Tope: Garish Magic Realism but a breather in Bengali Cinema

Posted by Kaahon Desk On May 8, 2017

In one of the early scenes in Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Tope, the eccentric hunter who is also the lord of the declining estate warns the filmmakers from the city that this is a different setting, a different space. The very language being uttered here is a different one. For a film which is so conscious about language and its use, the body of the film doesn’t really bear any trace of such awareness. Without getting into an argument of good and bad right away, one can say that both the form and content of the film are designed to fit in nicely with the director’s comfort zone, given the nature of his oeuvre.

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Based on Narayan Gangopadhyay’s short story of the same name, Tope unfolds in a sparse and rural setting in Bengal moving through the lives and experience of a wide assortment of characters. Looming larger than life over the setting is the obsessive hunter and the Estate’s lord Raja, who is clearly unable to come to terms with modernity and modern times. Like a princess in the tower in a fairy tale is his neglected mistress yearning for freedom. In their midst, there arrives a documentary film crew from the city equipped with modern equipment and outlook. In the periphery of the plot there dwells a few people, chief among them a family of working class people where the young daughter earns the bread by walking on a tightrope. And then there is the weary postman who has renounced his task of being a messenger of ill tidings and found solace on a tree branch dwelling with primates. The narrative moves on with a languid pace as the film crew keeps waiting to capture the tiger hunt on camera.

One of the very first questions to strike a viewer is the selection of source material. At the risk of sounding like a puritan, the film is so far removed from the short story in every sense possible that there is hardly any point calling it an adaptation. What could possibly be the reason behind taking up a classic text renowned for its high paced, thrilling, atmospheric and macabre qualities and turning it into slow cinema with magic realist tendencies and imposing a set of binary debates such as archaic v/s modern, pastoral v/s urban, civilization v/s savage or life v/s death, upon it? While Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s use of visual metaphors such as a gramophone placed within a frame in the middle of a meadow or a pack of mules blocking the road for a car or a young girl running down an elevation and stopped by a procession carrying a dead body or an erect tree in the middle of the frame right out of a Trakovsky film are all rather dated, his imagination of a rural setting endowed with an abundance of lush imageries and bounty of nature inhabited by simple God fearing people, comes across as highly un-problematized and simplistic. The technical departments, especially cinematography, editing and sound, pull up a commendable job. But they are still at the level of skill without pushing the envelope to add to the vision of the film; a task that ultimately rests on the shoulder of the writer-director. One can nonetheless mention the sound design, especially the burbling sound of water and the use of dark chords on strings which help to create a fatal ambience.

Having said that, Tope remains important in the context of contemporary Bengali Cinema and more specifically the viewing practices which brings us to the distribution-exhibition system. The release of a film like Tope (like Bakita Byaktigoto, Phoring, Taasher Desh and Asha Jaowar Majhe, etc. before this) marks a break in the almost monopolization of a certain studio in terms of films being released across theatres in Bengal. Furthermore, in spite of its drawbacks, the film is nonetheless starkly different from the usual crop of Bengali films directed by the Mukherjees, Gangulys, Sens and Duttas, in every sense. The film is conceived in images and sounds, something contemporary Bengali Cinema is not oblivious about. Even though it is extremely outdated in nature, there is a sense of poetry in the film, in its camera movements, compositions, characters. Most importantly Tope allows the film goers to encounter a space and a certain type of bodies which have almost vanished from contemporary Bengali Cinema busy in its own myopic world of CCDs and FabIndias and Southern Avenue and Ballygunge interiors. It’d be wrong to overlook this particular aspect of the film while commenting on its more filmic aspects. However if it turns out to be an exception just because of the director’s name and the next time a young unknown filmmaker is denied a release, then there is not even a scratch on the monolith.

Arup Ratan Samajdar

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