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Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Uttara – Poetry on Celluloid

June 12, 2021 | By

Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Uttara (2000) is a film with rare poetic vision. It went on to win the Special Award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival. A Silhouette review.

Jaya Seal in Uttara

Jaya Seal in Uttara

Poetry and polemics were the two things which Budhdhadeb Dasgupta got accustomed to at a very early part of his life. Though his political identification was revealed in Grihajudhdha and Andhi Gali, Naxalism failed for him rather early. And he moved from the harsh realities of those earlier polemical or so called ‘political’ films to the lush backdrops of the more poetic ones— Bagh Bahadur, Tahader Katha, Charachar, Lal Darja and now Uttara.

Uttara is a poetry made on celluloid. It is an allegory where fact gets impeccably juxtaposed with fantasy – a commentary on our present day lives, our social values, our fears and traumas that lie within. This is a film that disturbs our inner credentials as a human being. Unlike some of Dasgupta’s earlier works, this film is multifarious, and it moves unobtrusively from one layer to another and takes us along a journey which is worthwhile to cherish. The film thrives on the various threads which we feel at the end were closely held by the filmmaker himself.

uttara buddhadeb dasgupta

Opening shot of Uttara

The film is based on a short story by Samaresh  Bose named ‘Uratiya’ which deals with two young men and a woman, the wife of one of them. The filmmaker expresses his love for Mother Nature right from the first shot and his seemingly endless admiration for it unfolds subsequently. The film starts with a sparse forest with the camera moving so slowly that one can really perceive the stillness of time and touch the apparent delightful languor induced by the surroundings. As the film progresses, this serenity apparently gets disturbed by human intrusion. But in the end, the human impact on nature is minimal — nature maintains its lurid grandeur. The storyline evolves round the two wrestlers who were railway guards by profession and who took to wrestling as their only recreation. They engage in these friendly bouts, largely admired by the villagers specially the young boy Mathew, who hero-worships them. The marriage of one alienates them from each other. The night life of the bachelor gets miserable, and they engage in fierce combats. The basic existence theory comes in vivid openness as they fight for the woman’s body. She starts hating them.

In the meantime, a Christian missionary who was accused of religious conversions, was burnt to death by hoodlums who deprave the innocence of the place. The wrestlers fought on till death, turning deaf ears to the woman’s frantic cries for the missionary’s life. Young Mathew who lived with the missionary also starts hating the two wrestlers. He had to save his life from the hoodlums by going behind a mask given to him by a band of masked singers and dancers. The woman wanting to break free from the burdens of her present life was ready to embark on the journey to a new life beyond the hill in the land of the dwarves—but she cannot. The hoodlums raped and killed her.

The dwarves were inhabitants of the other world, the world which bears testimony to discipline, love, and hardwork. Their world shuns the cruel passions of our own world. The religious and political unrest have stolen the halcyon days of our innocent rural villages and has stripped us of mental peace and love. The utter silence which engulfs these dwarves as they pass by the land of the “tall men” stealthily, is ample testimony of the stifling world we live in.

uttara (buddhadeb dasgupta) masked dancers

The masked dancers

The masked dancers, like the dwarves, also came as a motif, as a symbol. They sing songs of love, hope and perhaps a better future. They come in and out of the main narrative and help in changing the course of the film. Its them, who save the life of Mathew who must go behind a mask for self protection at a rather naïve age.

After the great disaster of the death and rape, the nature till remains majestic, oblivious of the cruel drama. The smashing of bottles by the hoodlums, a slithering snake, were enough indications of the ensuing tragedy.

The non-narrative style blended with the exotic colors are so very familiar of Buddhadeb Dasgupta. His usage of silence in the dwarves’ scenes or the slow motion of camera in the forest are grappling for their inherent tragic undertone. The frames separately are picturesque and mesmeric as of trademark Buddhadeb Dasgupta films. The veracity of rural life continues to entice the filmmaker and this film adds pride to his enthralling repertoire. The basic innocence of human life had always been Dasgupta’s pivotal attraction. And he shows deviation of it with miserly narrations. To him, it’s a ‘misinterpretation’ to coin ‘Uttara’ as a ‘political’ film, which, a section of the media is trying to project.

He believes, its important for a film maker to know “how many shots he can do without”. And he moved away from his earlier works not only in content but also in form. Solitude of human beings and interaction with nature continues to haunt him and he developed his unique style which carefully avoids the conventional art of story telling. The inner violence of man is what inspires and disturbs him, and so his films remain so minimally visually violent. Only the feeling of fear levitates from within leaving one stunned by its impact.

Buddhadeb Dasgupta

Buddhadeb Dasgupta (Pic courtesy: Alchetron)

As the film went on to win the “SPECIAL AWARD FOR BEST DIRECTOR” in Venice (incidentally, the only award for directorial performance), it was lauded highly by western critics. As the famous American Film critic Noah Cowan wrote, “Dasgupta’s characteristically spectacular cinematography and lovely performances, especially by Jaya Seal as Uttara, ensure that this tragic, beautifully made film is both politically urgent and a lasting Cinematic experience,” while Roberto Pugliese (IL GAZETTINO) found “Uttara is a poetry on celluloid. It has a unique cinematic style…Dasgupta is the only hope of Indian Cinema after the death of   Satyajit Ray.”  Mariuccia Ciotta (IL MANIFESTO) is bold enough to quip “Dasgupta’s Uttara is a suitable answer to the brainless American Cinema.” To sum up the views of the critics, Alberto Barbera (Director International Film Festival of Venice) considered Uttara to be “really very strong, very poetic and visually stunning, the best Indian film in years.”

The adventures of film making dwell aptly with the inherent dream that ultimately remains for a better world in all of Dasgupta’s earlier films. Uttara is no exception. The fervent style of Buddhadeb Dasgupta which is becoming omnipresent in all his recent works has perhaps developed to its full in Uttara. Amidst all the brouhaha that engulfs our soul, the ultimate longing for a better tomorrow remains so firmly rooted that the film transcends to a new height hitherto unnoticed in Indian cinema.

(The article was originally published in South Asian Cinema, Vol.1, No.2, 2001)

More to read

The Early Works of Buddhadeb Dasgupta

Dancing with Ray… An Unparalleled Celluloid

Ke Jaino Go Dekechhe Aamay: The Songs of Soumitra

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Whether you are new or veteran, you are important. Please contribute with your articles on cinema, we are looking forward for an association. Send your writings to amitava@silhouette-magazine.com

Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent books on cinema are Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee, 16 Frames and Smriti Sattwa o Cinema. His earlier writings include the acclaimed books Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines published by Rupa and Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English – observing life in a platter. He can be reached at amitavanag.net.
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