The dizzying worlds of ‘The Real Mr Barkotoki’

Percy Bharucha | Updated on June 19, 2020

Altered states: The mainstay of the book is its visual framing   -  SHISIR BASUMATARI/ SPEAKING TIGER

Swivelling between fact and fantasy, Shisir Basumatari’s graphic novel showcases a raw, visceral talent

* ‘The Real Mr Barkotoki’ was initially conceived of as a film, so the illustrations in the graphic novel have a cinematic quality

* The novel is a noir mystery about the life and times of one of Assam’s brightest literary stars in real life, Munin Barkotoki

The 15th-century Latin text Hypnerotomachia Poliphili — translated to English as Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream — is arguably one of the most beautiful illustrated books produced during the Venetian renaissance. With a contested authorship attributed to Italian priest Francesco Colonna, the book narrates the story of Poliphilo and the restless dream-like state he falls into after his lover rejects him. The book highlights the transience of human endeavour and emotions, comparing them to the fleeting nature of dreams.

Like the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, The Real Mr. Barkotoki is a noir mystery graphic novel that begins with one man’s recurring dream and his quest to uncover the mysterious figure that appears in it. Two friends join the protagonist, who is unnamed through the book, on this quest — his friend Captain D and Dr Das, a psychologist. Together, they piece together the identity and history of one of Assam’s brightest literary stars in real life, Munin Barkotoki. Among the state’s leading men of letters who fearlessly campaigned against British rule, Barkotoki was also known for his eccentricities and his famously bad handwriting.

The Real Mr Barkotoki; Shisir Basumatari; Speaking Tiger; Graphic novel; Rs499


Author, film-maker and illustrator Shisir Basumatari takes the readers on a dizzying psychotropic trip that swivels between fact and fiction, and between reality and dreams. What begins as a series of innocent therapy sessions for the protagonist slowly unfolds to reveal neuroses, split personalities, murder, hypnosis, experimental drugs, a search for lost plutonium atop the Nanda Devi peak, and more.

Part biographical, part surreal, Basumatari’s work is raw, original and visceral. This project was first conceived as a movie, then as a biographical book and lastly as a graphic novel. While Basumatari talks about Barkotoki’s life, he also throws in incidents and characters inspired from his own life, making it an interesting blend that defies genre and convention. Over the course of the novel, the reader encounters several well-known faces including Jean-Luc Goddard, Ingmar Bergman, Sigmund Freud, Kurt Vonnegut, as well as heavyweights of Assamese literature — Satyaprasad Barua, Atul Chandra Hazarika, Arun Sarma, and many others. While most dismiss the graphic novel/ comic format as trivial, Basumatari proves the very opposite. He pushes its visual boundaries to include complex layering and wisdom such as, “The way I see it, we sleep for roughly twenty years. Dreams are important”.

The mainstay of The Real Mr. Barkotoki is its visual framing. Basumatari’s illustration style perfectly complements the tone of the book. His panels consist entirely of grey; the sparse, grainy sketching style turns the book into lucid dream sequences. Like the static from an old television set that randomly throws up fleeting images, they reflect the piecemeal evidence that survives about Barkotoki’s life. This visual style compels the reader to stay with the narrative, trying to decipher the clues along with the protagonist.

Basumatari employs several cinematic techniques such as multiple visual perspectives, frames portraying the same event from different points of view and different angles. The transitions between locations, dream sequences and present-day surroundings — all of them visually differentiated — stand out, bringing home a sense of an original visual vocabulary unique to Basumatari.

This is perhaps his crowning achievement as the illustrator and author — he has managed a diversity of functions within the same art form.

The multiple dead ends the protagonist faces in his efforts to uncover the life of Barkotoki and his subsequent frustration are mirrored in the structure of this graphic novel itself. Like Barkotoki himself, this book does not reveal itself easily, its narration is whimsical, its structure non-linear, befuddling and labyrinthine by intent. And yet Basumatari ties a neat little bow at the end on these seemingly disparate threads by pinning the unreliability of the narration on an unreliable narrator.

While some readers might feel this graphic novel is niche and esoteric by virtue of its subject, read it for it complex layering, and its dark and haunting visuals. Do not stop even if you are lost, for the end is well worth it.

The Real Mr. Barkotoki is clearly an experiment. Basumatari tries to see how many diverse ingredients he can stuff into one dish before they turn into an indistinguishable lump. A fictional noir mystery is combined with a very real Assamese literary star’s life. It is a mysterious quest for a book within a graphic novel, woven through with shady psychologist sessions in an attic. Frankenstein-esque experiments like these deserve support irrespective of the outcome for they are rare and require courage and laborious thought. But the fact that Basumatari manages to pull this off to deliver a work that is triumphant in its originality and stunning in its visual scope deserves recognition and applause.

Percy Bharucha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and illustrator

Published on June 19, 2020

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