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Ritwik Ghatak’s Soul-searching Cinema

Lakshmi Pradeep ( heads the Department of Journalism at Farook College, Kerala. Her areas of interest are film theory, new media and its social implications, and women’s issues.

Ritwik Ghatak’s storytelling was full of the kind of merciless truth and honesty that society expects from artists, but is never quite willing or ready to receive.

Two months ago, film archivist S M M Ausaja discovered a tattered suitcase belonging to Pandit Ravi Shankar while looking for vintage posters at a scrap shop in Mumbai. It contained a treasure trove of the musician’s notes, rare photographs, handwritten musical notation, and, curiously, a handwritten poem by film-maker Ritwik Ghatak. Nobody knows if Ghatak had written it for a film, wanting the sitarist to set it to tune, or if it was more personal. Either way, it is a priceless discovery. Perhaps, this gives us an inkling of the treasure trove of the works of this erratic genius, which lie incomplete, scattered, and not understood by the vast majority. Passionate, wildly talented, and an alcoholic, the enfant terrible of Indian cinema remains an enigma for many. Ghatak’s films were ignored by the public in his lifetime, and he became visible and celebrated only posthumously.

Ghatak’s career was one of constant struggle against a public that (in Satyajit Ray’s words) “largely ignored” his films, a struggle against a society that had lost its way, and against a national cinema whose conventions he broke time and again. He spent his career in the shadow of Satyajit Ray, struggling to finance and complete the few films that he made, continuously wrestling various personal and political demons. He never managed to produce a box office hit. He alienated friends, political comrades, and business connections. He left major projects unfinished and bartered film rights for alcohol. His life was in a shambles.

However, Ghatak’s relative obscurity cannot be attributed solely to his personal shortcomings. His films reflect an intense political awareness and are discomfiting—intentionally so—to the complacent upper-middle class, who constitute the bulk of the traditional audience for international art cinema. Film critic Adrian Martin has remarked, rather poetically, that Ghatak is the spirit that haunts world cinema with his seismographic rendering of trauma. Uprooted from what was East Bengal, the land of his birth, Ghatak never forgave the world for turning him into an eternal refugee. He presented the partition of Bengal in 1947 as independent India’s “Original Sin,” and his criticism of M K Gandhi over this issue ruffled several feathers and almost cost him the Padma Shri in 1970.

His radical critique of family life was ahead of his times, and therefore not welcome. With startling frankness, both Nagarik (1977) and Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) expose the financial underpinnings of domestic love and loyalty. Moreover, Ghatak’s tinkering with the idiom made his films ragged—intensely personal yet epic in shape, scope, and aspirations. Viewing Ghatak is an edgy, intimate experience, an engagement with a brilliantly erratic intelligence. He took parallel cinema into uncharted territory. Engaging with his work can be invigorating, but it is never comfortable.

Ironically, it is precisely these qualities, once considered uncouth by cultural gatekeepers, that may end up attracting a new generation of filmgoers to Ghatak: his use of melodrama, anti-naturalistic sound, eccentric focal techniques, innovative cuts, and unique camera angles. His politics too is due for a revisit. Now that the bogeyman of actually existing socialism is not common worldwide, viewers may find it easier to understand the communism of men like Ghatak for what it was—not a veiled sympathy for totalitarianism, but a utopian idealism rooted in a furious rejection of capitalism’s destructive tendencies. Indeed, people raised in a world where cataclysmic mass migrations, social inequality, and ethnic cleansing are fast becoming the norm, will find resonance in Ghatak’s preoccupation with partition and its terrible aftermath. His contemporary relevance stems from his commitment to speaking truth to power in exploring this agony and poverty. Ghatak’s films are set against the backdrop of political and socio-economic turmoil in post-independence Bengal, which might have lessons to offer us in the face of the contemporary refugee issue. Migration (and its implications) has been a ­recurring theme in most of his films, with Meghe Dhaka Tara, Nagarik, Komal Gandhar (1961), and Subarnarekha (1965)—his Partition Quartet—directly addressing the lifeworlds of Bengali refugees. Deeply influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, who believed, “Art has to be beautiful, but before that it has to be truthful,” his films were a vehicle to share his own private truth, blatantly exposing his most personal complexes.

In Ghatak, there was a clash of opposing characteristics. On the one hand, he was a spiritualist, with his feet planted firmly in Indian scriptures, yet he was a Marxist by political conviction. As Partha Chatterjee said,

You were either singed by the fire of his genius, overwhelmed by his passionate humanism and touched by his childlike simplicity or simply repulsed by his arrogant manners, crass speech and melodramatic posturing of a prophet. Either way you had to react to the mesmeric quality of the man and his films.

Unlike the realism of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, it is ­expressionism that shaped Ghatak’s articulation of emotion, with the musicality of melodrama structuring his narratives and plumbing depths of our experience.

Ghatak completed only eight feature films and 10 short films, each representing a landmark achievement in the history of Indian cinema, reflecting the social reality of a nation trying to reinvent its identity in the aftermath of British colonial rule and partition, and representing the melodrama of everyday life. The emotionally haunting and ambitious Meghe Dhaka Tara tells the story of Neeta, a woman who sacrifices her life to rebuild her family shattered by the effects of the partition. The film opens with a wide-angle image of a huge tree, from below which Neeta emerges. Two dominant images are associated with her throughout the film: trees and water, both Hindu symbols of fertility and creation. In this film, Ghatak powerfully critiques a culture that venerates the goddess, but is so cruel to its women. All his films portray strong female characters, subtly hinting at the universal mother or mother Bengal. Komal Gandhar was rich with mythology and marriage songs. Ghatak attributed these songs of union to his desire to see a united Bengal. Subarnarekha, a story of fateful coincidences, was melodramatic. In it, the male protagonist Ishwar discovers his sister Sita in a brothel, which he visits as a customer. Ghatak compares the broken and worn-out look of divided Bengal to Sita’s fate at the brothel.

In his last film, the semi-autobiographical Jukti Takko Aar Gaapo (1974), Ghatak played Neelkantha, an alcoholic intellectual, bringing out his frustration poignantly in the climax. Dying in the midst of a crossfire, Neelkantha says, “One must do something,” quoting directly from a short story by Bengali author Manik Bandopadhyay, in which a weaver, unable to find the resources, spins an empty loom to keep doing something. This intensely intimate final film remains a fitting epitaph to a rebel who tried to defy all conventions in both life and art.


Updated On : 1st Dec, 2019


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