamental to the film Uttara, says Dasgupta, is the remoteness of the setting. While in big cities of India and the West, people talk about globalisation and the world becoming increasingly smaller, in many parts of the Subcontinent, illiterate, ignorant and superstitious people live a vibrant life with the full capacity to love and suffer despite their ‘shortcomings’ in terms of modernity. Ideas of loneliness and personal fulfillment are essential to the film. Nemai, for example, has forever dreamt of sleeping with a woman but his sexual urge has remained unfulfilled. His suppressed sexuality leads to bitterness and jealousy, which is why the wrestling with Balaram begins to take on an uncharacteristic seriousness. All along, Dasgupta avoids any fashionable suggestion of same-sex bonding despite the two characters’ obvious physical closeness. Meanwhile, Uttara, presented by the director-producer as a symbol of simple beauty, fails to find contentment in the arms of a husband who desires her only physically and neglects her emotions.
The pastor finds fulfillment in adopting Matthew, while the dwarf community can only dream of a better world. Uttara, the cleric and the dwarf, all suffer the cruelty of intolerance. “There is an important connection I have tried to develop between harmony, intolerance and fragmentation, with intolerance being the catalyst in the descent from peace to destruction—a dialectic that is universal,” says Dasgupta. However, he ends the film with a dash of hope, for amidst the mayhem little Mathew survives, rescued by the masked dancers. The boy turns away from the wrestlers, whose friendly fights had always thrilled him, and chooses the company of the dancers who would care for him.
“I made this film in response to the present-day realities and also to warn against them. In this world of eternal tension between beauty and ugliness, we must strive to preserve the beautiful. The optimistic ending is thus not just artistically appropriate but also a statement of faith,” says the filmmaker.
One strong point of Uttara is its arresting photography of the Purulia landscape, bestowing the film with the poetic flavour found in good European cinema. The dance and song of the masked performers remind of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, and a group of destitute vagabonds leaving on foot for ‘America’ where they think they won’t be persecuted, adds colour, comedy and pathos to this magnificent film.
Jaya Sil, the heroine, looks fresh, and is an actress to watch, while the casting of Tapas Paul, usually associated with Bengali potboilers, is altogether riveting. Dasgupta’s characters don’t really have to speak, each frame’s exquisite crafting doing away with the need for script. And when they speak, there is tragic humour and biting sarcasm. The midget train guard, asking Uttara to join him, says, “You have seen the world of tall men. Could they do anything good or change the world?”
Buddhadeb Dasgupta proves yet again that there is still energy left in Bengali cinema, enough to energise and excite South Asian cinematographers elsewhere, if they would only watch.