On Being Misfits: Charachar and the Cinema of Buddhadeb Dasgupta

A bird catcher who loves birds too dearly to keep them caged. Strong, yet gentle hands quietly open the doors of cages, and the birds flutter out into the vast, blue skies – one by one, sometimes in swift motion, and sometimes nudged softly by the very hands that caught them. With every passing day, there are fewer and fewer birds to sell, and yet the mad bird catcher never runs out of love – love that is enough to set the birds free.

I shall never forget the feeling, the rush of emotions I had felt after watching Charachar (1994) for the first time. I had watched it one night on my laptop, in my first year of college – a time when I had recently discovered both the thrills of staying up late at night and the madness of watching as many films as I possibly could. Charachar wasn’t the first Buddhadeb Dasgupta film I had watched – that was Grihajuddha (1982) in middle school, which I had understood as best as a teenager could, but fell in love with nevertheless. I would keep coming back to Grihajuddha as I grew up (I still do), but the first experience of Charachar that night had done something permanent and inexplicable to my heart, tying me more intimately to the cinema of Dasgupta. As one would agree, Charachar, as compared to Grihajuddha which was amongst his earlier works, was much closer to Dasgupta’s style of storytelling that one would find in most of his filmography, described best by the auteur himself – ‘Put some dreams, magic, reality into a glass and shake it. That’s my cinema’.

Film poster, via IMDb

Dasgupta’s cinema is for the misfits of the world. Perhaps he, too, was one. He had said that sometimes he thought of himself as Lakha the bird catcher, the central character of Charachar. In several of his films, his misfits keep looking out for an alternate world, a world where the border separating dreams and reality is often a blur. The filmmaker had once written, ‘None of us ever, fully accept the real world we see in front of our eyes. Some of us, as we continue to discard these realities, sometimes reach a place where the harshness of the world is completely absent. In our hearts, we construct a second world – a world that is our very own. I, too, live in this second world of mine. But the ingredients that make up this second world are picked up from my familiar, real world itself….. I can simply open a door and enter this world. When necessary, I  can leave it as well. After a certain age, many sensitive people perhaps imagine a world this way. A world that gives us shelter, but never frightens, never threatens, never abhors, never pushes us into lovelessness.’ Truly, in Dasgupta’s cinema, we find the characters often escaping to their own magical worlds every now and then. And yet, that doesn’t make him an escapist – he has said in multiple interviews that he doesn’t make ‘political films’ but politics form a part of his film in the way it forms a part of every other thing in life.

For so long you had done so much for your students,

prepared so many questions.

put so many problems before them, and

anxiously they would answer yes, and

anxiously they would answer no,

and the rubber road, gradually getting smaller,

goes into your pocket.

Then suddenly one day, with a determined grin and sealed lips,

you wipe away like magic from the shiny blackboard

curves, equations, numbers, statistics, names,

and overwhelmed by passion you fly from the classroom,

quickly pull on your boots and walk off alone,

on your shoulder that old camera of yours and the red filter.

(from Cinema, Buddhadeb Dasgupta

Translated by John Hood)

A professor of economics at a university, Dasgupta had left his stable job one fine day to make Dooratwa (1981), his first feature film. By then, he was already an established poet, writing in Bangla. Many believe that the magical world he would weave in his films was possible because he was a poet first. He had the poet’s ability to visualize, to imagine, to see things differently and beyond the obvious that meets the eye. He could never go to a film school even though he wanted to, but he would go back to his childhood to construct the imagery he’s so famous for – summer afternoons of lying in bed and watching the interplay of light and shadows on the floor, his village in Purulia where he was born, his mother instructing him to listen to music only with his eyes closed. ‘I am greatly indebted to music, painting and poetry,’ he had said. 

Charachar, based on a bengali story by Prafulla Roy, remains one of my favourite films by the auteur. Living in a remote village in Bengal, Lakha hails from a family of bird catchers. Generations before him have done this job, and thus, he is expected to do the same – except that he has fallen in love with birds. He is incapable of keeping them caged, and is unable to fathom why, in a world with so many possible ways of living, must he be destined to a life of bird-catching. And thus, to the horror of his colleague Bhushan and his wife Shari, Lakha, who cannot manage two square meals a day, quietly opens his birdcages when no one’s looking, and sets the birds free.

Rajit Kapur as Lakha in Charachar

‘Why do you catch the birds if you’ll let them go anyway?’ Bhushan asks him one day. ‘Because I love caressing them, holding them in my hands,’ Lakha smiles. He is used to the feeling of holding the birds – like most caste-based occupations, he had grown up knowing no other way of living, believing bird-catching to be his destiny. But the different kind of love that he harbours towards these birds is a wealth not handed down by his forefathers – but his, and his alone.

How did this love originate? It hadn’t been there from the very beginning. His little son, Netai, who had died many years ago, would cry on the days he sold birds. Lakha still wakes up with vivid dreams of Netai burying a dead bird –

– ‘What are you doing, Netai?’

– ‘I’m planting it, someday it’ll become a bird-tree.’

‘His face isn’t very clear in my dreams but his love for birds is,’ Lakha says. Perhaps the little child had sown the seeds of love in Lakha’s heart. Perhaps Netai had broken through the cycles of mechanical repetition that one is often blinded by, making Lakha look at his birdcages differently.

The other story of Charachar is the story of Shari. She has slowly recovered from her son’s death, but Lakha and Shari have gradually drifted away from each other. On a night of lovemaking, Lakha asks his wife,

– ‘Do you still love me?

– ‘And you?

– ‘Who do I have besides you?

– ‘Why, the birds!

The birds form an infallible wall between Shari and her husband. She doesn’t understand this strange obsession of Lakha’s, and she grows lonely in their little hut, with little food to eat and wearing the same piece of cloth for years. She has taken a lover now – he visits her on his motorbike, makes love to her, wants to take her away and give her a better life. The sound of the motor as his bike approaches from a distance becomes a metaphor for development, a hope of a better future, a symbol of urban richness amid Shari’s drab, unchanging village life. She does leave her husband one day, allowing herself a second chance in love, but remembers to tell him that it is not for the lack of riches that she has left him, but in acceptance of the fact that Lakha would never have the space in his heart to love anyone more than his birds.

There’s another woman – Gouri, Bhushan’s young daughter who is coming of age. She feels drawn to Lakha, and loves the exact thing that Shari abhors – ‘Your face shines when you set the birds free,’ she tells Lakha. But we understand Shari as much as we understand Gouri. ‘Can’t you love women if you love birds?’ Gouri had finally mustered up enough courage one day to ask Lakha to marry her after Shari’s departure. Yet, as we see a colourful palanquin departing from the village, we understand that Lakha is now too scared to let anyone into his own life that he only manages to half-understand.

The final scene of Charachar

The final scene of Charachar is, to me, one of the best last scenes in Indian cinema. Words fail when it comes to writing about its brilliance – but all that can be said is perhaps that when Lakha, bare-bodied and with his arms outstretched, runs towards the endless blue sea, almost flying along with a huge flock of birds over him, it feels like the most natural end to the story of Lakha, who has never, ever seen what the sea looks like.

A man who spends his girlfriend’s entire savings to build a window for his childhood school, a villager who is fixated on flying a broken-down airplane, an artist trying to save his dying art form, a lonely private detective who cannot detach himself from the lives of his clients – with every film, Buddhadeb Dasgupta had made the outliers his protagonists. And since the outliers of this world are seldom used to being heard, it is almost as if they’ve been caught unawares by the sudden spotlight bestowed upon them. Dasgupta, through all his films, had entered their mad hearts, and kept his gentle hand on their backs, quietly letting them tell their own tales. We, the audience, have only been privileged to be allowed a peek, a brief companion in their long, solitary journeys – managing to feel understood and comforted in our loneliness every time we do not fit in.

The Films of Buddhadeb Dasgupta by John Hood, Orient BlackSwan

Kibhabe Chhobi Kori, Kibhabe Chhobi Hoy (How I Make Films, How Films are Made) by Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Ananda Publishers

Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s interview for Scroll

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