Saturday, 3 September 2011

Remembering Harisadhan Dasgupta – a forgotten filmmaker


       
Hospitals are not the best of places to meet interesting people and forge friendly bonds with a person four times your age. Yet it was in a hospital room that I met Harisadhan Dasgupta – the doyen of documentary filmmaking in India. He is much in news these days due to  reasons other than his filmmaking career-his wife Sonali’s affair with Rossellini and a recent book “Under her spell” by Dileep Padgaonkar in 2008, the ex-editor in chief of times of India.

 Anyway, let us go back to summer of 1993. I was badly injured in a motorcycle accident and admitted in Woodburn block of SSKM Hospital, Kolkata. I shared the room with Harisadhan, whom I later started calling Hari dadu ( Dadu means Grandpa in Bengali to the uninitiated ). He was in his late sixties, quite infirm and desolate with loneliness and despair. I was eighteen and injured bad enough to be bedridden and operated into with no hope of recovery in six months. But the plight of illness did not stop me to get connected to him. Being a budding film buff with firm belief that European movies were far better than Hollywood counterparts though Hollywood could not be denied because of its worldwide presence, in no time, we were chatting on movies, music and what not. Suddenly he asked me the name of Eugene O’Neal’s daughter married to Chaplin. As I said “Oona”, Hari dadu exclaimed “Now I have no doubt about your love for films.” And who knew those animated discussions would soon turn into a friendship- quite unusual between two men with half a century age gap. Yet we were friends discussing anything and everything under the sun. I used to talk about my friends, family, ambition, career, music, books…..and he used to listen to them intently and advise me on my career plans.

He used to tell about his past life, his movies, his celebrity acquaintances and his American experiences. His father,Dr.Biraj Mohon Dasgupta, was a renowned protozologist-the second Indian to become a director of School of Tropical Medicine, Calcutta. They had a sprawling mansion at Southern Avenue in Calcutta. His father wanted him to be a physicist and sent him to England during the Second World War to for higher studies. But his creative urge propelled him to University of Southern California where he learned filmmaking. He assisted Irving Pitchell in one of his films. In late forties and fifties, after returning to Calcutta, he started making documentary films like Tata Steel, Konark, A day in the life of a cigarette ( for ITC). And he was started to be called as “Hari S” by his friends as a result of his penchant for everything American.


Because of his skills, he was Jean Renoir’s natural choice in Calcutta to assist him in directing The River just after independence of India. And his documentary film Tata Steel was a classic with script by Satyajit Ray, camerawork by Claude Renoir and music by none other than Pandit Ravishankar. He was a founder of Calcutta film society movement. He used to earn well by making documentaries since most of them were financed by profit making business houses. At that time he had developed a rift with Satyajit ray regarding making a movie out of Rabindra Nath Tagore’s novel - Ghare Baire. He paid Rs.20000, a princely sum those days on account of royalty to Visva Bharati. But the movie did not happen since no decent producer could be found in Calcutta. But the loss of money on his side caused a permanent rift between them which nobody bridged in future life. Even Satyajit Ray wrote about this in ‘My days with Apu’, a Penguin book. Anyway, in his long and eventful career, he made many documentaries for Films Division and private organizations and two popular feature films in Bangla- Eki onge eto roop ( Too many faces of eve, starred by Soumitro Chatterjee & Madhavi Mukherjee) and Kamal lata ( starred by Uttam Kumar & Suchitra Sen). Eki onge Eto Roop got a prize in Edinburgh film festival.

One night he was quite depressed. I inquired. He asked me “Can I tell you something adult ?”. Upon my affirmation, he started telling me his traumatic married life, how his wife Sonali eloped with the world famous Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini with his one year old son to Rome leaving behind his elder son Raja. That was an international scandal and for his honor I refrain from divulging any details as it may hurt many still alive.

The scar this incident left was hard to be hidden. Though he raised his son Raja with his family’s help, and led a ‘clean’ life without getting any more scandal and media attention, sometimes his reflections on himself showed the deep despair he harboured within. But he was courageous enough to continue making films even after this debacle. In fact his memorable documentaries like Panchthupi (for Burmah Shell), Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Baba Alauddin Khan were made after this scandal. Panchthupi was shot in a village in Murshidabad district of Bengal where he likened the homecoming of a rural married lady with the events of Durga Puja, a very Bengali tradition. Seeing Panchthupi, Amita Malik, noted film critic of The Statesman was ecstatic and went on to praise to the extent of comparing it to Pather Panchali. But sometimes I felt he was a pioneer who never read the sign of time. In the Naxal movement ridden turbulent 70’s when Satyajit Ray was making socially relevant Pratidwandi or Mrinal Sen, Kolkata 71, he was contented with a romantic Uttam-Suchitra starrer Kamal Lata, the last episode of the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Srikanto series of novels.

Tragedy and sorrow never left Harisadhan. He lost his younger brother Bulu Dasgupta, a talented cameraman during shooting of Panchthupi by lightning strike while taking a shot of thunderstorm in an open field. “Keno chokher jole bhijie dile na sukno dhulo joto (o lord , why did not I soak the dust of your path by my tears?)” was his favorite Tagore song that always consoled him. I remember him singing this song tearfully quite often. Due to Sonali’s departure and ensuing scandal, his brother Bulu’s death, he used to think of filmmaking having an ominous influence on him in later part of his life and tried to keep his son Raja away from films. But as luck would have it, Raja Dasgupta went on to become an independent filmmaker and his grandson, Birsa has also joined filmmaking bearing the legacy of his grandfather. When Raja Dasgupta made his first documentary on the Santhal leader Birsa Munda during his college days, he told me, he was secretly happy though he expressed disapproval publicly. How could he say no when he himself devoted his life to movies? And many of the noted filmmakers like Gautam Ghosh, Buddhadev Dasgupta, K.Bikram Singh were helped by him in their budding years. He helped Bangladeshi filmmaker Zahir Raihan a lot during Muktijuddho in 1971. I remember Goutam Ghosh fondly, coming to meet him almost everyday.

My stay was going to end as I was operated on and released. But my association with Hari dadu continued through letters, which I have kept as fond remembrance. Then he was released from hospital. He visited our house at Bhabanipore once. He gave me a long list of ‘must watch’ movies which I still cherish. He was in high sprits then and was planning for a movie again. He wrote a script of a feature film which he showed me once, but a rank bohemian that he was, he did not stay back in Kolkata. He went to Santiniketan. We exchanged letters but slowly his reply trickled off. I became engaged with my college life, movies and friends. One day in September, 1996, all the leading dailies of Kolkata reported his death in an obscure village near Santiniketan, Bengal. His silent departure reminded me of a sentence “We carved not a line and we raised not a stone but we left him alone with his glory”; from an old poem “The burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna”.

Note: This blog written by me first appeared in Passionforcinema.com in May,2009

32 comments:

  1. Dear Biswa Prasun, I wanted to contact you. If you get to see this post, can you send me an email at sg337@yahoo.com as to how I can contact you?
    Thank you.
    Sayantani

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    1. Dear Sayantani,
      Thank you for reading my blog. You may email me in biswaprasun@gmail.com or you may contact me over telephone. My number is 0-8886000371.

      Regards,

      Biswa Prasun

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  2. dear prasun, how can I thank you for this touching piece of writing!
    it's a real tribute to dasgupta. warm regards.

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    1. Thank you so much Mr. Johnny . I was privileged to know this man. He is a true unsung hero of documentary film making fraternity in India. Though I met him quite a long time ago I could never forget him. He never got his due.

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  3. Dear Biswa Prasun,
    I found your blog after being moved deeply by Padgaonkar's book 'Under Her Spell' and was desperate to know more. Your post is certainly moving. Do you think you can do something to trace the sole surviving print of his film 'Eki Ange Eto Roop' that I saw on DD many years ago and was deeply impressed by its craftsmanship. That film needs to be restored and procured by the National Film Archive. I am a professor at FTII and so I can persuade the NFAI to restore and preserve it but first, it has to be located. Many thanks,you can contact me directly at inchakra.cinema at the rate gmail.com

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  4. Dear Biswa Prasun,
    Thanks for this piece. You gave us a chance to see the natural humanness in the legend Harishadhan Dasgupta. I am torn between this man who lost love but did not give up his passion for film making and yet remained uncelebrated and the other who lived her life believing in love!

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    1. Thanks you Suchorita. Yes he was an unsung hero....his documentaries were memorable....some are available in youtube or vimeo....many needs preservation....he used to dream a lot and till the end his sense of humour was not lost....I am privileged to know him

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  5. Dear Biswa Prasun,

    I came across a wonderful piece after a long time. Really touching . His wife who died last Saturday remains a mystery not only to me but probably to a lot of people . Was it sheer love or an unbridled ambition that drove her to take this extreme step in an era when not many such incidents were heard off. However it seems from various accounts that Dasguptas and Rosellinis were in touch and probably Mr Dasgupta has reconciled himself with this sad development in his personal life. Keep writing such wonderful piece from your personal experience as I find such works really refreshing and also a nice way of doing justice to a lot of such unsung heroes.

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    1. Thanks Mr Banerjee. I was privileged to him; despite the scandal he made his major films. His documentaries are timeless. Kamal lata is popular too. He was a very lively man, otherwise how could he make friendship with an 18 year old lad ? If you read my blog you will note I reminisce a lot about many from the older generation. Thanks again for encouraging me.

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  6. did sonali felt regretted leaving her husband in the future

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    1. the old man trusted me with a lot of secrets. I won't disclose. Please figure it out yourself. I am sorry.

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  7. What a touching piece! Makes me want to watch his documentaries just now... Great work Biswa!

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  8. hi Biswa sir, this is ankit, m a theatre actor living in ahmedabad.. i m really touched by this piece of writing. i stumbled upon this post when i was reading about rosellini and his connections to india, then sonali and then late mr. harisadhan... now there you mentioned that he gifted you a list of must watch movies. My only humble request to you is ... could you plz share that list with us readers also? :) if needed, my email id is: ankitchandrashekhar@gmail.com. thank you :)

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    1. Yes Mr Chandrasekhar I will send you by email the list you want

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  9. Hello Biswa sir...I am very distantly related to your Hari Dadu...He was my grandmother's cousin brother..though we do not have any contact with their family any more for almost a decade and half, still it was very heart warming to find many unknown facts of his life... Love for art and culture is something on what we thrive and I feel proud that our Hari dadu contributed so much to it! Thanks......

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    1. Dear Arnab...nice to read your comment....indeed I was lucky to meet him....I know his son ....if you want to get in touch please contact him

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  10. I think sonali was shameless uncultured woman.

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    1. Dont even bother to reply to such senile people !

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  11. I think Sonali was shameless heartless uncultured woman not worth remembering.

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  12. How narrowminded can you get mr . Roychowdhury ! Shame on you and the likes of you and the malicious bengalee community she escaped from !

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  13. I appreciate your sentiment for not writing about the part of the conversation you had with Late Dasgupta since you had given word to him. But the problem is that in future some day somebody may create a Mukhrochak story out of imaginations which may not be exactly charitable for the main characters of the story. We are seeing similar things happenings in the case of relationship between Rabindranath and Kadambari Debi. Therefore I suggest that you may further open up including writing up in print media so that actual truths including feelings of Late Harisadhan Dasgupta come out in open

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    1. Sorry for this alte reply...thanks for liking my blog, I understand your point of view but I am sworn by his words...I will never divulge anything about the affair. In fact I have seen in one report dilip padgaonkar slandered him as a loser who took to alcohol and never did anything good; however I felt not to speak about those things which was really close to his heart.

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  14. Such characters are rare species. (One such is Indrani Mukherjee)I am sure she did not have any remorse or regret. Leaving behind a 5 year old kid is cruelty. She did not have any identity of her own, hence this escape. But an escapist may survive but that is not living a life.

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  15. Such characters are rare species. (One such is Indrani Mukherjee)I am sure she did not have any remorse or regret. Leaving behind a 5 year old kid is cruelty. She did not have any identity of her own, hence this escape. But an escapist may survive but that is not living a life.

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  16. Such characters are rare species. (One such is Indrani Mukherjee)I am sure she did not have any remorse or regret. Leaving behind a 5 year old kid is cruelty. She did not have any identity of her own, hence this escape. But an escapist may survive but that is not living a life.

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  17. Such characters are rare species. (One such is Indrani Mukherjee)I am sure she did not have any remorse or regret. Leaving behind a 5 year old kid is cruelty. She did not have any identity of her own, hence this escape. But an escapist may survive but that is not living a life.

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    1. Sir, I did not write about Sonali...it is not good speak ill about the dead...he was still working well after the scandal..so why bring up the dead?

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  20. Thanks Mr.Biswa Prasun for putting forth this side of story.
    Mr.Dasgupta deserves some justice. What a tragedy his life was. Did his second son ever meet him?
    Sonali could have found her love,happiness without deceiving Mr.Dasgupta.A lot of turmoil could have been avoided had she been an openminded, honest and mature person. In that way both of them could have carried their lives separately in a peaceful manner.
    May God give peace to his soul.

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  21. Yes his second son Gil Rosellini met him, even his elder son Raja went for a Roman holiday and met Roberto, Sonali and Gil. The tragedy did not make Harisadhan stop making films, he continued film making with lot of good films made afterwards.

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