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Buddhadeb Dasgupta remembered: DoP Asim Bose on his closest collaborator

Buddhadeb Dasgupta's death marks the end of an era in Bengali art cinema. His cinematographer on his last two films, Asim Bose, remembers the director

Buddhadeb Dasgupta looking through viewfinder and, behind him, Asim Bose. Image courtesy Swarup Dutta
Buddhadeb Dasgupta looking through viewfinder and, behind him, Asim Bose. Image courtesy Swarup Dutta

Filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s death on 10 June marks the end of an era for auteur-driven Bengali arthouse cinema that received frequent international accolades, a legacy started by Satyajit Ray’s 1956 win at the Cannes Film Festival for Pather Panchali.

Also read: Noted Bengali poet Sankha Ghosh dies at 89

Dasgupta’s films, praised for their lyrical style and philosophical themes, engaged with idealists and misfits who stood at odds with a practical-minded world. Three of these films were shot by cinematographer Asim Bose, beginning with Uttara (2000), which won a Special Director’s Award at the 57th Venice International Film Festival. Bose, 61, perfected Dasgupta’s now-recognisable style of intricate tracking shots and long takes covering rural sceneries, which he carried over to Dasgupta’s final films, Tope (2016) and Urojahaj (2018). A fourth collaboration, starring Chandan Roy Sanyal, had been planned. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What was Buddhadeb Dasgupta like on set?

Once a producer offered him a story and a lot of money to direct it. I saw him reject it outright as he said he would only film his own stories. His producers wouldn’t dare to come on set. Or if they did, they would sit far away. Buddha da could see the film with such detail in his mind, and he was so obsessive about executing his vision, I would say he wouldn’t even need his assistants.

After Uttara, I had become a respected cinematographer, working with Amol Palekar and Basu Chatterjee. What I imbibed from Buddha da was confidence in my vision and impatience for outside interference. In fact, while working together, he would be sitting 1,000 feet away, and would only return after I set up the shot.

He had his biases, of course. He did not like Jimmy Jib (a camera crane system) or Steadicam shots, for example, as he said that’s not how he saw the scenes in his head. His love was trolleys and cranes.

While directing Urojahaj, he would undergo three-to-four dialysis sessions in a week. On location, he would be lying on a bed, observing the monitor, advising his crew and actors with a soft voice. The plane in Urojahaj lay on a hill. He would be carried to the spot in a stretcher and then moved up the hill in a chair through which a bamboo stick was made to pass, much like a palanquin. I don’t know if I will ever meet another man with such mental strength. Had the pandemic not happened, we would have been working on our next film.

How did you begin working together?

Buddha da liked my work in the National Film Award-winning short documentary Ajit (1995) and gave me the opportunity to shoot 15 documentaries, including one on the painter Ganesh Pyne.

Around then, I remember he invited me to his home, handed me my cheque, and then gave me a dumbbell and said, “You should make your wrists stronger.” I walked back home from Dhakuria to Lake Gardens with the cheque in my pocket and dumbbell in hand. Some time later, Uttara happened.

What was the ‘Uttara’ experience like?

Buddha da’s script was no more than 18 or 19 pages, with each scene having a line or two. I was so perplexed on reading the script that I did not get back to him for nearly a week. When we finally met and he asked me my thoughts, I said I think it’s a film about two men fighting in the midst of a beautiful place. And he said, exactly, you have cracked it.

Buddha da was surprisingly receptive to most of my suggestions, despite what others, including his past cinematographers, had told me about his stubbornness. We went on recce to Purulia up to seven times before the shoot, because I would find the locations unsuitable for what Buddha da demanded. Or if I told him that it’s perhaps better for the Chhau dancers to dance in a circle, he would agree and change his earlier plan.

Working according to Buddha da’s shot designing was monumentally difficult. For example, he would have a shot, with the camera on a trolley, beginning in a low-light condition and ending in a bleaching-light situation. A slight mistake would ruin the shot. In Uttara, there are scenes where the camera starts off with the wrestlers, then it moves around, but you can still hear their grunts and voices, and then the camera returns back to them, quite like how our thoughts often drift away and return after a while. That’s why his films are called lyrical.

What made him special?

The fact that no Indian filmmaker could or can create the images he made because they were entirely his own. If you see two frames of a Buddhadeb Dasgupta film, you will know it’s his work.

Also read: 100 reasons to love Ray

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