It is one of life’s greatest ironies that Ritwik Ghatak who is today something of a cult figure in Bengal was so little understood and appreciated during his lifetime. Despite the fact that today his films have won much critical acclaim, the fact remains that in their time they ran to mainly empty houses in Bengal. Ghatak’s films project a unique
sensibility. They are often brilliant, but almost always flawed.
Born in Dhaka (now in Bangladesh), the partition of Bengal and the subsequent division of a culture was something that haunted Ghatak forever. Joining the left-wing Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), he used to work for a few years as a playwright, actor and director. When IPTA split into factions, Ghatak turned to filmmaking.
By and large Ghatak’s films revolve around two central themes: the experience of being uprooted from the idyllic rural milieu of East Bengal and the cultural trauma of the partition of 1947. His first film, Nagarik (1952) weaved the oppressive tale of a young man, his futile search for a job and the erosion of his optimism and idealism as his family sinks into abject poverty and his love affair too turns sour. Ghatak then accepted a job with Filmistan Studio in Bombay but his ‘different’ ideas did not go down well there. He did however write the scripts of Musafir (1957) and Madhumati (1958) for Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Bimal Roy respectively, the latter becoming an all time evergreen hit.
After this brief stint followed by his comeback to his good old Calcutta, he made Ajantrik (1958) about a taxi driver in a small town in Bihar and his vehicle, an old Chevrolet jalopy. An assortment of passengers gives the film a wider frame of reference and provided situations of drama, humor and irony.
However, his “magnum opus” happens to be none other than Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), the first film in a trilogy, examining the socio-economic implications of partition. The protagonist Nita (played by Supriya Chowdhury) is the breadwinner in a refugee family of five. Everyone exploits her and the strain proves too much. She succumbs to
tuberculosis. In an unforgettable moment, the dying Nita cries out “I want to live…”, while the camera pans across the mountains, thereby accentuating the indifference and eternity of nature even as the echo reverberates over the shot.
Complexities notwithstanding, Meghe Dhaka Tara reaches out to the audience with its directness, its simplicity, and its unique stylistic use of melodrama. Melodrama as a legitimate dramatic form has continued to play a vital role in rural Indian theatre and folk dramatic forms. Ghatak goes back to these roots in his presentation of a familiar struggle for survival, which has lost its dramatic force and pathos through repetition in real life.
In Meghe Dhaka Tara, day-to-day events transform into high drama: Nita’s tormented romance is intensified with the harsh sweep of the whiplash on the soundtrack; Shankar’s song of faith in a moment of despair reaches the height of emotional surrender with Nita’s voice joining his and Nita’s urge to live becomes a universal sound of affirmation reverberating in Nature, amidst the distant peaks of the Himalayas.
The three principal women characters in this film embody the traditional aspects of feminine power. The heroine, Nita, has the preserving and nurturing quality; her sister, Gita, is the sensual woman; their mother represents the cruel aspect. The incapacity of Nita to combine and contain all these qualities is the imminent source of her tragedy.
Besides, here Ghatak tries to delve deep into our roots and traditions and discover a universal dimension within it. And for the first time, he says he experimented with the techniques of overtones. In the film, Ghatak succeeds in achieving a grand totality through an intricate but harmonious blending of each part with the whole in the inner
fabric of the film. Meghe Dhaka Tara transcends into a great work of art that enriches and transforms the visual images into metamorphic significations…
The music in the film perfectly intermingles with the visuals, none dislodging the other be it a remarkable orchestration of a hill motif with a female moaning or a staccato cough with a surging song.
Here, it would be relevant to mention that Ghatak weaves a parallel narrative evoking the celebrated Bengali legends of Durga who is believed to descend from her mountain retreat every autumn to visit her parents and that of Menaka. This double focus, condensed in the figure of Neeta, is rendered yet more complex on the level of the
film language itself through elaborate, at times non-diegetic sound effects working alongside or as commentaries on the image ( e.g. the refrain Ai go Uma kole loi, i.e. Come to my arms, Uma, my child, used through the latter part of the film, esp. on the face of the rain-drenched Neeta shortly before her departure to the sanatorium).
This approach allows the film to transcend its story by opening it our towards the realm of myth and to the conventions of cinematic realism (e.g. evoked in the Calcutta sequences).
“Meghe Dhaka Tara” was followed with Komal Gandhar (1961), concerning two rival touring theatre companies in Bengal and Subarnarekha (1965). The last is a strangely disturbing film using melodrama and coincidence as a form rather than
His next film, Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (1973), done for a young Bangladesh producer happens to be focusing on the life and eventual disintegration of a fishing community on the Titash. However, this epic saga was completed after many problems at the shooting stage including his collapse due to tuberculosis and was a commercial failure.
Notably, Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974), the most autobiographical and allegorical
of his films, was made just before his untimely demise. Here, he himself played the main role of Nilkanta, an alcoholic intellectual. The film has been spoken about in critique circle for Ghatak’s stunning use of the wide-angle lens to most potent effect.
Unfortunately for Ghatak, his films were largely unsuccessful. Many remaining unreleased for years, he abandoned almost as many projects as he completed. Ultimately the intensity of his passion, which gave his films their power and emotion, took their toll on him, as did tuberculosis and alcoholism. However he has left behind a limited, but
subtly rich and intricate body of work that no serious scholar of Indian Cinema can dare ignore.