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Satyajit, Ritwik – and the Renegade ‘Father’ Figure

April 25, 2022 | By

In a brief critique, Silhouette editor Amitava Nag looks at how Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak with their different socio-psychological conditionings deal with the ‘father’ figure in their very last film.

It is with Manmohan, the elderly protagonist of Agantuk that Ray introduces a ‘father figure’

The cultural root of Bengal has a significant departure from the rest of India. The influence of Tantric mores and the impact of indigenous tribal practices ensure that importance is ascribed to the role of women and the fact that mother goddesses dominate Bengali culture. How much that may be attributed to the Proto-Australoid origin instead of the Nordic Aryan one is debatable. However, if the rest of India worships Rama, Ganesha, Shiva or Hanuman, Bengalis for centuries pay their highest respect to Durga, Kali, Saraswati and even Lakshmi in domestic spaces ahead of Ganesha.

It is during the Pala rule (roughly 8th to 12th century) that the famed Mymensigh Geetika, a collection of folk ballads, was written. It is to be noted that the ballads depict stories of common human beings, not that of gods, kings or the rich as did the earlier Sanskrit plays. Significantly, the majority of the ballads were named after their heroines, Behula, Mahua, Chandravati, Kamala, etc. These ballads have a unique mix of portraying woman as mother (and hence nurturer) as well as woman as lover (aware of her preferences and likings). If the latter has been a cornerstone of strong women characters in later day literature of Rabindranath Tagore and the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, the former is the source of Ritwik Ghatak’s much famed ‘Mother Archetype’ in several of his films.

Rabindranath Tagore himself was heavily inspired by the Upanishad where God was always the father – “Om Pita Nohsi”. He wrote songs upholding the father figure — “Tumi amader Pita, Tomay Pita bole jeno jani, Tomay noto hoye jeno mani” (You are our father, Let us know you so, Let us bow to you ever). In his prose, in quoting from Upanishad, Tagore explains, “The father has the affection of the mother. But he is not seen as very affectionate because he is not bound by narrow boundaries.” This idea of the ‘father’ disposes Tagore from inclining towards a ‘mother’ cult in his literature.

Charulata: The Lonely Wife

With his Brahmo uprising, Satyajit Ray subscribed to similar sentiments because of which he had strong women characters in CharulataMahanagarPratidwandi, as well as important mother roles in the Apu Trilogy and Kanchenjungha but none attuned to the mythical, primordial ‘mother’.

Chhabi Biswas in Devi

Chhabi Biswas in Devi

The closest approximation of such is in Devi where Ray’s philosophy towards derision of traditional Hindu customs steeped in superstition is not concealed. Yet, most of Ray’s cinema, apart from a few like Mahanagar, Devi or  Kanchenjungha, is also conspicuous by the absence of an impactful father figure.

Ritwik Ghatak, on the other hand, was torn between his obsession with Tagore (primarily his songs) and his fascination for the ‘mother’ cult. Interesting enough, in Ghatak’s case as well, the father is marginalised, incapacitated, ineffective. Both Ray and Ghatak, different in their mental makeup and film aesthetics, were similar in one aspect. Both never wished to explore a ‘father’ archetype in their films. It is hence, important to observe, what may have lured them to seek refuge in a sort of a ‘father’ figure in their respective last films.

Satyajit’s traditional hero, inspired by his creator’s vision, has always followed the arrow in his eyes. He is a chaser of truth, an explorer of the avant-garde. That is why, the hero is mostly a wanderer – through spaces, in time, across values. From Apu in the Apu Trilogy to Amal in Charulata and Amulya in Samapti, onto the urban heroes of Aranyer Din Ratri and the three films of the Calcutta Trilogy, all move away from the traditional in pursuit of the modern. All of them (except Siddhartha in Pratidwandi) also move away from the rural to settle in or return to the urban space. It is with Manmohan, the elderly protagonist of Agantuk that Ray introduces a ‘father figure’, albeit childless, who has already travelled the world. Manmohan is à la mode who is in search of the primitive. In one of the climactic exchanges, he laments that he can’t be a ‘tribal’; however, he behaves like one, since from his childhood, his perceptions and vision are shaped by the writings of Tagore, Bankim Chandra, Vidyasagar and the other beacons of the hailed Bengali Renaissance. His niece and her husband don’t put much faith in his authenticity as the estranged uncle. Manmohan, claustrophobic in an environment seeping with disbelief and mistrust spins off to a tribal village near Santiniketan, Tagore’s abode, only to return to Kolkata en route vagabonding about the world again.

Ritwik Ghatak

Ritwik Ghatak in Jukti, Takko aar Gappo

In Jukti, Takko aar Gappo, Neelkantha, the middle-aged derelict (played by Ghatak himself) leans on a young man and a woman, both migrants from their homes, like him. Unlike Manmohan, Neelkantha has full faith in the younger generation, attenuated in his debate with the Naxalite leaders in a forest in the later part of the film. But like Manmohan, he also must leave the big city since the answer to existence and sanity lies elsewhere, away from the centre. Neelkantha and his followers meet Chhau exponent Panchanan who tells them how the ancient art form perishes due to the highhandedness of the urban rich. The masks are no longer used for performance. They are mere artifacts for decorating the rich middle-class’s showy interiors.

Manmohan and Neelkantha are misfits, both must vacate the rural as well as the urban spaces. In his explanation of the Upanishad, Tagore writes, “The attainment of the father is that he gives sorrow.” What the ‘father’ also does, he takes the bullet on behalf of the rest. That confuses him and often makes him a renegade. Neither Ray nor Ghatak left a proper inheritance of their cinematic legacies. Ritwik’s Neelkantha is the other side of Ray’s Manmohan. Satyajit, is the lurking shadow of Ritwik.

More to read

[email protected] Lecture 5: Circularity in Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri

My Journey to India – in the Cave of My Heart

Ritwik Ghatak: A Crusader Of The Rootless

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Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent books on cinema are Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee, 16 Frames and Smriti Sattwa o Cinema. His earlier writings include the acclaimed books Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines published by Rupa and Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English – observing life in a platter. He can be reached at amitavanag.net.
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