Nabarun Bhattacharya, fearless and flying

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on June 05, 2020 Published on June 05, 2020

Anarchist and more: Through the film, we also see the many ways in which Bhattacharya was just another flawed, weakened, ageing man   -  YOUTUBE GRAB COURTESY: ODDJOINT

Q’s documentary film on the Bengali writer Nabarun Bhattacharya is a love letter from the director to one of his artistic heroes

* Nabarun, an 83-minute documentary film by Q (Qaushiq Mukherjee), is available on Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) website’s ‘Viewing Room’ section, free of cost, till June 9

In November 2014, at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), I saw something that I had not come across before — people waiting in serpentine queues for the world première of an Indian documentary, a full two hours before the screening was supposed to begin. The film in question was Nabarun, an 83-minute documentary on the Bengali writer Nabarun Bhattacharya (1948-2014), who had passed away just over three months earlier. The director in question, whose impending appearance at the festival explained the surge of interest (not to mention the Instagram caption ‘queue for Q’), was Qaushiq Mukherjee aka Q.

Last week, DIFF uploaded Nabarun on its website’s ‘Viewing Room’ section — the film is available to stream, free of cost, until June 9.

Bhattacharya grew up in the ’60s, when the world of Bangla literature was revolutionised by the Hungry Generation or ‘The Hungryalists’, a group of poets and artists disillusioned with what they perceived as the complacent, sterile, middle-of-the-road state of Bengali culture (and society). Their works sought to upend the status quo, and challenge the caste/class privilege of the self-appointed gatekeepers of culture. In that vein, Bhattacharya’s literary career began with poetry written in the polemic mode, like his 1973 collection Ei Mrityu Upattaka Amar Desh Na (This Valley of Death is Not My Country). Nabarun’s opening credits are set to an old recording of Bhattacharya reciting the titular poem. Even today, in popular protests in Bengal, one can see this line on posters, in songs.

In later decades, his fiction — most prominently Harbart, Kangal Malsat, Fyatarur Bombachak and Fyatarur Kumbhipak — would prove to be every bit as influential, not to mention incendiary. The last three titles feature Bhattacharya’s favourite among all his creations: The ‘fyataru’, the uber-Bengali trickster with the power of flight. The fyataru is an agent of anarchy; a cackling saboteur who becomes the scourge of the bhadralok.

At the beginning of Nabarun, Bhattacharya himself explains their raison d’être: “They are nothing but agents of revolution for me. And I don’t think I can accept this society under any terms. Which is why I need this façade for myself. These voices that you hear shouting behind me, I have consciously created them. In all of my works, I have tried to capture this spirit of rebellion through my characters.”

In 2014, Nabarun was the most coherent and conventionally structured entry in Q’s filmography (since then, his 2016 Netflix film Brahman Naman would own that particular tag). Six years later, it remains one of his best films, a surprisingly tender portrait of an ageing titan, a master artiste who knew that the Grim Reaper wasn’t far away. The engrossing interview sequences are intercut with dramatised scenes from Bhattacharya’s short stories. Frequent Q collaborator Rii Sen makes a cameo appearance in one of these dramatisations, based on the story Fashion-Parade-E Fyataru.

Q’s feature films, such as Gandu and Tasher Desh, have often been criticised for their emphasis on style over substance, overly improvisational dialogue and incoherence. The same traits are conspicuous-via-absence in Nabarun. His stylistic signatures — neon lights, self-consciously black-and-white sequences, rap-fuelled rants on the individual vs the society — are either discarded or kept to a minimum here.

Q is even invested in historicity here, something that he almost never does, preferring to view his characters as islands instead, unshackled by the constraints of conventional storytelling. During an extended interview sequence, a young college-goer describes the socio-economic and literary fore-bearers that led to the creation of a Harbart or a Kangal Malsat. “We mustn’t forget the tradition that he (Nabarun) comes from. It invites us back to a beautiful time in history. It evokes the dreams of a better world, memories of India in the ’30s and ’40s, a time when [revolutionary] Bhupendranath Datta was frantically trying to take the word of the great Lenin to the common man. At the same time, [scholar and travel writer] Rahul Sankrityayan, languishing in prison, drew inspiration from the peasant movement and [poet] Faiz Ahmad Faiz was being forced to go into exile, to Lebanon. In Punjab, the Progressive Writers’ Association was coming up. Bengal had anti-fascist literature, around the same time as the likes of [writer] Manik Bandopadhyay.”

This is the kind of wide-angle view that makes Nabarun well worth your time, even if you haven’t read a single word of the man’s writing. Best of all, the film doesn’t let anyone off the hook, not even Bhattacharya himself. If Q builds a larger-than-life character in the first half, he spends the second half tearing it all down. We see the many ways in which Bhattacharya was just another flawed, weakened, ageing man — how he spirals into depression after a feud with his mother (the iconic writer Mahasweta Devi), how he shouts at his wife for denying him non-vegetarian food (on doctor’s orders) and so on. The latter moment hints at a truth that even ‘radical’ Bengali littérateurs are reluctant to admit — that reformists such as the Hungry Generation poets or Bhattacharya were by no means immune to the male gaze, that a gender-based critique of their works would yield some counter-intuitive results.

However, Nabarun is, at the end of the day, a love letter from Q to one of his artistic heroes. Unlike a lot of love letters, however, it manages to keep the cloying platitudes to a minimum.

Aditya Mani Jha is a freelance writer based in Delhi

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Published on June 05, 2020
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