Documentary channel

In Q’s ‘Nabarun’, a look back at the renegade Bengali writer with a cult following

Q’s documentary celebrates the iconoclastic Bengali writer Nabarun Bhattacharya.

“I go through a process of constant humiliation, and I don’t want to move from that process. Otherwise you get into the trap of being a celebrity, and then society begins to honour you.” So says cult Bengali writer Nabarun Bhattacharya in Nabarun, a documentary by Qaushiq Mukherjee, popularly known as Q.

In contrast to Bhattacharya’s sentiment, the film celebrates the writer and his worldview. Nabarun includes many testimonials about Bhattacharya’s legacy and importance, but it does not delve into why Bhattacharya is considered a revolutionary writer.

“Contextualising Nabarun da was not the intention as that would take a lot of time, and then the film could not concentrate on the dynamism of my personal interaction with him,” Q explained.

The documentary was approached as a tribute piece through the eyes of a “fanboy” and not as an “academy study” of Bhattacharya, Q said. Bhattacharya died in 2014, at the age of 66.

“When we approached him in 2013, he had already been diagnosed with cancer,” Q said. “We shot with him in patches, sometimes for just 30 minutes a day, because he would feel unwell. We ultimately got four good conversations with him, and from that we tried to create a narrative.”

Unfinished cuts of the film have been publicly screened thrice since 2014. A final cut was screened in Kolkata on June 23, which marked Bhattacharya’s 70th birthday.

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Nabarun.

Bhattacharya left behind a literary legacy consisting of polemical, and satirical short stories, poems and novels featuring the concerns of the urban subaltern.

To Bengalis who championed bhadralok literature, Bhattacharya’s literary output introduced a fractured prose style, replete with abuse and street slang, often veering into magic realism. Several of his works feature strange characters, the most prominent of them being Fyataru – a group of flying human beings who revel in anarchic sabotage of symbols of power and wealth. Bhattacharya was just as critical of Kolkata’s genteel middle class as he was of the Communist Party of India, and later, the Trinamool Congress.

Film adaptations of Bhattacharya’s works include Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Herbert (2005), based on the Sahitya Akademi-winning novel of the same name, Mahanagar@Kolkata (2010), based on three short stories, and Kangal Malsat (2013), based on Bhattacharya’s novel of the same name. “There is just so little documentation done on film about Nabarun da, and there’s so little writing done about him, that we thought that we should make this film ourselves,” Q said.

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Kangal Malsat (2013).

Q’s 76-minute film features short bursts of images inspired by Bhattacharya’s works, such as the 2006 novel Lubdhak (The Dog Star). In Lubdhak, Kolkata’s street dogs fight to stay out of concentration camps set up by the Bengal government to make the capital city look squeaky clean. The novel is presently being turned into a stop-motion film by Avik Mukhopadhyay.

Nabarun’s narrative also features two adaptations of Bhattacharya’s short stories, Mutual Man, and Fashion Parade-E-Fyataru. In Mutual Man, the titular character shares a toxic relationship with three illegal moonshine outlets who keep him drunk in exchange of him being the fall guy during police raids. In Fashion Parade-E-Fyataru, the flying guerrillas sabotage an international fashion show where the wife of a people’s writer-like figure is meant to be the showstopper.

A still from Nabarun. Image credit: Oddjoint.
A still from Nabarun. Image credit: Oddjoint.

While Q’s filmmaking style makes the film almost inaccessible to newcomers to Bhattacharya’s literature, Nabarun also does not explore Bhattacharya’s literary and political inspirations or his intellectual growth over time.

Though Q said that he did not want to delve into Bhattacharya’s background and illustrious lineage (he is the son of Mahasweta Devi), the film’s most poignant moment arrives when the writer’s wife, Pranati, talks about her husband’s lifelong sadness and need to be loved after being abandoned by his mother at the age of 11.

Mahasweta Devi divorced her first husband and Bhattacharya’s father, playwright and screenwriter Bijon Bhattacharya. In several interviews, Nabarun Bhattacharya expressed apathy and disinterest towards Mahasweta Devi’s work and was critical of her closeness with the Trinamool Congress government. Mahasweta Devi appears for a few minutes in the film to discuss her strained relationship with her son.

Nabarun Bhattacharya in Nabarun. Image credit: Oddjoint.
Nabarun Bhattacharya in Nabarun. Image credit: Oddjoint.

Most of the people interviewed in Nabarun, a group of students in particular, exhibit a cult-like love for Bhattacharya. At one point, Bhattacharya says, “Why use candle lights for marches when you can use it to light fires?” Nabarun gives the impression that the writer has left behind a self-satisfied fandom that never really got the writer’s memo.

“But that is a typically Bengali problem,” Q pointed out. “Bengalis’ cultural stamp is their past. We hero-worship [Satyajit] Ray and [Rabindranath] Tagore, but to take the essence of their philosophies and apply it in our lives is not in our culture. And one cannot blame the artist for it. In Bengal, the idea is that the artist will do all the thinking. Readers have a responsibility. To constantly question your socio-political beliefs and see how relevant they are in a global context, everyday, is a long exercise, and it just doesn’t happen by reading Nabarun da.”

Bhattacharya has views on the exact nature of his fandom. In one scene, he agrees to Q’s assertion that most of his fans take to his bold language to be seen as “rebellious”, and not necessarily for his politics. “I know my politics and I am not imposing it on anyone,” Bhattacharya says.

Yet, Q feels positively about the existence of a cult. “At least, with a cult, there is a possibility that people will get to know him,” Q said. “If there was no cult, he would remain the random Deepak da in a random neighbourhood. Unless there is a cult, a person from the fringe will not be taken seriously.”

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