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|May 8, 2000||
The world in conflict
Shoma A Chatterji
A nondescript flag station in Purulia district is manned by two unlettered men, Nimai and Balaram. One is a signalman, the other a gateman. They have hardly much work to speak of because the flag station has just a couple of trains to be flagged off or signalled to.
Time, therefore, hangs heavy on the muscular hands of these two young men in their '30s. They have only each other for company. Much of the physical energies that lie latent inside them find an easy outlet through wrestling. Wrestling for them, is a leisure activity which they have in abundance.
Wrestling, despite its characteristic of combat, turns into an expression of close bonding for Nimai and Balaram, a bond already established through their complementary work at the flag station. Wrestling, for them, is constructive purging of physical energy. Wrestling is also a form of dynamic entertainment.
Padri Baba is a Christian pastor who lives in the village church and looks after his seven-year-old orphaned nephew, Mathew. He takes him along on his bicycle when he serves the lepers, the downtrodden and the oppressed in the village.
There is a third world, a world of dwarfs that inhabit this strange and mystic village. Each morning, they cross the hillocks and pass through the forests to get into the daily bus and go to their respective jobs. Among them is a smiling railway guard who is always in uniform and casts glances around him, but does not talk.
The fifth world is that of a group of masked dancers who pass across the village, mutely going about their rhythmic routine. There is a sixth world, of a bunch of doddering old men, Indian Christians, who dream of going to America through Calcutta. They do not seem to know the difference between the two cities.
A couple of city-bred goons in flashy clothes move around in the village in their jeep, downing bottles of liquor to get rid of their boredom as they go stalking, what or who, is unfolded towards the end of the film.
Within this multi-layered, arid world of a Purulia village, enters Uttara, as Balaram's bride. And things begin to change, slowly, surely, building up to reach a disastrous, catastrophic climax. The people and their separate worlds are not really linked to one another. They appear like a collage of images that do not quite add up to make a meaningful whole. Yet, they describe, in their own way, the vulnerability of human life to greed, to lust, to violence, to death.
Uttara learns the bitter truth that to both her husband Balaram and his friend Nimai, as well as to the city-bred goons, she is no more than a piece of flesh to be devoured, raped, violated and killed. Nimai, with a broken marriage before him, a marriage that exists only in remote memory, feels jealous of Balaram because he has Uttara. Balaram is happy with this beautiful 'thing' he alone 'possesses' and therefore, can 'devour' at will, within the privacy of their bedroom, or, under the open sky against the backdrop of the fields.
The schism between the friends comes across beautifully through the changing characteristic of their wrestling bouts. Wrestling, which began as a leisure sport to counter boredom, becomes an overpowering obsession. Instead of expressing bonding, it takes on the colour of a power-game between two equally physically strong and morally weak men. It becomes an exercise in deliberate destruction where one aims to destroy the other, all over the 'possession' of Uttara, as if she just a beautiful body, sans mind and soul. It is no longer a form of dynamic entertainment. It is a strategy for designed killing.
With the two men's silent squabbles over Uttara, the apparent serenity of the village is disturbed, setting off a chain of violence, murder, blood and gore. The roaring sound of the speeding jeep metamorphoses into an eruption of unexplained and insane violence.
The two fundamentalist goons torch the pastor and set the church ablaze. A panic stricken Uttara cries out to Nemai and Balaram for help. But their senses are blind and deaf and mute to the outer world and they go on wrestling.
When the dwarf railway guard offers Uttara hope for a better future, the goons kill him. They then chase a fleeing Uttara, rape and kill her. The scene of peaceful harmony is reduced to one of meaningless and futile violence. The camera pans to capture a glimpse of Uttara's violated corpse, the deadbody of the kindly railway guard, the fire in the church in the remote distance.
Amidst all this death and gore, the film ends on a moving scene of living violence. A golden sky throws the two silhouetted wrestling figures of Nimai and Balaram in relief. The circle of moral decay, of an environment that easily lets the beast within the man out, is complete. The group of masked dancers silently wrap a fleeing Mathew into their fold as he becomes one of them, offering the only ray of hope, albeit, a faint one.
Uttara. A beautiful name. A name that has a rhythm in it, like a poem. A fitting name for a film by a filmmaker whose first love continues to be poetry. A name that connotes the dusky, innocent sensuality of the girl it belongs to -- the heroine.
On the surface, Uttara could be interpreted as a triangular love story where two simple, unlettered men are torn between their close friendship on one hand, and their love for the same girl, Uttara, on the other.
But to label it a triangular love story, would be an oversimplification. And perhaps, a misinterpretation. Uttara speaks of lovelessness rather than of love. Wrestling, a macho, fun sport for men, can easily turn into a killing sport for the same men, says director Buddhadev Dasgupta.
A dwarf may be slighted and ignored by the majority of non-dwarfs. But his heart could be taller than the tall men who tower above him. The fundamentalists may have killed the pastor. But the masked dancers have rescued his heir, Mathew, to take up from where Padri Baba left off.
The film has excellent cinematography, with a dream-like setting that lends itself ideally to the volatile changes in the ambience and mood of the film. It exudes a strange feeling of actual heat, giving credibility to the rising heat within the two main characters.
The audiography that uses a lot of rhythm and beats, is moving. So is the background music though some pieces appear to have been picked straight from folk 'jhumur' numbers by music director Biswadeb Dasgupta. Histrionically too, Tapas Paul as Nemai, Shankar Chakravarty as Balaram, Jaya Seal as Uttara and Ashad (Bangladesh) as Padri Baba excel themselves in perhaps, the most challenging roles of their careers.
Yet, there is something amiss. The film lacks soul. Dasgupta fails to bring the 'six' worlds he has created together by linking them cohesively to bring out a single meaning. The film lacks what could be termed a 'tunnel vision' -- taking on a single issue and seeing it to its end, whatever that end might be.
Which is rather unlike Dasgupta whose single-minded dedication to a cause through celluloid is now a part of living history. In Neem Annapurna, he focused his attention totally on a destitute woman's determination to steal rice from a fellow-beggar in a slum. A tragic, yet realistic statement on urban poverty.
In Dooratwa and Andhi Galli, he explored distances -- created or circumstantial, emotional and social, in a couple within marriage. In Grihajuddha, he exposed the nexus between labour and management which changes the lives of a murdered man's family forever.
In Tahader Katha, he made an incisive statement on the futility of a single man's commitment to a cause for the larger good of society. In Charachar, Dasgupta took the psyche of a bird-catcher and probed into his pain, his tragedy, his childlike, humane love for birds that symbolised his own free spirit. In Lal Darja, the decay in filial and marital relationships in a post-modernist, urban setting was viewed through the eyes of a middle-aged dentist, Nabin Dutta, whose only escape route is through fantasy flights into a lost childhood.
In Uttara, Dasgupta gets involved in too many issues at the same time, and often appears to have lost his way in his six-world 'jungle.' He does not really get involved beyond his major characters Nimai and Balaram and their wrestling.
Uttara, the woman, fails to rise from what the two men see in her -- a sensual, dusky and innocent beauty. Padri Baba with his beatific smile and his bicycle, is too cardboardish to seem real.
Dasgupta has dealt with violence in every form in all his films. Sometimes, the violence was direct, as in Bagh Bahadur and Grihajuddha. Often, violence has taken subtle yet very strong forms, such as in the girl's suicide in Andhi Galli. In Tahader Katha, the violence is indirect, when narrated by the protagonist released from prison. Often, Dasgupta expresses socially inflicted violence that cannot be articulated but can only be felt such as in Lal Darja and Dooratwa.
Violence is the theme, the meaning and the metaphor of Uttara. It revolves around violence without directly throwing up violence on the screen. There is no screen depiction of rape, or murder.
Even the church being set ablaze is blurred by clouds of smoke and distance. The goons pour petrol over the Padri, but we do not actually see them torching him. Which is a pointer to Dasgupta's restraint in cinematic depiction of violence which could have easily gone all awry.
But that is precisely the problem. The film appears as if Dasgupta is watching the goings-on from a distance, a passive observer who does not quite 'belong.' Who can only cluck his tongue in plastic sympathy and then walk away, blaming the government for everything. He begins as an outsider when the film opens. He remains one when the film ends.
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