Sunday, August 3, 2014
“When I was growing up, there were two things that were unpopular in my house. One was me, and the other was my guitar.”
Among a handful of more recent favorite films which stay with me, there is Dutta Vs Dutta, a film of Bengali Songwriter, singer, actor and director Anjan Dutt.
I recall some of my first (non recorded) thoughts I had when I wrote on one of his earlier films Bow Barracks Forever. Two very different directors, Frank Capra and John Cassavetes came into my mind who had only in common that they admired each other a lot. In my imagine I thought that a “common” film made by Capra and Cassavetes could look like Bow Barracks Forever.
Like most of films I have seen so far by Anjan Dutt, Dutta Vs Dutta is a tragicomedy. But the fact that this film is strongly autobiographic inspired lets the comical, the burlesque and the tragic clash the more harder.
The film takes place in Kolkata during the early 1970s, a time which was dominated worldwide by youth protest movements and rock music The time in Kolkata the films is about reveals for example fights between radical Maoists (called Naxalites) and the almost authoritarian government lead by former Indian premier minister Indira Gandhi.
The film opens with Rono, Anjan Dutt´s Ego as a teenager has to leave the English Boarding school in Darjeering because his debt-ridden father could not pay the school fee. He has to return into the house of his family in Kolkata which he hates and where his father is always in conflict with his brother and his wife.
Anjan Dutt himself can be seen (or heard) in a memorable double role. He plays Ronos father Biren (actually his own) and at the same time he speaks the subjective over voice commentary of the grown up Rono. Biren Dutta is a wanna-be lawyer, a drinker, a choleric who tries with petty bourgeois pride to distract others and himself from the financial ruin of his family. Just this double role, the visible Biren and the invisible older Rono have a unique suspense. At least the Bengali audience must have been aware of this memorable double presence of Anjan Dutt, because his voice is very well known.
Thematically, Dutta Vs Dutta could be compared with Oscar Roehler´s Quellen des Lebens (Sources of Life, 2012), another obvious autobiographic inspired film. But Anjan Dutt´s film seems to me more playful , what means for me always as well more poetic. How this film moves between performance, comedy and personal biography absorbed me immediately.
Biren himself is a performer, someone who pretends to be someone else. Rono (and the over voice of Anjan Dutt) are telling from the opposite, about feelings which are or were real felt. Biren wants to send his son to England that he can become a real lawyer, a profession Biren never really approached for himself. But Rono wants to become an actor, rebels against his father and causes a lot of conflicts.
On the surface the film seems anecdotal in its narrative structure. But in these anecdotes are often hidden very essential twists of the story and after some time I have to recall Hou Hsiao Hsien´s autobiographical masterpiece Tong Nien Wang shi (A Time To live and a time to die, 1985).
The changing of sunlight to moonlight
Reflections of my life, oh, how they fill my eyes
The greetings of people in trouble
Reflections of my life, oh, how they fill my mind
(song "Reflections of my life" from the band Marmalade)
Even though, this film´s center is autobiographical, there are not really supporting characters., but each character has its moment to shine. They are for (sometimes even very short) moments in the center of this film and remain unforgettable: The alcohol-addicted mother, a mentally disabled uncle, the quarrelsome aunt, the mistress of Biren, Rono´s first love or the Grandfather who suddenly appears near the end of his this film.Some of them have only a few minutes screen time but they stay with me.
Anjan Dutt is a fearless filmmaker who is able to juggle with very different elements in his film. He even can afford to exaggerate some times without harming the coherence of the whole film.The magic which keeps the film together is like a secret gravitation field.
Just alone Anjan Dutt´s performance as Biren Dutta is an acting tour de force but these sometimes seemingly exaggerations go strangely hand in hand with a nearly analytical attitude of Anjan Dutt toward his character.
“My family is my church and my children are my gods.”, we hear him often in his big gestures and a whisky glass and a cigar in his hands pretending again to be a wanna be patriarch.
While Rono is beginning to find his place in the world, Biren will begin to loose his one step by step. Rono´s sister rebelled in her kind against her father. She marries a Naxalite and refuses the marriage candidate her father suggested. Later Biren looses his American cabriolet, one of his status symbols. We see him crying sitting alone in his office. If he cries only about the loss of his car or is there a kind of awareness that his civic facade begins to crumble, we do not know.
In a very intense scene there is a conflict between Rono and his father when he staggers into his father ans his mistress. Even though Rono is nearly exhausted he stands against the authority of his father and Biren is finally unmasked. There are two likely intense scenes like this in Bow Barracks Forever and Ranjana Amir A Ashbona between son and mother and between a young female singer and her father-like idol. The kind the young characters has to assert themselves seems to be a very earnest struggle for surviving. Like in Dutta Vs Dutta the authority is for a moment suspended. If we remember the wonderful Bonsai-sequence from Ozu´s Dekigokoro (Passing Fancy, 1933), where the exposed father accepts to be beaten by his little son, we have quite an accurate image for the intensity of this scene in Dutta Vs Dutta. In the midst of this wondrous network of moving and funny moments, I feel sometimes like awaken from a dreamlike trance and suddenly I am aware how serious Anjan Dutt is with his film. Sometimes cinema is literally a matter of life and death.
The film has also a dynamic between this almost checkless lust for fabulation and moments when the film seems to be totally reluctant. In these moments the film has a special delicateness and especially when the mask of fabulation is suspended for a moment.
How the film is juggling with its different poles, seems to me like a miracle. Maybe the power who keeps this film together with a somnambulist's certainty has also to do with economy, means a very sharp awareness of how to use these different elements. One example is the music by Neel Dutt, actually more or less consisting of four songs and a central theme divided on the whole length of the film very economic. The music seems to me like the coordinates for the geometry of the whole film. It is very memorable.
Finally Dutta Vs Dutta deals as well with a big house, the property of the family Dutta. The film itself is built like a big house in which the different characters and their stories are like rooms. And this “film house” again is embedded into history of the early 1970s.
Near the end of the film we are aware of the passing of time. On the streets or in the houses Rono is invited to, they are already visible. In the house of one of Ronos friends, a singer, we see a picture of Godard on the wall. Wit his school mate he listens a song from the legendary King Crimson album In the Court of the Crimson King. This is one of the sequences in black and white with a sepia tone. It is at all very unique how the film changes between colour, black and white and sepia tone. Sometimes you feel the vitality of the characters literally jump at you and in other moment the film seems to be already memory and refers to the mortality of the people.
While Biren near the end looses a lot, the film finally leaves the anecdote-like narration and concentrates more and more on the autobiographical aspect. At the end we realise suddenly that even the house Dutta has changed. The alcohol addicted mother is gone, the mentally disabled uncle has died. Again we hear the voice of Anjan Dutt. This voice tells that he finally found his place in the world , in this house in the formerly hated Kolkata. He tells, that he makes now films, but all of his relatives will never learn about them. He has “found his cinema” and even got one National Award. This is a very moving monologue, recited by the grown up Rono/Anjan Dutt is engrossed for decades from the time the film takes place into the future.
“Mother had, I thought struggled a heavy fight all alone and now she has become to these leavings of bones.” Yasushi Inoue, My Mother)
At the end Biren spends some days in police custody, because he refused access to a house search by the police. They were looking for Rono´s school mate who became a follower of the Naxalites. After some days, Biren returns totally broken. Later a brain stroke ruins his health. Rono, who nurses his father and who gives him the medicine tells him that he finally got his first role in a film by Mrinal Sen and that he will earn 5000 Rupees. If his father understands him, we do not know. The authority of the father has gone, the hate of Rono on the place where he comes from, too. After he encouraged his father for a small try to walk by himself, he hugs him. Wit this gesture he seems to have made his peace with his story, his origin from what he always wanted to escape.
That is an incredible final moment where the whole richness of this film is now concentrated on two bodies. I was fundamentally moved beyond words.
In this moment the film itself becomes as vulnerable like the two persons. That moves me as directly like this image in Sona mo hitori no watashi (Sona, the Other Myself) by Yang Yonghi when we see her at the death bed of her father and her over voice informs us from his death.
I am sure there must be reasons that I do not get Dutta Vs Dutta out of my mind.
(This is a translation of the third draft of a Germain text, written for the forthcoming print issue of shomingeki No. 25 which will be released end of this year.)