By Ishita Sengupta
There is a particularly heartwarming scene in Pradipta Bhattacharyya’s Baakita Byaktigoto (The Rest Is Private) where the protagonist Pramit Roy, an amateur documentary filmmaker, is told by his cameraman, Amit, “Tor toh hoye gelo re!” (it finally happened to/with you!). Uttered while shooting Roy with his camera, Amit’s iteration is akin to a friend’s tease reserved for moments when you finally achieve something you had been doggedly attempting to. Like cracking a tough exam, winning over someone after long, or— like in this case—falling in love when you are unsure of your capability for the same. Roy (a mesmerising Ritwick Chakrabarty) looks shyly at the camera and breaks into a trance-like dance; flapping his hands like wings, placing his foot ever so lightly like—awashed with the headiness of the feeling—he would take flight any moment now. It is such an immersive moment of someone falling in love for the first time, so endearing in the way it captures his amusement of wanting to fly when he has sunk so deep, and so preciously intimate in its depiction that one feels valued to be able to witness it.
I watched the film on YouTube recently and lost count of the number of times I have gone back to it since then; each time more fascinated with the willingness of the character, and not the actor, to offer a moment as private as this on a platter for documentation. This, however, is not a singular instance in the film when something so fiercely intimate is recorded in anticipation of an audience. During the entirety of Bhattacharyya’s criminally underrated gem — designed as a documentary being made by Roy—both friends alternate in recording each other. Our peek into their world is solely reliant on their shared gaze on each other. Therefore, when the protagonist smiles and blushes at the camera, he is actually looking at his friend and, by extension, us. He is not breaking the fourth wall but, at several instances in the film, he is the fourth wall.
Decently secure in his professional life, Roy never had a proper romantic relationship. And by the time we meet him he is partly convinced about his inability to forge one. This pushes him to make a byaktigoto (private) documentary about himself— not chancing upon but — arduously finding love, as Amit follows him with the camera. He relentlessly searches for a girl, any girl. He checks telephone directories for numbers, follows women from a distance and waits to hold their attention to hurriedly mouth that he loves them. He does not confess and neither does he exhibit any ensuing helplessness. In his haste, he feels rattling off the words will compensate for the absence of any feeling; that jumping at the destination will make up for not having undertaken the journey. This mindless scouting takes a turn for the better when an astrologer tells them about a village called Mohini, tucked away in some corner in West Bengal. Everybody is in love there, and anyone who visits is bound to fall in love too. Intrigued, his friend and he make up their minds to visit. They change their initial plan and decide to document the place instead. Soon they find the village and fall in love, and each takes turns in holding the camera and following the other everywhere. Their accidental encounters with women they eventually fall in love with, their stolen kisses and secret rendezvous are all archived, and not before long, nothing remains byaktigoto.
One might assume that by using magic realism as a crutch, Bhattacharyya is intending to demystify the intricacies of love itself. By taking us to a place brimming with the emotion and making an active voyeur out of his characters and us, he is not just making an intrinsically private experience public but also suggesting how it is the exposure that validates it. And by choosing a premise that necessitates chronicling everything, he seems to be deliberately introducing—encouraging even—an element of acting in the act of love. In foregrounding the desperate need of people to find a certain kind of love that they can sustain and not fall after being knocked down by it and in underlining how that love should fit into an already existing template, Bhattacharyya’s film could be a cogent commentary on the times we inhabit. It locates the strange predicament we are constantly negotiating with: if there is no picture, it did not happen. It makes us see and also makes us feel seen.
This makes the film significant. Released in 2013, it seems even clairvoyant. But Bhattacharyya’s message is unravelled in the final heartbreaking moments when after visiting Calcutta and writing to festivals about their documentary, the friends cannot find their way back to the village. They lose their lovers too. With the existence of Mohini—not effaced but—shrouded with a thick cloud of unresolved mystery, what remains is the prospect of the world witnessing their story and they, not knowing any more or better than the rest, turning into mute spectators. This is the film’s brittle critique of our constant desire to document every aspect of love, of being voyeurs disguised as lovers, and of loving something more than someone.
But the enduring relevance of Bakita Byaktigoto lies in not how timely it is but how timeless it feels. It can be read both as a censure against a particular brand of love and an acknowledgement of the many love(s) that lie scattered, unnoticed, those that slip away like they had never happened, and those that keep coming back unobtrusively when one least expects them to. The inconclusive ending of Roy’s story, harsh and telling of the intent of the director, is so tender in its portrayal that it is almost unfair to dismiss it merely as a cautionary tale for other lovers. Having shared his story with the world, one might assume that Roy is left with nothing to hold on to. But he does. In an oppressive afternoon, when looking at nowhere in particular, memory of that day will come to back him when for a brief while he was convinced that he could fly. It will, even if he never finds his way back to the village or meets the girl again, even if he avoids talking about her with his friends, and even when he will set aside all mention of her, gently enduring all probing with a smile that would say, “bakita byakigoto“. The stinging longing will be all the love that he will have. Away from public glare, that will be utterly his own.
Posited at a time where to be seen in love is considered necessary to be in love, Bhattacharyya challenges this optics by advocating that love, at its core, resists articulation or demonstration. But I suspect the film is also implying that even when one tries to, there will always remain something or someone unnoted simply because each falls in love and gets up (or does not) in their own way. It is difficult, humiliating, defeating and eventually impossible to put into words why there are certain names we don’t take in a conversation but utter in private to remember how they still sound from our mouth, why some still keep the other side of the bed empty every night or carefully nurture a heartbreak and treat it as the only remnant of the love that there was. Baakita Byaktigoto reflects on how the feeling of love might be universal but its experiences and experiencing it are unique. It also reminds that one might lose lovers but not necessarily the love they shared, even if there is no picture.
[This article is originally published in The Indian Express]