Uttara, 2000

Ostensibly an allegorical, cautionary tale on religious fundamentalism, Uttara is also a bracing and incisive examination of the provincialism, anachronism, moral and social quandary, and inherent contradictions that continue to shape contemporary Indian culture. Composed of seemingly unrelated narrative threads – a pair of bored, train crossing signal operators, Nemal (Tapas Pal) and Balaram (Shankar Chakraborty), who bide their time honing their wrestling skills, a Christian missionary (R.I. Asad) who dispenses food at a rural village ravaged by poverty in exchange for converting desperate (and undernourished) souls, an ancient parade of ceremonial masks conducted by dwarves, and a band of Hindu zealots cutting a swath of intimidation and chaos across the landscape as they drive through the countryside in an off-road utility vehicle – the paths fatefully intersect through the titular heroine, Uttara (Jaya Seal), a peasant woman from a distant village who is foisted in marriage to the reluctant Balaram by his dotty, but well intentioned aunt.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the film lies in the Felliniesque sequences of dwarves wearing pagan masks as they perform a ritual dance throughout the isolated village. Like Tsitsi Dangrembga’s subsequent short film, Mother’s Day (in which a group of dancers in the form of subterranean insects emerge to the surface in order carry a corpse back into their lair for a proper burial), the seemingly pantheistic ancient rite of passage evokes, not only a sense of duty to tribal customs, but also represents a closeness to the earth – an instinctual connection to roots – that has become increasingly sublimated in an environment of self-interest, vanity, aimlessness, and petty competition. It is this contrasted, parallel image of reverence for the cycle of nature that inevitably renders Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s vision of modern-day India such a complex, provocative, and tragic one: a culture profoundly eroded by colonialism, impoverished by an ingrained sense of western dependency (a dependency that is now cultivated in missionary work and in delusive notions of osmotic Anglicization by migrating to America), disconnected from its heritage and indigenous history, subjugated by social hypocrisy, and terrorized by the inhumanity of blind extremism.

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