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The rise of the flop

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-06-2014 Shamik Bag

Days after winning a National Award for his debut Bengali feature film, director Pradipta Bhattacharyya is fighting shy of sudden fame.

When the film, Bakita Byaktigato (The Rest Is Personal), released with little promotional support in 2013, it was, by all accounts, a leaden flop; most Kolkata theatres withdrew it after a week’s near-empty run. Yet the buzz among cinema cognoscenti was unmistakable: The film had scored highly in terms of treatment, script, acting and a raw appeal that upended current formulaic norms.

It had a special re-release earlier this year at the state-owned Nandan theatre in Kolkata—again, the film ran for a nondescript week. The total box-office collection, Bhattacharyya reasons with disarming candidness, couldn’t have been much above `1 lakh.

Now that it has won the National Award for Best Bengali Film, attitudes are changing. When we meet at a south Kolkata apartment, an aspiring painter has come to show Bhattacharyya his work in the hope of getting assigned to his next film. Bhattacharyya accepts the pen drive but not the gift the artist has brought along. Sipping on Old Monk rum, the 36-year-old film-maker dwells on what he feels is a disconnect. “A couple of big producers have approached me for my next film. I also find people backpatting me now, having won the National Award. But I feel a lack of spontaneity in their response. I’m trying to stay away.”

Natural flair is not something that was found wanting in the directorial vision or performance of the little-known ensemble cast in the film—an exploration of a documentary film-maker’s search for love. Nor was it wanting when his film failed at the box office. Bhattacharyya arranged ticketed screenings for rural audiences in Bengal. The direct and guileless response of the audience in places like Jhargram, Purulia and his native Tehatta in Nadia district left him agitated about the way audiences are taken for granted by the film trade. “Producers keep telling you what film will work for what kind of audience. There is a constant effort to dumb-down and place audiences within boxes.”

For these screenings, he personally printed tickets and posters, and in places like Tehatta, even did house-to-house promotion. He collected `20,000 for each screening—`2,000 each from 10 people—and local organizations and clubs chipped in by providing projectors and other equipment. Barring two close friends, the others have been reimbursed, he says.

The film, scripted in 2008 and completed in 2011, took more than two years to release. The first producer backed out. The second demanded a shorter length and the inclusion of established playback singers. Both demands were rejected. Bhattacharyya knew that when a film is made with a budget as meagre as `24 lakh, the stakes are too low for producers to care for too long.

Bhattacharyya contends that the producer recovered costs from the sale of television rights. “I took a director’s fee and have no interest in profit. I just want to be allowed to make films.”

Bakita Byaktigato comes out of that artistic latitude where the film-maker enjoys complete creative control. The story works around the loveless protagonist, Pramit (essayed with effortless ease by actor Ritwick Chakraborty), wanting to shoot a documentary film on love. He finds in Amit (remarkably portrayed by actor Amit Saha), his cameraman, an associate willing to record every moment of their search for love.

The trail leads them to the village of Mohini, where everybody is known to find love. With the rolling camera as witness, they do too. But when they attempt to return to Mohini, eager to wrap up the film and cement the relationships forged there, the film-maker and cameraman can no longer find their way back.

“It is an important film from a debutant. It stands out from the elitist upper middle-class, city-centric formula of contemporary Bengali films and strikes a fine balance between fact and fairy tale, and the transitions are accomplished seamlessly,” says film scholar Sanjoy Mukhopadhay.

Shot with the inconspicuous and palm-fitting Canon 7D camera, the director’s vision in Bakita Byaktigato also delicately harps on the unpretentious purity of sentiment that binds not just love but life. The film does not sermonize but the audience is free to interpret the documentary-style presentation of near-extinct Bengal folk art forms like bulan and hapu as an attempt to go back to roots, and the knitted fabric of Mohini as a kind of community living absent in urban societies.

In Bakita Byaktigato, the documentary film team keeps the camera “on” even during moments of intimacy, despite objections from their romantic partners; when they do find love in Mohini, Promit contemplates a foreign grant for his documentary project; when, despite every attempt to keep them back, the duo leaves for Kolkata with a promise to return and resume shooting, both Mohini and their newly found love lives remain elusive. Love in Bakita Byaktigato is out of bounds when it is transactional.

“Not every action of human beings should lead to an end or necessarily serve a purpose,” says Bhattacharyya. Pressed further, he describes a sequence from his next film—a post-war apocalyptic 2114 scenario of absolute destruction until a group of survivors finds a patch of green and drinking water. They soon start fighting among themselves.

It sounds like a grand and expensive cinematic canvas but Bhattacharyya—a follower of film-makers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Girish Kasaravalli, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Michael Haneke, Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier—wants to stick to a characteristic low-budget aesthetic, employing elements from theatre and jatra, Bengal folk theatre. His kind of cinema might aim high, says Bhattacharyya, but remains grounded.

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