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A published poet, former economics professor and multiple prize-winning director in his native India, Buddhadeb Dasgupta is also a seven-time veteran of the Toronto International Film Festival. Sensual and surreal in style, his latest TIFF world premiere is The Bait, a lush literary adaptation which initially feels like an escapist fairy tale but which later sharpens into a disquieting allegory about class, wealth and inequality.
More Fellini-esque than Bollywood, Dasgupta’s heavily stylized brand of “extended realism” may prove a little overcooked for non-Indian audiences. Heading to London Film Festival after Toronto, The Bait will likely do its best overseas business in cities with large South Asian populations. But even for outsiders like myself, who will miss most of the cultural nuances, this rich masala of comedy, drama and visual poetry is still a generally rewarding experience.
Deep in the wilds of rural Bengal, eccentric faded aristocrat Raja (Sudipto Chaterjee) is living in palatial splendor with his voluptuous mistress Rekha (Ananya Chatterjee). But their relationship is clearly doomed. While he dances to crackly old songs played on a vintage vinyl turntable, she dreams of swimming off to faraway lands with mysterious strangers. Both appear stranded in antique fantasy versions of India, so it comes as a mild shock when a modern film crew arrive from Kolkata with their laptops and digital cameras, enlisting Raja to help them track down a tiger for a documentary project.
Meanwhile, not far away, former postman Goja (Chandan Roy Sanyal) has seemingly lost his mind and reinvented himself as a tree-dwelling soothsayer, gleaning sufficient clues from stolen mail to offer plausible-sounding prophecies to his gullible customers. And Munni (Kajal Kumari) is a pre-teen nomad girl who earns a meager living for her impoverished lower-caste parents with her dazzling public displays of tightrope walking. All these narrative threads initially unfold separately, then cross and intertwine.
The Bait is based on a macabre short story by Narayan Bandyopadhyay, which Dasgupta first earmarked for adaptation over a decade ago, but which initially proved too blunt and spare for his maximalist magic-realist style. The film retains Bandyopadhyay’s shock final twist, which crystallizes one of many possible meanings of the title, but also fleshes out his blueprint text with extra characters and subplots.
Some of these additional elements are little more than distracting whimsy, especially Goja’s clownish tree-climbing antics. The film’s florid poetic language and ripe folklore elements also feel excessively mannered at times, while the cruel finale is filmed so fleetingly and elliptically that it softens any dramatic punch it could have had.
But once you surrender to its loopy rhythms and heightened style, The Bait emerges as a sumptuously surreal melodrama with pleasing echoes of Fellini, Jodorowksy or Apichatpong Weerasethakul. In purely sensory terms, Dasgupta is clearly a maestro, serving up an audio-visual banquet of ravishing images, evocative music and hallucinatory sound design. Even when the story rambles and the characters grate, there is hardly a frame here that does not seduce the eyes or ears. An acquired taste, sure, but a taste worth acquiring.
Production company: Ava Film Productions Pvt. Ltd.
Cast: Sudipto Chatterjee, Kajal Kumari, Ananya Chatterjee, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Paoli Dam
Director, screenwriter: Buddhadeb Dasgupta
Producer: Pawan Kanodia
Cinematographer: Asim Bose
Editor: Amitava Dasgupta
Music: Alokananda Dasgupta
Sales company: Ava Film Productions, email@example.com
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Masters)
No rating, 88 minutes
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