A clue about a Kolkata urban legend is embedded in the opening minutes of the documentary SD: Saroj Dutta and his Times, and it is discernible only to the very alert viewer. An actor who plays the Bengali revolutionary poet, journalist and translator walks through the city’s Maidan on a misty morning. He falls to the ground, and the image fades out. Before the fall, a distant figure can be spotted exercising in the distance. Could that be Bengali movie star Uttam Kumar, who allegedly witnessed Dutta’s unsolved murder but never publicly admitted to having done so?
Saroj Dutta, who had been underground following his participation in the Naxalbari movement for land rights, disappeared on August 5, 1971. His body was never found, and he was said to have been killed by the police. Legend has it that Uttam Kumar had seen the murder during his morning constitutional (an uncanny echo of Michelangelo Antonioni’s acclaimed movie Blowup), but was advised to stay silent.
But there is a lot more to engage the mind and heart than unconfirmed gossip in the 114-minute documentary, directed by Kasturi Basu and Mitali Biswas and part of the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala programme (July 20-24). “We didn’t want the matinee idol to take the limelight away from such a complex discussion,” Basu explained.
The intensively researched biographical film recreates the heady times by drawing on archival material, interviews, revolutionary songs and Dutta’s poems, writings and translated works. There were many reasons to make the film, the directors said: there are very few comprehensive explorations of the Naxalbari movement; Dutta symbolises the intellectual ferment of his times; the lessons from the 1960s and ’70s leach into the present.
“Saroj Dutta seemed to be a very interesting person for a number of reasons – he was one of the top-tier leaders to have been abducted and killed, he was a progressive poet and journalist who became a Communist, and he shaped a different sort of political journalism,” Kasturi Basu said. “The film also became the story of the Naxalbari movement.”
The production kicked off in 2013, a year before Dutta’s birth centenary, and was completed in 2017, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Naxalbari movement. Dutta is viewed through the prism of the Naxalbari agitation, which had been simmering for years and exploded in 1967. The militant movement for agrarian reform was marked by vertical and horizontal splintering over the nature of class struggle, the relative contributions of urban and rural Communists, and the true meaning of revolution. The Communist Party of India split in 1964 and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was formed; the more radical Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) was created in 1969; Kolkata and the villages beyond exploded and violence escalated. Numerous Communists were bundled off into police vans to be tortured and, in many cases, killed. Unlike with Dutta, their bodies were at least found.
The silver-haired revolutionaries tracked down for the documentary include the couple that was sheltering Dutta when the police came looking him in 1971. “They had never spoken on camera before,” Basu said.
Among the veterans who recreate Dutta’s life and contextualise his actions is his wife, Bela, a nonagenarian without teeth and memory cells sharp as incisors. Abhijit Mazumdar, the son of Naxalbari ideologue and CPIM (ML) functionary Charu Mazumdar, shares his impressions by drawing on the oral history archive on the Naxalbari movement that he has been working on along with others.
The filmmakers are insiders, whose political leanings are aligned with their subject. “Some of the people we interviewed thought we were too young to make the film,” said 43-year-old Mitali Biswas, who has previously made the documentary Naam Poribortito, about violence against women. “Then they realised that we too were associated with the movement.”
Biswas is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Kasturi Basu and co-producer, associate director and script writer Dwaipayan Banerjee are members of the People’s Film Collective, which organises screenings of documentaries on social issues to groups that have little exposure to the form. Banerjee was previously a member of CPI (M-L).
This partly explains why Basu and Biswas are frequently seen in the film, conducting interviews or beating the streets to track down elusive contacts. “We don’t keep ourselves out, in order to be true to ourselves,” 37-year-old Basu explained. “I won’t make any claim of being objective or impartial. It is very clear which side I would take, but that is not the only question here. Viewers might not agree with the people speaking in the film, but at least the film will prompt them to dig deeper and make the connections to the present.”
While the film includes clippings of Dutta’s writings and archival photographs, footage from the period was rare (the film clips include Louis Malle’s Phantom India and Goutam Ghose’s Maa Bhoomi). One inventive way to evoke the period was through aural cues, such as creating a soundtrack of sorts comprising songs of protest and rebellion. “There were some commonly known songs that were rousing and marvellous, but there were also songs written by peasants that were not that well known,” Basu said.
Two of these songs were accidentally discovered during a visit to Naxalbari. An old Communist peasant hummed the tunes, which were recorded on the spot and used in the film. For two other tracks, which featured in actor Utpal Dutt’s only stage production Teer, the filmmakers got Rongili Biswas, the daughter of the original composer Hemango Biswas, to sing them in her voice.
Also part of the soundscape is the audio broadcast from Peking Radio. “We kept searching through the archive of the Chinese government and found two clips,” Basu said. “When we showed an early cut of the film to some of the veterans, one of them jumped up and said, I am listening to the sound of Peking Radio for the first time in years.”
The research that had preceded the film and its dragged-out production because of monetary constraints meant that the directors had a clear picture of Saroj Dutta before they began filming. Yet, there were surprise discoveries along the way.
“I learnt a lot about his writings, his progressive poetry, the way he deconstructed the Puranas and critiqued modern Bengali poetry,” Mitali Biswas said. Kasturi Basu added, “We also learnt that he was almost like a friend to youngsters and kids. Another debate that put more flesh and blood into the human being revolved around the breaking of statues.”
Conversations about the pros and cons of attacks on the states of historical figures in Kolkata in the late ’60s raged in the newspaper columns that Dutta churned out under the nom de guerre Shashank. Should the statues be left unmolested and, instead, newer statues of neglected figures such as Mangal Pandey be built? Or should a Mahatma Gandhi statue be replaced by Pandey’s likeness? It might seem like hair-splitting, but these debates were vital at a time when the direction of the revolutionary path was being turned over.
A silent but visible character in the documentary is Kolkata. The filmmakers draw visual parallels between the present and the period during which Saroj Dutta lived and died. “The city has a lot of forgotten histories, for instance, Saroj Dutta’s killing in the Maidan,” Basu pointed out. “In all the localities, something related to the movement had happened there. It was important to bring back memories of the sites.”
Although the film speaks of a time long past, the issues it raises are still relevant, the filmmakers asserted. “There is still the unresolved question of what is happening with the peasants – why are the farmers marching?” Basu said. “Then there is the media. Saroj Dutta was crafting a new journalism that questioned the mainstream media in his time. It has become far worse in our times, with the media being bought up and the proliferation of fake news. The crushing of dissent, the deaths of activists and their incarceration are all still happening today. Saroj Dutta was a template for what is called an ‘urban Naxal’ today, but you cannot deny what he is saying.”
The documentary has been screened once in Kolkata, and will also be shown in Naxalbari after the monsoon. The screening at the documentary festival in Thiruvanathapuram, the capital of a Left-ruled state, will likely have a special resonance for audiences.
There’s another, more subtle, connection between this documentary and a classic from 1978. Kasturi Basu pointed out that Anand Patwardhan’s path-breaking Prisoners of Conscience, in which he interviewed activists who had suffered incarceration and torture during and after the Emergency, includes an interview with Nemai Ghosh, an associate of Saroj Dutta. Ghosh was severely tortured in prison. Ghosh is also interviewed in SD, only his second appearance in a film after Prisoners of Conscience.
The Thiruvanathapuram festival is paying home to Patwardhan through a retrospective of his documentaries. Unlike the Uttam Kumar reference, this link between two films, separated by time but linked by a common pursuit of social justice, is far more discernible to the eye.