|A moment from Dutta Vs Dutta
Aparna Sen once told me that only deeply-felt experiences make great cinema. I have always believed that as an artiste, I must fall back on my experiences to make my films or songs work. When I started off with Bow Barracks, it came out of a deep affinity and love for the Anglo-Indians of my city, a community which I had grown up with. But a section of the community living there and outside objected vehemently and hauled me to court, accusing that I had portrayed the community in a bad light. Shown them as alcoholics, wife-beaters and foul-mouthed. What they missed completely is the deep concern to show flesh-and-blood characters and their courage to stand up to corrupt power. They were only bothered with the external. The film was celebrated in numerous festivals. Lilette Dubey got the best actress award in Madrid. I stopped going to the Barracks, swallowed my hurt and went about spinning yarns like Bong Connection. So much for trying to tell a “real” story.
Since then it has been a rather interesting journey. Bong Connection, Chalo Let’s Go..., Madly Bangalee, Bomkesh, Ranjana…. Some rocked the box office, some just about survived. I earned name and bankability. But the bug to tell the “real” story remained. At the age of 58, I felt tired of spinning yarns and wanted to tell a “real” story again. My story. About the time and people that have made me what I am. Yes, like most creative people, I too have had my share of crazy eccentricities that add up to interesting reading material but I am not a good enough writer.
I chose celluloid. I grew up in the ’70s. Many Bengali films have been made on that era, but much of them have only focused on the Naxalite movement. For me, Calcutta of the ’70s was not just the Naxal movement. It was also a city that was stirred by the hippie cult, the rock ’’ roll, marijuana.... On the one hand, young students fought the police in the backstreets of Baranagar. On the other, live music stormed the Park Street like never before. When Bengali bourgeoisie was at its fag end and rich joint families were collapsing. When “love marriages” or elopement was in vogue and women chose to shorten their hair, smoked and drank in public to assert their identities. When a small but significant lot shared Bob Dylan, watched subtitled Jean Luc Godard and subscribed to a bohemian lifestyle. When Badal Sircar’s theatre chose the streets of Esplanade....
As a 15-year-old British public school boy from the hills, I was a fish out of water in this dynamic cauldron. My father always believed that I would follow his legacy and end up as an attorney in his ancestral legal firm. He sent me to the hills to make me a “sahib”. I ended up being independent and a drifter, trying to etch out a more creative career. We fought each other ruthlessly for a long while, through fading luxury and abject poverty. I still remember looking him in the eye to tell him that “I will not be like you!” He went silent and died of liver cirrhosis in a very ordinary nursing home (the best I could afford at that time). It was during those final days that we actually came close to each other, overcoming all the hurt and withdrawal symptoms. It was during those final days that I actually found my Daddy, realised that I was actually a product of the same stubborn spirit. He had lived his life to the brim and so have I…. I now feel it’s time to look back and salute these people who have made me.
‘look back with kindness, honesty and humour’
Dutta Vs Dutta is not any kind of autobiography. It is mostly true but very, very made up. It takes age and wisdom to tell your own story. To look back with kindness, honesty and most importantly, humour. I could not have told this story say even five years back because I would not have had the objectivity I now have. To know what to expose and what to slip under the carpet. How much honesty is required and how much to fictionalise. It is a very ruthless exercise to open up your closet. Too much shame, hurt, vulnerability is at stake. I do not have the right to defame anyone or stir up controversies. I did stir up a lot with Bow Barracks, I do not wish to repeat that with something much more closer to my being. Most of my characters are dead. But I still run the risk of hurting those who are not or are in some way connected.
Then again, a movie is not about the external. It takes a lot of pain to laugh at one’s past. Because as I went about shooting, acting, sharing my deepest secrets with my co-actors, I literally missed my dad, mom, grandpa, aunt… my schoolmate who first introduced me to hashish, the other one who made me read my first Che Guevara, the greatest bohemian in this city (who is no longer around) who gave me Bertolt Brecht, James Dean and predicted that one day I would be an actor.
As I shot the movie, I would question myself: “Am I trying to exploit the secrets of my closed ones? Am I selling my scandals?” Each day as I dressed up like the dad I hated so much and loved too late, I was faced with the ruthlessness of the situation. As it is, making a period film is tough. The props, the sets, the cars, the look, the colour.... My cinematographer, Indranil Mukherjee, decided to give some parts of the film an early Technicolor look. Partly black and white. Partly sepia. Partly muted colours. Then again, the changing seasons meant winter clothes, rain machine, hot, humid streets…. It all meant tedious technicalities. We never wanted to flaunt style. But to be subtle. Unlike Bong Connection or Ranjana we had to be far more restrained and take much more care of details. All this coupled with an inner turmoil. By the time the shoot was over I wanted to disown it all. Never ever had I felt this way while making a movie.
The most difficult part was to fictionally recreate my grandpa. I’ll always remain deeply indebted to Dipankar De, who so quietly and deftly helped me recreate that persona. He used to come to my house to rehearse the part and I used to narrate incidents about my grandpa. Not for a single day during the shoot did we talk between shots. I watched him quietly from behind the camera. He not only created the man of my dreams almost exactly but even transcended to become a universal grandpa. On the final day, he took off his make-up, we held each other for a long while and he left.
Actors come, play and go away to play someone else. But what they leave behind is too precious to value in terms of success or money. The actor just makes the audience feel humble, sublime. Doctors heal, teachers impart knowledge, revolutionaries change society. Good actors simply help you see things a bit differently and change your feelings.
I don’t have the audacity to say that Dutta Vs Dutta is my best work till date. But most certainly my most special, which has cost me a lot of “inside”. Had my wife and costume designer Chanda, my son and music director Neel, my executive producer Sanjay Pathak, cinematographer, editor, producer, many of my actors and a whole bunch of technicians not withstood my irrational mood swings and frequent bouts of temper, I would not have been able to make this movie. Am not sure whether I could truly pay a tribute to my past and celebrate it through “fiction” or just rake up old dirt and hurt, but I most certainly have given away a precious part of myself to you.
I think it was Frank Sinatra who said that “Every time Judy Garland sang she died a little.” I am not worth the dust of their feet but yes, with Dutta Vs Dutta, I have died a little.
My Favourite fictional biographies on celluloid
Fanny And Alexander
(dir. Ingmar Bergman):
It is the most honest and magical portrayal of an artist’s growing up. To look back at the past and people with so much kindness and most importantly, humour. The ruthlessness of honesty in each portrayal combined with magic realism that makes
childhood so magical.
Amarcord (dir. Fredrico Fellini): One of my best films ever. A robust, lusty, crazy, comical portrayal of a boy turning into an adult. A brilliant and sublime study of the coming of fascism in ’40s Italy. Fellini’s sense of humour and wit make this fictional biography one of the best ever. I have laughed and cried in equal proportion with each viewing.
Manhattan (dir. Woody Allen): Unlike the first two, this is a fictional/personal account of a middle-aged artist and his creative menopause in the intellectual circuit of New York. Again, the huge sense of wit and humour makes it such a genuinely stirring and utterly enjoyable work.
Day For Night
(dir. Francoise Truffaut):
My best film about a filmmaker. That Truffaut acts as himself makes it so utterly honest. The complete absence of self-pity coupled with hilarious comedy makes this film a gem on the movie-making business.
Kaagaz Ke Phool
(dir. Guru Dutt):
Though tediously long, rather sentimental at times, it will always remain great cinema on what it takes to be a real artist in a world where everything is for sale. In his own imitable way, Dutt transcends melodrama and arrives at a political statement on love, life and art.