Screened February 3 2010 on YouTube in Brooklyn, NY
Be sure to also check out Ritwik Ghatak: An Online Primer
After watching the rigorously choreographed long-take mastery of Berlanga’s Placido, my encounter with Ritwik Ghatak was a jolt. His splintered account of family dissolution in Bengal following the 1947 Partition feels perpetually jostled, mirroring its characters sense of displacement and desperation to resettle themselves both physically and emotionally.
Discombobulation is apparent from the first scene: displaced villagers from the Bangladeshi side of the partition have tried to carve a colony for themselves on the outskirts of Calcutta, to the chagrin of the locals. Even among the migrants there are factions of locality and caste as a way to prioritize resettlement; as one landlord asserts: “If we can’t keep the differences, then what are we left with?”
Skip ahead to 3:30 in the following clip:
WATCH SUBARNAREKHA, PART 1:
Note how the sequence begins with a sense of patriotism and resolve: Haraprasad the teacher initiates a new school for the colony children.
It cuts from this composition that conveys a ceremonial sense of a community planting itself (note the flagpole squarely in the frame) to this more intimate shot giving a variation of the same idea, a child, hand planted on the adult.
But then there’s an abrupt cut to a completely different space (is it the same village?) where a low-caste woman pleads a landlord to take her and her son.
After a quick refusal the film explodes into chaos: her son suddenly runs offscreen and people begin to scatter in all directions across the frame. A man grabs the woman and the camera sweeps leftward as he drags her to a truck ready to deport all the low-caste migrants from the village.
The camera finishes its leftward sweep by craning upward to look down at the truck; the gesture is simple but combined with the onscreen activity, it conveys a sense of epic tragedy.
Then the shot cuts back to the earlier shot of the teachers sitting planted, as if they were spectators to their own village’s ethnic purging. Ghatak has established two visual spaces within the village and only now is he suturing them together, one fragmented space watching the other. It undermines the rosy words of peace and harmony uttered by the teacher, and establishes a theme of narrative, spatial and tonal fragmentation that continues throughout the film.
Another example: Ishwar, one of the villaged teachers, depressed over his lowly status as a migrant, runs into a college classmate, now a wealthy businessman and who offers him a job. Note how the angle on Ishwar shifts dramatically across the reverse shot at the moment he is offered the position:
The film is rife with angular shots expressing weird geometries; you would assume that Ghatak was co-opting his French New Wave contemporaries, but really it traces back to his love of Eisenstein and Soviet Constructivism.
A less propitious, but more striking example comes later, when Ishwar tells his sister Sita that she’s been betrothed against her will. Skip to 0:30 in this clip and see what Ghatak does with cutting variations of essentially the same shot of Sita to convey her sense of alarm (see Omar Ahmed’s comparison with how Scorsese uses the technique, after the break):
Again, the film is filled with these irruptions: one of the film’s happiest sequences, of two children frolicking through an abandoned airstrip, is abruptly ended when one of them is called away. The other child plays on her own; the music resumes the mood that the two of them had established until WHAMMO!
The film’s only real moments of sustained tonal clarity come in the songs sung by the adult Sita, which amount to arias in this historical opera. But even these songs can have a disruptive effect on the narrative. One of her most beautiful and mournful songs comes right after Ishwar has been awarded a promotion; he searches for her to share the news, finding her along the desolate banks of the river (1:50 in the following clip):
If anything, the protracted mood of this scene establishes the feeling of loss and longing that underlies the entire film.
Since I brought up the elements of the musical genre that Ghatak incorporates, I should also mention how unabashedly Ghatak embraces melodrama as well as Greek tragedy. The film is a roiling mix of genres as well as moods. And on a subtextual level, it’s more densely packed than I can manage to unravel in this post, connecting Oedipus, Hindu mythology, Marxist theory and the tragedy of Indian history in such a way that only a cosmopolitan scholar, artist and activist such as Ghatak could manage. And yet, despite boiling all these elements into a raging stew that reflects the tumult of the world around him, he can also offer images of breathtaking simplicity, conveying all of his hope and sadness:
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Subarnarekha among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Mark Puszicha, The Auteurs (2009)
Rudiger Tomczak, Steadycam (2007)
Srinivas Krishna, Sight & Sound (1992)
Stephen Souter, The Auteurs (2009)
Thomas Allenbach, Profil (2004)
Cinemaya, Best Asian Films (1998)
Jean-Loup Bourget, Positif: 10 Favourite Films 1952-2002 (2002)
Rough Guide to Film, India: 5 Lesser-Known Gems (2007)
Sight & Sound, 75 Hidden Gems (2007)
Various Critics, Book – 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 2
Ritwik Ghatak’s films are deeply haunted by the specter of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and this sense of dislocation and self-inflicted human tragedy created by artificially imposed social division casts a pervasive sentiment of despair, instability, and perpetual exile through all the rended families and uprooted ancestral communities of Subarnarekha… Similarly, the Subarnarekha River (translated as the “Golden Line” River because of its proximity to rich ore deposits) becomes an implicit reflection of the inescapable social (and economic) disparity and cultural marginalization that continues to afflict the displaced refugees of the Partition… It is this pervasive complacency (if not outright willful ignorance) that inevitably lies at the core of Ghatak’s impassioned social criticism on the fateful dynamics that led to the culturally self-inflicted tragedy of the Partition – an inextricable pattern of self-interest, insensitivity, and political apathy from the Bengali middle-class that not only enabled ideological fanaticism and sectarianism to shape the landscape of a post-colonial Indian nation, but also rendered the very idea of home as a sentimental place on an elusive other side that, like the distant, opposing banks of the Subarnarekha River, symbolically represents an idealized, and intranscendible, elsewhere.
- Acquarello, Strictly Film School
Subarnarekha, made in 1962 but released in 1965, is the last in a trilogy examining the socio-economic implications of partition, the other two being Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and Komal Ghandhar (1961). It is also perhaps Ritwik Ghatak’s most complex film.
In the film Ghatak depicts the great economic and socio-political crisis eating up the very entrails of the existence of Bengal from 1948 – 1962; How the crisis has first and foremost left one bereft of one’s conscience, one’s moral sense. In the film, the problem of homelessness or rootlessness no more remains confined to the refugees from the partition. Ghatak extends it further as an important concept for the modern man, uprooted from his traditional moorings. The geographical sphere is thus merged into a wider generality.
Ghatak endows virtually every sequence with a wealth of historical overtones through an iconography of violation, destruction, industrialism and the disasters of famine and partition. Most of the dialogues and the visuals are a patchwork of literary and cinematic quotations enhanced by Ghatak’s characteristic redemptive use of music. A famous example is the sequence set on an abandoned airstrip with the wreck of a WW2 airplane where the children playfully reconstruct its violence until they come up against the frightening image of the goddess Kali (who turns out to be a rather pathetic traveling performer). Later, in dappled light, the older Sita sings a dawn raga on the airstrip. In a classic dissolve, the old Iswar throws a newspaper showing Yuri Gagarin’s Space Exploration into the foundry where it bursts into flames, which then dissolve into the rainwater outside Sita’s hovel. Haraprasad, who had earlier rescued Iswar from committing suicide by quoting from Tagore’s Shishu Tirtha, later in the nightclub parodies an episode from the Upanishads using an East Bengal dialect. Other quotes from this extraordinary sequence includes Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and, through the music, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Fellini had used the ‘Patricia’ music in La Dolce Vita to lash out at a degenerate, decadent western civilization. Ghatak passes a similar judgement on Bengal by using the same music for the orgy in the bar. A torn and tattered Bengal enhances the grimness of Sita and her prostitution as it is a powerful metaphor of its inner degradation.
Sadly, like most of Ghatak’s films, Subarnarekha was totally rejected by the public. Ironically, today the film is hailed as a classic and as an important landmark in the history of Indian Cinema.
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 3:
In The Cloud-Capped Star and THE GOLDEN LINE (also known as Subarnarekha; 1962), Ghatak draws on Brecht (whose The Life of Galileo and The Caucasian Chalk Circle he translated into Bengali) and melodrama to create a new national cinema, highlighting the trauma of the Bengali diaspora and the dilemmas of an independent India. The former film concerns the decline of a family who end up being sustained by (i.e., exploiting) their oldest daughter, who gives up her chances at higher education and love in order to work. In one of the great Brechtian moments in cinema, the near-demented father, on learning that his son has been injured in a factory accident, declaims, “This was expected; this is the rule.” The Golden Line is a lacerating epic about the fortunes of three Bengali refugees: a man, his younger sister, and the lower-caste boy they adopt. If the images deal in distance and discontinuity (as when the characters visit an abandoned British airstrip), the sounds are too close (especially in the scenes of disaster that accumulate in the last third of the film), creating a uniquely Ghatakian sensory overload.
- Chris Fujiwara, The Bpston Phoenix
An intense film of emphatic visual rhythms, Subarnarekha is composed mainly of short shots that suspend actors in close-to-middle camera space, creating uncomfortably direct images of crisis and confrontation. The plot moves farther and farther into poetic melodrama (including a brilliant alcoholic nightclub scene), finding room along the way for a stark, lyrical interlude in which the children discover an abandoned British airstrip. Add some of the most creative uses of music and sound in any film and you have a must-see.
- Chris Fujiwara, Boston Phoenix
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 4
Unlike Ray or others, Ghatak had always practiced complexity in his presentation pattern. The juxtaposition of the Jungian archetype of ‘Kalika‘ with melodramatic realism depicts diabolic terribleness of the degenerated society. The act of confrontation between young Sita and the travelling performer (bahurupi), made-up in the terrible image of the great-mother (Kali), gives an indication of the oncoming tempest on the civilisation. Subarnarekha ruthlessly exposes the philosophical waste of the post-independent Indian society. It chronicles the emptiness of mainstream politics where the communist party, congress party and other so-called political parties are united in minting. Ghatak suggests that the socio-political degeneration due to the Mountbatten Award is responsible for creating spiritual confusions among the people. A crude yet aesthetic dissection of the social broke makes Subarnarekha an unbearable statement against the worshipers of elitist aesthetics.
Subarnarekha is the only Indian film that aesthetically executes the genre of melodrama by joining different episodes into a story of coincidences. In Ritwik Ghatak’s own words – “I agree that coincidences virtually overflow in Subarnarekha. And yet the logic of the biggest coincidence, the brother arriving at his sister’s house provoked me to orchestrate coincidence per se in the very structuring of the film. It is a tricky but fascinating form verging on the epic. This coincidence is forceful in its logic as the brother going to any woman amounts to his going to somebody else’s sister.” The entire film propels forward through historical and mythical overtones, taking melodrama as its foundation.
Subarnarekha bestows Ghatak’s tremendous technical genius, aided with Bahadur Khan Sahib’s evocative compositions. The powerful montage of sight and sound that Ghatak constructs in Sita’s suicide scene is one of cinema’s phenomenal creations. Sound of Sita’s exaggerated breathing with the image of a kitchen knife juxtaposed with a big close-up of her painful unblinking eyes establishes a new dimension in Indian cinematography and montage.
– Basu Acharya, Bangalnama
Ghatak’s exacting control over the rhythm of his films extended from Eisenstein’s theoretical and cinematic experimentation’s with political montage. Elliptical editing inevitably invites an ambiguity and fracture into linear narrative, creating discernible gaps that disorient the spectator. After what is an admittedly schizophrenic opening twenty minutes, Subarnarekha settles into a familiar classical rhythm and the focus of dramatic conflict becomes the relationship between brother and sister. Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) is unable to come to terms with his sister, Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee), marrying Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya)who hails from a lower caste. Such caste prejudices come to the fore when Ishwar orders Abhiram to leave for Calcutta. When Ishwar orders Sita to meet the family which has come to see her for a possible marriage arrangement, Sita’s refusal is met with a kind of patriarchal violence.
The triple jump cut in Ghatak’s ‘Subarnarekha’.
However, prior to this moment of violence, Ghatak opens the sequence with what is a triple jump cut of Sita who turns to face her brother whilst sitting on the ground caressing the sitar for comfort. It is a rhythmically organic series of edits which rightly draws our attention to the reflexive nature of Ghatak’s approach. The violence inherent in the triple jump cut that begins with a close up and finishes on a mid shot signals a disruption in the narrative and also act as the trigger for Sita’s abandonment of her brother, choosing to elope with Abhiram. Ghatak’s ideologically intense use of the triple jump cut may seem a normalised practise today but it reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature ‘Mean Streets’ which opens with another striking and creative example of elliptical editing immortalised in the three carefully juxtaposed edits of Charlie’s head hitting the pillow to the sound of ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes.
The opening to ‘Mean Streets’ – Scorsese’s use of the triple jump cut.
- Omar Ahmed, Ellipsis
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 5:
With Subarnarekha, Ritwik Ghatak completed the trilogy he had begun with Meghe Dhaka Tara (see above) and Komal Ghandhar (1961) about the human upheavals, strife and all-out war, famine and dire poverty created as a result of the 1947 Partition of India, the arbitrary line that the British drew on a map as its farewell colonialist act, dividing India into a secular state and Islamic Pakistan. Ghatak’s saga over many years focuses on a family of Bengali refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) trying to establish new roots.
As with Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ghatak has fashioned a piece of powerful yearning—the desire of people to lead settled lives. An upwardly tilted shot suggests that sparsely adorned branches of a tree are reaching hopefully with all their fragile might into the heavens: a piercing image. “All year I’ve been yearning to come home,” Abhiram, who has been away at school, tells Seeta at the edge of a forest. Without realizing it, the boy is giving voice to the hearts of a shattered people.
In Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses songs by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Bengal’s creative genius, who was a poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, essayist, painter, song composer (0f both lyrics and music), philosopher, teacher, and Nobel Prize winner. Tagore wrote over 2,000 songs, known as Rabindra sangeet or Rabindra song, compositions that incorporated elements of Indian classical music and Bengali folk songs.[open notes in new window] In his biography of Tagore, Krishna Kripalani describes the impact of Tagore’s songs in Bengali culture:
“For each change of the season, each aspect of his country’s rich landscape, every undulation of the human heart, in sorrow or joy, has found its voice in some song of his.”
His songs often celebrate Nature and the Divine, specifically in the physical and spiritual context of Bengal.
As previously mentioned, in his films Ghatak utilizes a variety of musical forms, both Indian and non-Indian, and commonly uses Tagore’s music. As Ghatak stated in an interview just before his death:
“I cannot speak without Tagore. That man has culled all of my feelings from long before my birth. He has understood what I am and he has put in all the words. I read him and I find that all has been said and I have nothing new to say.”
Ghatak, like most Bengalis, considers Tagore as the embodiment of all that is great in Bengali culture, as the pinnacle of artistic expression in Bengal. When Ghatak uses a Tagore song in a film, it often evokes among Bengalis nostalgia and longing for an undivided, pre-Partition Bengal. Ghatak situates Tagore songs within the painful context of the struggle for survival of post-Independence Bengali families, and the songs serve to shape and give dimension to the characters of Nita and Sita. In both Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses Tagore songs at climatic moments to express the joy and sorrow of the post-Independence Bengali woman, who must bear the burden of rebuilding the family in the aftermath of Partition.
- Erin O’Donnell, Jump Cut
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 6:
I’m taken by O’Donnell’s analysis of Ghatak’s use of melodrama. She suggests that it comes from drawing on a wide range of other melodrama forms including from European and Russian Cinemas as well as theatre. At the same time Ghatak makes use of traditional Indian stories from Hindu mythology. The result is this very cinematic camera, but an unusual mix of other influences placing the resultant films in this no-man’s land between the ’social’ films of Hindi Cinema (including the films of Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor) and the art films of Ray and Sen.
The films work by using the family as metaphor for the impossibility of creating ‘home’ out of the despair created by partition and exile. Subarnarekha is contextualised by a series of historical events which mark the earlier part of the narrative – the terrible famine in Bengal in 1942, the successful halt of the Japanese advance into Northern Burma and then Bengal in the latter stages of the war, the partition and the exodus to Calcutta and finally the death of Ghandi. After this and the beginnings of a new life by the Subarnarekha River, the time period becomes less distinct and title cards merely refer to a few months or a few years later marking the period when Sita and Abhiram are growing up. I was struck, however, by the abandoned RAF base (i.e. from where the bombers left for Burma). This is where the children play and where Sita has various adventures. The hulks of abandoned aircraft and the few surviving parts of buildings (from only a few years ago) seem to act as a ‘doubling’ of the signifiers of a life that is no longer possible, of times that have irrevocably changed.
- venicelion, The Case for Global Film
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 7:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 8:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 9:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 10:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 11:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 12:
SUBARNAREKHA, PART 13: