Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Anwar ka Ajab Kissa (2013) is one of those films in which he narrated the allegorical stories of alienated characters who subvert the formulation of reality by mixing it with dreams and magic – furthermore, responding to the greater enigma of individuality – no matter how small or unimportant they are to the claustrophobic, modern world, they find a way to celebrate life within their dreams and distresses. For this film, Dasgupta chooses a middle-class protagonist, Anwar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who is a private detective by his profession and outfit, but deliberately stands as a parody of his job. In his early life, Dasgupta possessed a fascinating dream of becoming a detective by reading the detective stories of Swapan Kumar. Writing the screenplay for Anwar was ‘a kind of fulfillment of that dream’. Primarily structured as a detective comedy, this film gradually unties itself from any particular genre, and deals with magic and absurdism while trying to answer the greater questions of life and reality. Dasgupta believed that within the very first few minutes, his films must convey a sense of belonging to his own artistic niche, and Anwar is no different from this tradition. We witness the absurd yet delightful presence of aesthetic elements in the terrain of old Kolkata — two milk sellers deliver their supply by riding on a horse carriage early in the morning while folk artists disguised as Hindu Dev-Devis hurry to catch a train, an aged woman brings out four jars of pickles and several chromatic crafts hang in a corner of her room. In this setting, Anwar, dressed in a black suit, hat, and sunglasses, follows a young woman. While he is supposed to do his job secretly, he forcefully enters the house where the woman is with her lover and interrogates the man before deciding to leave them alone. Answering his boss who had engaged Anwar only to know whether the woman was having an affair, and nothing more, Anwar says, ‘I needed to know if the girl was in good hands. Did they really love each other or was the boy just having fun?’ Due to his genuine concerns, Anwar tends to get involved in problems that have no connection to him. He finds momentary happiness by playing the role of a messiah for the ones who need the truth and, perhaps, some company. Anwar’s idea of life lies in his ethics, empathy, ideals, and in the periphery of the little things.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui, with his look, his accent, and his acting, establishes Anwar as a common man who lives amongst us. He shares a very humane bond with his labrador, Lalu. As a detective, he is unusual and perhaps hopeless, and a troublemaker because of his inherent sensitivity that always tries to get to the bottom of the truth. He mostly does whatever pleases him, but there is suffering in his stars. It is the trepidation of his reality that keeps him busy throughout the day as a ‘sniffer’ and makes him babble at night about his past, and his unfulfilled desires, in the tranquility of alcohol. He says to Lalu, ‘If you hadn’t met me, you’d be wandering around the streets today. Me too…I was also new in this city, all alone. You need a companion to live in this city.’ This sense of alienation is a major theme in the film and has been used as an important tool to juxtapose the odds of the protagonist with the factual world and to support the escapism by pushing him towards the journey of self-discovery. In the beginning, Anwar does not belong anywhere – though he tries to fit in with the city and his job, the feelings of being stuck and suffocated keep getting in the way. Life is difficult for those who do not align with the hollow ideals of the world. Dasgupta’s films often deal with characters who find it difficult to stay in the current, the now – so they situate themselves outside of it. In one of his interviews with Anjan Dutta, Dasgupta mentions that his films are always about outsiders and at several points in life, he had felt like an outsider who does not fit in, and prefers not to fit in. Like countless other fellow citizens, Anwar does not have the ambition, the will, or the courage to get out of his situation.
But how important is ambition for a person? Dasgupta shows with care, that having no ambition is perhaps not as terrible as loneliness and lovelessness. Anwar had always loved a woman named Ayesha (Niharika Singh), but the difference in religion had kept them apart. His journey through life is thus, also the journey of an eternal search for Ayesha. In the same interview with Anjan Dutta, he shares how this idea of an endless search for love had always troubled and fascinated him. To fortify the tensions of desolation dramatically and symbolically, the first glimpse of absurdism emerges from a crack on the surface of reality when Anwar takes Lalu for a late-night walk and encounters three aged strangers sobbing in the darkness of the streets. The first person cries because he had been unable to defecate for twenty days, the second because he had not had sex in a long time, and the third because she had not slept for ten long years. Throughout the film (till the very last scenes), we never see Anwar eat a proper meal, sleep, or make love. The sufferings of the three strangers perhaps represent Anwar’s own inappetence, insomnia, and unfathomable hunger for love. At a certain point, the stories of traveling of the elderly woman he meets, capture Anwar profoundly. He tells his only companion Lalu, ‘Let’s go…let’s run away. No more sniffing, no more bothering strangers. Let’s go to a place where you can eat, shit, run, and have plenty of sex.’ This idea remains as an escapist desire until he starts handling the strange case of Amol Shukla (Pankaj Tripathi) who has everything – a family, a house, a job – and still runs away without a cause. To find Amol, he finally steps out on the journey of uncertainty. He arrives at a location that, with its wide and empty fields. reminds Anwar of his own childhood that he has always cherished. In a beautiful scene, he drops his cell phone inside a clay pot, and colorful, chirping birds emerge only to fly away – Anwar’s separation from the last ties with city life and his mirthful acceptance of nostalgia and freedom. He comes across the free bohemian spirit of Amol which is formed in the reminiscence of the protagonist in Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk (1991). Amol has no fixed destination in his travels – he goes wherever his life takes him, and he finds esoteric happiness in this nomadic life without a destination, without an aim. He shares, ‘When I was in college, I wanted to go to Antarctica. live in the North Pole, stay in an igloo, marry an Eskimo.‘ Anwar asks, ‘Then?’ ‘And then somewhere else,’ he replies.
This interaction with Amol inspires Anwar to choose this land as the place of his awakening. Soon, Anwar is surrounded by his memories and desires. He sees his father in his uniform as a postman, delivering letters as he carries his mother on a bicycle. He also meets Ayesha who, this time, undresses in front of him. He finds a dilapidated haveli that resembles his childhood home, and finally falls asleep in a room full of framed photographs. This is where his miseries end along with his reality, and he is blessed with utopia. When Anwar wakes up, he meets a young boy who gives him a vinyl disc. He plays it on the gramophone, and in the next scene, a lady dances to the song. We know from Anwar’s story that her aunt used to dance for him when he was a child. The film ends here, and it connects us to the beginning of Dasgupta’s next film Tope (2017) where we see a man dancing in a field with the music coming out of a gramophone. The past reconciles with the present and builds the path for the future.
Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) wrote, ‘…in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.‘ Anwar does not kill himself in this feeling of absurdity, rather he leaves behind the life in a metropolis because he does not fit in there. Dasgupta believed that the city creates a peculiar kind of tension – this tension is very prominent in several of his films. In his journey, Anwar finally learns that his happiness lies in the novelty of his nostalgia and his thoughts. He accepts that and frees himself from the shackles of modern complexity that provoke loneliness – he restores his soul with magic, dreams, and fancies. Dasgupta had achieved a distinct style of telling his stories with stunning dreamlike visuals. He often chose landscapes that are marked with vastness and openness. Even in scenes across cityscapes, his camera captured buildings and lanes which preferred not to change with time. In several scenes, Dasgupta showcases colorful entertainers, folk artists, and village kids to create strange amalgamations as is visible in his other films. This is very similar to the style of Alejandro Jodorowsky who repetitively used absurd imageries through circus people.
In Anwar Ka Ajab Kissa, these characters sometimes appear abruptly for visual or aesthetic pleasure and sometimes for the sake of metaphoric symbolization. In an interview with Geeta Sen, he shared how he spent his childhood in remote areas and tribal villages— ‘Many of the images used in my films are straight from those days.’ When Anwar decides to leave the city and his profession, a scene with a village kid and an elderly man appears; Anwar’s suit, hat, and goggles fall and the kid puts them on a scarecrow. The scene becomes highly symbolic, shaping the transition of Anwar from one life to another — this is the forte of Buddhadeb Dasgupta for whom reality was always uninteresting because of its predictable and repetitive nature. So, he focuses on presenting a cinematic universe where reality is extended and mixed with magic and dreams; and thus keeps using folk and nature imageries. In the same interview, he says, ‘I think some Indian folk images can offer you some brilliant ideas about dream and reality as a single unit. That is very interesting. I am greatly indebted to my childhood that I have spent far away from Calcutta— watching closely, the unfolding of dreams and reality together by those artists. From those days, unknowingly, I learned to accept these two together, as a single unit.’ In Anwar’s world, this unfolding is extensively poetic because of the folk-influenced music along with the images and colors used. The stylistic elements along with the narrative itself come together to render the union of dreams and reality with utmost absurdity and positivity as a celebratory attitude towards an eternally bhabaghure (bohemian) life.
Atmadeep is an independent researcher and artist with interests in the areas of film studies, visual culture, popular culture, memory studies, and postcolonial studies. He has completed both his BA and MA in English from Banaras Hindu University.