Ritwik Ghatak: A Crusader Of The Rootless
Ghatak’s films, remarkable for their lacerating quality and heightened form of realism are almost at loggerheads with Satyajit Ray’s lyricism.
“Art for art’s sake” – Ritwik Ghatak did not believe in this. For this master filmmaker, art was a mission, an exploration of the degeneration of society. His films, therefore, carried the stamp of his own hurt and indignation at being uprooted from his flourishing native land in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) only to be thrown into the vortex of teeming refugee settlements, unemployment and hunger in Calcutta.
Ghatak’s journey was one never ending struggle against a system that did not understand him or his need to make his kind of films. When he died on February 6, 1976, consumed by alcoholism, defeated but not broken, he was still struggling to find funds for his last project Jukti, Takko Ar Gappo (1974), which remains incomplete.
Born in Dhaka in Novemeber 4, 1925, Ghatak spent his childhood and adolescence in riverine East Bengal, amidst the lush green picturesque landscape of River Padma, till the Partition of 1947 tore him away to Calcutta. “So many sounds, so many pictures, so much emotion,” he often recalled, and those impressions found footage in his films.
His sense of betrayal and disgust at the imposed political decision that had dissected his beloved Bengal gained intensity in the following years when its aftermath became evident in the socio-economic decline of Bengal and the bloody birth of Bangladesh.
Like many others of his age, influenced by the Second World War, the Bengal Famine and Partition, Ghatak became a Marxist. He plunged into the Bengali unit of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and wrote a number of plays including Sukumar Rays’ Ha-ja-ba-ra-la. After assisting director Nemai Ghosh in Chinnamul (The Uprooted) (1951) – the first Bengali film to project the terrible consequences of Partition, Ghatak made his maiden film Nagarik (The Citizen) (1952).
Nagarik, like all other 8 feature films, was written and directed by Ghatak himself. It spoke of the angst of a young refugee Ramu’s (Satindra Bhattacharya) vain struggle to find a job in Calcutta and the gradual pauperization of his displaced family and also that of his beloved Uma, who with her sister and mother is similarly caught in a vortex of despair, humiliation and poverty. Though technically weak and melodramatic, the film bore the imprint of his life-long obsession with the despair of the rootless. But the film did not see release in Ghatak’s lifetime, reaching the theatres 25 years after its making. In fact, all of his films, bar one, failed at the box office, forcing his celebrated contemporary Satyajit Ray to comment, “He (Ghatak) had the misfortune to be largely ignored by the Bengali film public in his lifetime.”
Ajantrik (1958), Ghatak’s second film was an off-beat comedy, way ahead of its time for sheer originality of theme – the director’s alarm at the serious threat posed by the industrialization to the socio-cultural identity of tribals. The film traces the relationship between a ramshackle car and its owner-driver who invests it with a human personality and showers love on it. But nothing can stop the decadence from setting in and one day the car ultimately ends up in the junkyard. Reflected in the mangled heap of metal is the ultimate end of identities in the industrial age, be it man or machine, warns the director.
Ghatak’s anguish at the collapse of values in the modern, fractured society is perhaps best captured in Meghe Dhaka Tara মেঘে ঢাকা তারা (The Cloud-Capped Star) (1960), based on a novel by Shaktipada Rajguru which to this day remains one of the high points of Indian neo-realist cinema and Ghatak’s greatest commercial success at home. Sketching the tragic disintegration of a refugee family, Ghatak probes into the losing battle of morals, ideals and conscience against deprivation. Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the eldest daughter of the family, drives herself to almost self-annihilation to feed her parasitical family that is intent on sucking out her last drop under the burden of conflicts and unfulfilled needs.
The cry “Dada, ami baachte chai” (দাদা, আমি বাঁচতে চাই।) (“Brother, I want to live”) resounds across the hills as Neeta’s voice echoes her heartrending need for dignity and survival, and the impact stays with the viewer long after the film has ended. A recent survey by a leading Indian news group reported that this concluding line of Meghe Dhaka Tara, was the most well-known line of any film.
Melodrama, in this film, is dexterously used to heighten the effect of a situation. To portray the intensity of the mood, Ghatak uses sound effects, and surrealistic sound in a most unusual fashion and rich doses of classical music that perfectly align with the time of the scene, such as a morning raga in the opening morning scene, a signature tune that reflect the emotions of Neeta and the resounding strums of the veena portraying the anguish of Neeta as she slowly climbs down the stairs after discovering that her younger sister is romancing her fiance.
In a masterly application of Tagore song “Je rate more dooar guli bhanglo jhoDe” যে রাতে মোর দুয়ারগুলি ভাঙল ঝড়ে (the night my doors gave way to the rage of the storm) sung by Neeta’s unemployed singer brother (Anil Chatterjee) on a stormy night, Ghatak draws out the emotional turmoil within Neeta and the crippling helplessness of her brother. “I cannot speak without Tagore,” Ghatak had said in an interview just before his death. “That man has culled all my feelings long before my birth. He has understood what I am and he has put in all the words.”
Je Raate Mor Dooar Guli
Singers: Debabrata Biswas, Geeta Ghatak
Impatient for exploring new techniques and idioms, Ghatak broke the confines of conventional technique and form in Komal Gandhar (1961), the second of his three most successive films on Partition. On the surface the film recounts the trials and tribulation of the new theater movement in Bengal. But alongside it interpolates ancient Sanskrit literature characters to integrate tradition with modernity and imposes over it the familiar despair of Partition. If the heroine is the prototype of Shakuntala, the hero is a mirror image of Ghatak himself, rebellious at being uprooted, seeking refuge in theatre and art.
But perhaps the most graphic, no frills account of Partition is Ghatak’s Subarnarekha (1962), a landmark film in Indian Cinema. The Bengali ethos is at the core, yet the appeal is universal. According to Ghatak, the problem of homelessness is no longer confined to the refugees of the Partition. “I extended it further as an important concept very apt for the modern man, uprooted from his traditional moorings. The geographical sphere is thus merged in to a wider generality,” he had said.
Subarnarekha (Bengali Full Movie)
Through all the three films on Partition, runs a note of Ghatak’s nostalgia with his idyllic past. When eventually he did return to his native land to shoot Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Named Titas) in 1973, after a long layoff, he found that memories of his past had been usurped by a new, unfamiliar Bangladesh. Stricken by ill-health, disillusioned by the harsh present day realities, Ghatak had remarked. “The film is a commemoration of the past I left long ago…When I was making the film, it occurred to me that nothing of the past survives today, nothing can survive.”
Isn’t it queer irony that Ghatak, who remained unsung, perpetual struggler during his entire lifetime today enjoys a cult following both at home and abroad. His films are acclaimed as torchbearers of the new wave and are avidly studied by film aficionados all around the world. His brief stint as Vice Principal of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, gave rise to a new breed of individualistic filmmakers such as Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani.
Ghatak’s films, remarkable for their lacerating quality and heightened form of realism are almost at loggerheads with Satyajit Ray’s lyricism. Yet what can be a more fitting tribute to Ghatak’s genius than Ray’s own words in the foreword to Cinema and I (a collection of Ghatak’s selected writings): “Ritwik was one of the few truly original talents in the cinema this country has produced. Nearly all his films are marked by an intensity of feeling coupled with an imaginative grasp of the technique of filmmaking. As a creator of powerful images in an epic style, he was virtually unsurpassed in Indian Cinema.”
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