UC Berkeley alumnus Bishal Dutta talks Cannes-premiering short film ‘Life in Color’

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Name: Bishal Dutta

Age: 21

Who he is: A Sam Raimi stan and recent graduate who missed UC Berkeley’s film and media commencement ceremony to screen his short film, “Life in Color,” at the Cannes Film Festival.

Hometown: There have been several. “I was born in India, and then I lived in Canada for a while, and kind of all over the states,” Dutta said. “I’m just all over the world.”

Current residence: North Berkeley, but not for long — he’s moving back to Los Angeles to work on a sci-fi drama.

What he’s been watching: At Cannes, Dutta saw Jia Zhangke’s latest, “Ash Is Purest White,” a gangster-genre synthesis of Jia’s previous works. Though Dutta saw some lulled to sleep by the film, he praised Jia’s sincerity. He was more effusive about Matteo Garrone’s gritty drama “Dogman,” calling it one of the best uses of Steadicam he’s seen in a while.

On the plane home, he rewatched “Deadpool” and caught up on “I, Tonya” and the Donnie Yen crime flick “Chasing the Dragon.” He started Claire Denis’ latest, “Let the Sunshine In,” but will have to finish it later — “The first scene was a sex scene; I was like ‘Nope this isn’t happening on a plane,’ so I didn’t get to see that.”

His voice: “Wow, it was a circus, man,” Dutta says of Cannes, a place where cinema is celebrated, as much as it’s made. “They’re all like worker bees. It’s just like ‘work, work, work’ — people are networking.”

Dutta said he tried his hand at the pitch-marathon that Cannes often becomes for filmmakers, but he says that he’d rather be himself and make genuine connections. I can’t imagine that being difficult for Dutta, who enthuses over Andrei Tarkovsky and the “The Conjuring” in equal measure and with an affable ease.

For Dutta, enjoying Cannes as a cinephile became more important than its competitiveness. “I got to go to a few really good conferences — one of them was entirely about Hollywood in the era of #MeToo,” he said, praising the movement’s palpable presence in Cannes. “It was great to see (#MeToo) being treated as such, as just a fundamental part of the way the industry is changing,” Dutta added.

I ask about “Life in Color,” specifically. The film screened as part of The American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmaker LGBTQ Showcase, where it competed against seven other films. Although Dutta’s film didn’t win, I get the sense that he feels motivated, more than anything else.

“Now you can see what you can do, and what is expected of you. And what’s expected of you isn’t to be great, it’s just to be a truthful filmmaker — to be someone who has something to say, and who contributes something to someone,” Dutta said.

We talk about how films need to mean something, admitting that this belief is likely a product of having taken classes within UC Berkeley’s film department, which is notable for emphasizing theory over practice. Though we hadn’t spoken to each other before meeting for this interview, we had just finished taking Emily Carpenter’s sci-fi course, where academics such as Donna Haraway and Julia Kristeva often loomed larger than Steven Spielberg or John Carpenter.

“Film is a language right? … You learn all this language, but then you have to have something to talk about,” he said.

“Life in Color” talks about a closeted gay man with Alzheimer’s —  a story that doesn’t get told too often. “When people argue that film is dying and it’s stale, it’s so irritating,” Dutta said. “Because specifically in the context of the American cinema … there’s a whole other side of America that people just don’t make films about.”

If representation is Dutta’s goal, then cinematic immersion is his means. I mention shots from “Life in Color” that reminded me of “Moonlight” — a beach swathed in blue, an outburst that’s rendered louder by the absence of diegetic sound, shifts in the camera’s focus; they’re all uses of film form that viscerally engage the viewer, eliciting empathy through the grammar of the camera.

It turns out that we’ve both met “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins before. I tell Dutta that one of my first pieces at The Daily Californian was an interview with him, while Dutta recalls meeting him at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival. “I just said, ‘Thank you for making “Moonlight” because I stole everything from you for my movie,’ ” Dutta said of their brief encounter.

“You have various approaches that you can take to telling the story. But my personal favorite of all the approaches is just immerse the audience in that perspective. That’s what “Moonlight” did,” he added. We’re both over the moon that Jenkins’ next film is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

A discussion of “Moonlight” quickly led to “Speed Racer” (“It’s worth a rewatch”) and finally to “Spider-Man 2.” “I think it’s an unqualified masterpiece,” Dutta gushes. “All right, I’m gonna do this,” he says, acknowledging that we’re going down a well-trod rabbit hole.

In one scene, cantankerous newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons) has Spider-Man’s (Tobey Maguire) suit pinned to a wall as a trophy. Suddenly, we hear the off-screen swish of a web, and the camera turns to the wall — off-screen, the web-head has reclaimed his suit to save the day once again.

“In no physical setting does that make sense. But it doesn’t have to,” Dutta says. “I love that. I love the confidence in the filmmaking to say, ‘Yeah, we don’t need realism because cinema allows us to do better things.’ ”

This just might be Dutta’s M.O. His preference for leveraging film form to heighten the viewer’s senses — something he uses in “Life in Color” — signals a favoring of the subjective, rather than the objective; anything but mimesis.

There’s a validity to this. Most of us love film for its insistence on checking reality at the door. Perhaps Dutta says it best:

“If there’s any magic left, it’s in the movies.”

Contact Harrison Tunggal at [email protected].