With a touch so light it could be a children’s film, though its deeper message is aimed at adults, Bengali filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s The Flight (Urojahaj) describes the mad dream of a simple man to fly the rusted shell of a downed World War II Japanese fighter plane that he finds in the forest. The plane bewitches this simple man and he forsakes his wife and child to pursue the pipe dream of piloting it. Matching classical Indian philosophy and ambience with a European feeling for individualism and magical realism, the pic is a pleasant enough watch, but its target audience is a bit indistinct.
It’s certainly a far cry from the barbarism and stark violence of Dasgupta’s well-known The Wrestlers (Uttara), which won him best director kudos in Venice in 2000. Here, the violence lies within the hearts of people who can’t say no to their futile, dangerous desires, even though they are destroying their happiness. The Indians have been preaching the folly of being attached to worldly things for thousands of years, but evidently the lesson has not yet sunk in.
A gentle parable about dreams versus happiness.
Yet there is a basic ambiguity in the film about whether the right thing to do is to follow your crazy dreams whatever the cost or stick to the time-worn recipe for happiness of house and home, wife and kids. While the ending of the tale seems to favor the former, there is space to consider that the latter provides truer, more lasting joy.
In a rural Bengali village soaked with tradition, Bachchu (Chandan Roy Sanyal) lives a happy, carefree existence with his loving young wife and bright school-age son. He’s shown as a little simple-minded, like when he joyfully chases passing airplanes like a small child or stops to help an artist paint a roadside shrine for the sheer fun of it. But he’s lucid enough to tell his son to study and not grow up to be a laborer like he is.
Bachchu is prized as a car mechanic, but he often cuts work to be with his wife. Tender scenes of them lying in bed show how they’re still very much in love. In a Chagall-like tableau, we see them sleeping entwined in each other’s arms while the walls of their simple house magically fall away to reveal a sparkling beach.
There is more mystery in the forest. The appearance of strange costumed dancers brings the first hint of the supernatural into Bachchu’s world. Then another group of dancing forest spirits follows him curiously to watch what happens when he comes upon the old airplane covered with leaves. He can’t resist its allure. First he scrubs and paints it, then yearns to fit it with an engine and fly it. When he shows it to his wife, she looks amazed; when his boss at the garage sees it, he laughs in disbelief. A plane engine is expensive, he says, but Bachchu quickly retorts that he will sell his house — even if it means putting his wife and son out on the streets.
As he works obsessively on the plane, the forest spirits warn him not to go overboard. One man tells him not to ignore his wife, the way he did: She eventually found consolation in the arms of another man and he hanged himself. Another spirit tells him about his obsession with eating rice and when there was none, he killed his wife, child and himself in a fit of rage. Yet another girl describes her inability, while alive, to open her heart to anyone; she withered away in loneliness. Unfortunately, none of their hard-learned wisdom curbs Bachchu’s infatuation with the airplane and he continues on his collision course with destiny.
In the last part of the film, he gets entangled with some serious dream-busters: the police. First they remind him the plane is government property, like everything else in India. Then they arrest him for wanting to fly a war plane and drop bombs on people. His dream of restoring the plane for peaceful flights, a “song of the sky,” crashes against the brick wall of heartless authority.
Dasgupta skillfully keeps the tone light through the final tragic scene, but it is a dissatisfying, dark ending to such a sweet story, which could easily have taken a turn for the better. Following the path of Western individualism, the Bachchu character remains gloriously true to his impossible dream and everybody suffers.
Production company: Buddhadeb Dasgupta Productions
Cast: Chandan Roy Sanyal, Parno Mitra, Sudipto Chatterjee
Director-screenwriter-producer: Buddhadeb Dasgupta
Executive producer: Swapan Kumar Ghosh
Director of photography: Asim Bose
Production designer: Ananda Addhya
Editor: Amitava Dasgupta
Music: Alokananda Dasgupta
Venue: MAMI Mumbai Film Festival (Spotlight section)
World sales: Auteur Film and Production