You might have been a bit more indulgent towards us if you only knew how many fences we have to cross to make a film. […] Filmmakers like us will be gratified if people just accept the fact that we are fenced in. […] You are a fence yourselves, the most ominous, perhaps.
- Ghatak, quoted by Megan Carrigy, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
(More words from Ghatak at the bottom of this entry)
ABOUT RITWIK GHATAK
Ritwik Ghatak – an artist who exerted a profound influence on the modern Indian cinema but who was critically recognized abroad only after his untimely death in 1975. A native of East Bengal, Ghatak was shattered by the partition of that “orphan state” (later to become Bangladesh), and his stories and images are permeated with the personal urgency he felt for the people whose lives and culture were irreparably ruptured.
Yet his films also have a vital, regenerative power, fed by the artist’s insatiable intelligence and his skillful integration of popular forms of culture – melodrama, songs, and dance – into politically radical themes. His major influence was Eisenstein, and he said, “I have wanted to use the cinema as a weapon”. But if he shocks, he does so with photography that is thought made visible, editing that turns melodrama into a form of music, and music that tells its own bold and surprising story.
Through his films and his short tenure at the Film Institute in Pune, Ghatak influenced a generation of filmmakers including Kumar Sahani, Mani Kaul, Ketan Mehta, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan – names that today are synonymous with the Indian art film. Ghatak was a complex man who was much loved by his students but was viewed by the film establishment as an eccentric iconoclast; he died a chronic alcoholic at the age of 49.
Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema vividly illustrates the idea that it is about the flow of time. It is memory that links his characters to themselves and others around them as they swim against the murderous tides of history and politics. Time and remembrance flow out of each other. Seldom has such a thought been expressed with greater feeling or perception than in the eight feature films Ghatak made between 1952 and ’74.
There is lucidity in Ghatak’s cinematic vision that renders complex ideas simple. Early training in his gentleman-scholar father’s library reading the epics – namely Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Upanishads, Jatakas amongst others; and, soon after the writings of Marx, Engels and other western philosophers and a grounding in group theatre with Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) – the cultural arm of the Communist Party of India – made him realize the value of communicating with very large audiences.
Unlike other film makers in the world espousing the Communist cause to whom religion was anathema and who took refuge in existentialism like Wajda and Godard, or a considered atheism like Eisenstein, political ideology and aesthetic expression were fused effortlessly in Ghatak’s cinema. Long before Fidel Castro discovered the virtues of non-interference with the religious beliefs of his party members in Communist Cuba, Ghatak had informed the Committee examining the ideological positions of IPTA and the CPI ‘song squad’ it would be imperative to remember that the Indian people, and certainly the proletariat who had been sustained culturally/spiritually by the epics would be best served if the party and its operatives read and appreciated these great books.
- Partha Chatterjee, Outlook India
Ghatak’s first film was Nagrik (1952) about a young man’s 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.
Ghatak returned to Calcutta and 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, humour and irony.
But perhaps his best work was Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960),the first film in a trilogy examining the socio-economic implications of partition. The protagonist Neeta (played by Supriya Choudhury) 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, as the dying Neeta cries out “I want to live…”, the camera pans across the mountains accentuating the indifference and eternity of nature even as the echo reverberates over the shot.
Ghatak followed it up 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 mechanical reality.
Unfortunately for Ghatak his films were largely unsuccessful, many remained unreleased for years and 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 rich body of work that no serious scholar of Indian Cinema can ignore.
Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were in fact clearly admirers of each other’s work. Praise from both sides can be found in print on a number of occasions. Indeed Ray, a member of the Ritwik Memorial Trust, provided the foreword to the published volume of Ghatak’s writings on cinema in English, Cinema and I, reprinted in Rows and Rows of Fences. He is full of approval for Ghatak’s work:
Likewise, in his Row and Rows of Fences, Ghatak’s praise for Ray is high: “Satyajit Ray, and only Satyajit Ray in India, in his more inspired moments, can make us breathtakingly aware of truth, the individual, private truth”. Ray’s Pather Panchali(1955) is lauded in Ghatak’s essay on literary influence in Bengali cinema:
It is true that this film was also based on a famous novel. But for the first time, the story was narrated in the filmic idiom. The language was sound. Artistic truth was upheld. The fundamental difference between the two art forms was delineated.
In the essay “Recollections of Bengal and a Single Vision”, Shampa Banerjee offers an interesting anecdote from Dopati Chakrabarty about the relationship between the cinemas of Ray and Ghatak:
Satyajit Ray once said: Had Nagarik been released before his Pather Panchali,Nagarik would have been accepted as the first film of the alternative form of Bengali cinema.
Nagarik (The Citizen), the first film Ghatak ever made, was completed in 1953 but in fact released posthumously in 1977. Pather Panchali was released in 1955. The central character of Nagarik, Ramu, opens the film looking for a job in Calcutta, while his family struggles to make ends meet. Incredibly, in a memorial lecture on Ghatak, given after his death, Satyajit Ray had this to say:
Ritwik was a Bengali director in heart and soul, a Bengali artist much more of a Bengali than myself. For me that is the last word about him, and that is his most valuable and distinctive characteristic.
- Megan Carrigy, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
When one closely looks at any of his films, one can witness the chaos with which his movies are cut; from high, to abrupt low or from wide lens to his sudden shift to telephoto lens and vice-versa, but within the schema of such chaos lay the harmony. Ghatak’s mise en scène is the representation of such harmony, which was made amidst the chaos of money, depression and desire reflected beyond the mimesis that Ghatak’s captured and represented. His mise en scène that was largely built on the foundation of various influences – scars and nostalghia – which he had been bearing with him for years. Also his choice for every movement of the camera, every gesture of the character and every relationship that the shot, the setting and the subject expressed reflected his deep longing and desire. (…)
His usage of the wide angles lens in capturing and representing the exteriors that he so fondly captured is indebted to his memories of his growing years in Bangladesh. It’s precisely the reason why most of his characters in the trilogy are always lost in the spaces which they inhabit and are in incessant search for something or longing. The search and longing that were expressed through music were an important source, not just to add depth to his expression, but it also became a catalyst for exposing the inner truth when fused with his montages.(…)
Normally most melodramas are classically constructed and the mise en scène also moved in that pattern, Ghatak’s does just the opposite, his film cuts at odd angles; from high to low, low to high and juxtaposes odd angles. This is an important ‘distancing’ technique he has used in his montage. Now this shift from different odd angles creates a chaos that could have made his entire work and especially this trilogy unwatchable, but it’s the genius of Ghatak’s that he could blend seamlessly such distinctive angle and cuts, and form such poetic rhythm. Furthermore, his montage and his mise en scène were guided by his mastery over different modules of sound effects. That gave a distinctive tension to the expression he usually brought out from the sequences.
- Nitesh Pahwa, Indian Auteur
Ghatak took one rupture in the history he witnessed as central – the partition of Bengal. As he went on extending that event into a metaphor for everything that was alienating and destructive in the experience of his community, and talked about the pervasive degeneration of his country sometimes solely in terms of it, he faced puzzlement and even incomprehension from his contemporaries. Wasn’t he being obsessed with a single event? Wasn’t he living in the past, cutting himself off from the contemporary? The full irony of the situation is probably now coming to light: the Partition – a joint treachery committed by the colonial power and the nationalist leadership – cost millions of lives (mainly in Punjab and Bengal, but also in other provinces as the communal riots spread) and left millions homeless (11), but had hardly any thematic impact on film or literature. People forgot to talk about it. In the face of this silence the history model of narration itself had to be played with, it had to be crossed with elements borrowed from traditional community-centred forms – epic, chronicle play, allegory, musical theatre. But in the face of historical denial Ghatak would also resort to a drama where a few hapless characters would say just that – ‘we deny it’. These are people who howl against the rocks that they want to live, who place negation against negation by closing the circle before violent interdictions of change. A particular kinship relation takes on an acute dimension in this drama. It works to defeat the melodrama of couple formation even as it destroys the logic of the other, pre-bourgeois melodrama: the feudal family romance.
- Moinak Biswas, “Her Mother’s Son: Kinship and History in Ritwik Ghatak”, Rouge.
There are two basic ways that a filmmaker can relate to film history: to work within an existing tradition or to proceed more radically as if no one else has ever made a film before. I think it would be safe to say that at least ninety-nine per cent of the films we see in theaters are made according to the first way. The Danish narrative filmmaker Carl Dreyer and the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage are two of the rare exceptions who might be said to have followed the second way. Even though they too both worked to some extent in existing traditions, their principles of editing and camera movement and tempo and visual texture are sufficiently different to require viewers to move beyond some of their own habits as spectators in order to appreciate fully what these filmmakers are doing artistically. Without making such an effort at adjustment, one’s encounters with the films of Brakhage and Dreyer are likely to be somewhat brutal in their potentiality for disorientation.
Ghatak, I believe, is another rare exception who followed the second route I have described, and one who provides comparable challenges of his own. And his methods of composing soundtracks for his films as well as his ways of interrelating his sounds and images are among the things I would point to first in order to describe his uniqueness as a filmmaker. One might conclude, in other words, that he reinvented the cinema for his own purposes both conceptually, in terms of his overall working methods, and practically, by rethinking the nature of certain shots he has already filmed – specifically, by starting and/or stopping certain kinds of sounds at unexpected moments, sometimes creating highly unorthodox ruptures in mood and tone.
It might be argued that these ruptures were not necessarily intentional. At least I’ve found no acknowledgment of them or of many of Ghatak’s other eccentric filmmaking practices in his lectures and essays such as ‘Experimental Cinema’, ‘Experimental Cinema and I’ and ‘Sound in Cinema’. (1) But by the same token, I find little if any acknowledgment by Carl Dreyer of his unorthodox editing practices in his own writings. And the issue of artistic intentionality remains a worrisome one in any case, because artists aren’t invariably the best people to consult about their own practices, and it can be argued that what artists do is far more important (at least in most cases) than what they say they do. And the radical effect of Ghatak’s ruptures in his soundtracks strike me as being far better illustrations of his manner of reinventing cinema than any of his theoretical statements. To put it as succinctly as possible, they reinvent cinema precisely by reinventing us as spectators, on a moment-to-moment basis, keeping us far more alert than any conventional soundtrack would. And this makes them moments of creation in the purest sense.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Rouge
In the 1960s, Ghatak translated Brecht’s The Life of Galileo and Caucasian Chalk Circle from English to Bengali. In numerous essays and interviews, he discusses the impact on his work of Brecht’s epic approach, alienation effect and use of coincidence. Ghatak draws upon the diverse theatrical traditions of IPTA, Brecht and Stanislavski, and the various cinematic visions of Eisenstein, Godard and Bunuel to come up with use own melodramatic vision. The technical details of Ghatak’s melodramatic style include the following stylistic traits: frequent use of a wide angle lens, placement of the camera at very high, low and irregular angles, dramatic lighting composition, expressionistic acting style and experimentation with songs and sound effects. With this combination of cinematic devices, Ghatak creates a melodramatic post-Partition world in which he constructs his vision of “Woman” and “Homeland” in post-Independence Bengal.
In cinema, the family, the home, with women — mothers, wives, daughters and sisters as the key players — is the primary site of domestic melodrama. In Bengali culture, the home houses the heart of Bengali society: the family. And at the core of the Bengali family is ma, the mother. Within the homes of Ghatak’s post-Independence Bengal lies the site of both ananda (joy) and dukkho (sorrow), emotions intensely expressed by his female characters, frequently through song. These songs and music distill the essence or rasa of the joy and sorrow that Ghatak’s characters experience, and the music track enables these emotions’ full force and weight to be communicated to the audience. The ability of music and song to express powerful emotions beyond the visual dimension of a film, even beyond the film text itself, is particularly evident in Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara, and Subarnarekha.The film sound scholar Caryl Flinn relates in her book Strains of Utopia:
“Melodrama critics assert that the non-representational register (i.e., music) reveals elements which cannot be conveyed through representational means alone, a fundamental split that seems to guarantee the genre’s potentially ‘subversive’ effects.”
- Erin O’Donnell, Jump Cut
I was drawn to consider Ritwik Ghatak because of the dedication by Mira Nair at the end of The Namesake, a film I am using again as part of a course on ‘diaspora cinema’. Nair was referring to the ‘Masters of Bengali Cinema’ – with Ghatak alongside Satyajit Ray. But she might also have been referring to a master of diaspora cinema or more properly ‘exilic cinema’. (…)
Ghatak is not as widely known as he should be (i.e. outside the circle of serious cinephiles and historians of Indian Cinema). He was at least as important as his contemporary Satyajit Ray and in some ways more so, given his brief stint teaching at the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) at Pune in 1966 in which he influenced future directors such as Kumar Shahani and John Abraham. His fame has spread outside India over the thirty years and more since his death.
It’s perhaps not so surprising that Ghatak’s work is not immediately accessible to audiences. He avoids the populism of commercial cinema, yet doesn’t have a coherent humanist art cinema style like Ray, or even a committed political stance like Mrnal Sen. In the same sequence, he might move from what appears to be a conventional social realist approach to portraying village life/city life to a highly expressionistic portrayal of a moment of emotional tension. On closer inspection, however, his seemingly conventional realist camerawork is often undermined by staging in depth with disturbing angles and compositions. Music is integral to the trilogy of ‘exile’ films (which includes the earlier A Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Komal Gandahar (1961)). Cloud-Capped Star shares with Subarnarekha a brother-sister relationship in which the woman is a singer of Bengali songs, many written by Rabindranath Tagore (1876-1941), the towering figure of Bengali literature.
- venicelion, The Case for Global Film
Some critics accuse Ghatak of being oversentimental about ‘desh’ or ‘homeland’. With him, they feel, the experience of Partition remained imprisoned in nostalgia, never a noble emotion, however painful its portrayal may be. According to Iraban Basu Roy:
Partition was Ritwik’s own passion but that passion did not get any creative inspiration or language in his films. Not that he was not aware of rootlessness; but whenever it came to representation of collective tragedy that surpassed personal pain, it seemed that Ritwik withdrew his passion… So Partition remained loosely attached to his films, never turning into the central motif. That the Partition was not of a particular moment, but had long drawn effects on the personal and collective consciousness is understood in a film like Shyam Benegal’s Mammo; this extended influence is missing in Ritwik’s films. Except for a few stray moments, there is no permanent depiction of the pain, harassment and nightmare of the Partition in his films. Like Bengali fiction, Ritwik’s films too just make stray references to it. On the other hand, like many other ‘myths’ about Ritwik, a baseless myth about the Partition also got created.
Madhabi Mukherjee, the actress who played the role of Sita in Subarnarekha, once told her interviewers that when the film was being made she was too young to ascertain fully the intensity and depth of Ghatak’s personal feelings about the Partition. But she mentions that at times Ghatak used to say, ‘Lambu (‘tall one’, meaning Satyajit Ray) never experienced Partition’. She also emphasizes the fact that even in a traumatic film like Subarnarekha, Ghatak, the tragic bard of Partition, ends on a note of redemptive hope. In an interview published in The Statesman, commemorating forty years of the making of the film, Mukherjee syas:
No matter how deep the tragedy is, how intense the suffering, the filmmaker refused to end on a totally negative note. Remember the last phase of Subarnarekha where the child is pulling his uncle to take him to the land of butterflies and beauty? Or the unforgettable lines of Tagore: ‘Joi hok manusher, oi nabajataker, oi chirajibiter’ (‘Glory be to man, to the newborn, to the eternal’) with which the film ends?
Partition was indeed the single most traumatic experience for him, but Ritwikda did not stop there. He did not conform to any particular discipline. However, he was steadfast in one aspect – he refused to accept the defeat and degeneration of human beings as final. He hoped against hope.
- Somdatta Mandal, “Constructing Post-Partition Bengali Identity through Films”. Published inPartitioned Lives: Narratives of Home, Displacement and Resettlement. Edited by Anjali Gera Roy, Nandi Bhatia. Published by Pearson Education India, 2008. pp 72-73
RITWIK GHATAK IN HIS OWN WORDS
Subaltern Cinema is proud to present an excerpt from the thesis submitted by noted Indian filmmaker Ritwik Kumar Ghatak to the Communist Party of India in 1954. It remained undiscovered till 1993. The thesis remained buried for many years, and was only discovered in old files in the Communist Party Office. Going through the thesis, it becomes vivid that the same situation persists even today. As a result, such a strong pen is relevant till this date.
The multicolored pattern of Ritwik Ghatak’s life depicted a unique coherence of determination, a kind of necessary insubordination. In spite of all his rebellious activities, all his intemperance, he had an exclusive commitment, a single determination, a complete vision. The twists and turns of life never led him away from his true destination. Cinema for Ghatak was an instrument to reach the masses. His films reflected the frantic urge to communicate, to transform apathy into rebellion, to assert that truth, beauty and the human spirit will survive after all. He said: “I have done many things in my life. I ran away from home a few times. I took a job in the billing department of a textile mill in Kanpur. I hadn’t thought of films then. They dragged me back home from Kanpur. That was in 1942. Meanwhile, I had missed two years of my studies. I was fourteen when I ran away from home. ……I had a creative urge, and began my artistic career with a few useless pieces of verse. I realized later that I wasn’t made for that sort of thing. I couldn’t get within a thousand miles of true poetry. It was after this that I got involved with politics. This was 1943 to 1945. Those who remember these years will know of the quick transitions in the political scene of the day…. The anti-fascist movement, the Japanese attack, the British retreat, a great deal happened in quick succession. Life was placid in 1940 and ’41. Suddenly, during ’44 and ’45, a series of events took place the price of foodstuffs soared, then came famine things changed so fast that it gave a great jolt to people’s attitudes and thinking….By that time I was an active Marxist; not a cardholder, but a close sympathizer, a fellow traveler. I started writing short stories then. This was not like my earlier nebulous and false attempts to be a poet. The urge to write stories arose out of a desire to protest against the oppression and exploitation I saw around me…… But later, I came to feel that short stories are inadequate. They take a long time to reach the people, and then few are deeply stirred by them. I was a hot-blooded youngster then, impatient for immediate reaction…..I started taking an interest in drama, became a member of the IPTA. When, at the end of 1947, a revised version of Nabanna was produced, I acted in it. After that I was completely involved with the IPTA…..I was also leader of the Central Squad. I wrote plays myself. Drama elicited an immediate response, which I found very exciting. But after a while even drama seemed inadequate, limited…….. But, when I thought of the cinema, I thought of the million minds that I could reach at the same time. This is how I came into films, not because I wanted to make films. Tomorrow, if I find a better medium, I’ll abandon films…..I have wanted to use the cinema as a weapon, as a medium to express my views….”
- Premendra Mazumder, Ritwik Ghatak: The Committed Creator
It’s not just me, anyone in the world who is a serious artist, who has done any serious work in Bengal or elsewhere, anyone whose name you have heard — each and every one of them is inspired by one individual and his name is Sergei Eisentein. We wouldn’t know “f” of filmmaking if Eisenstein were not there before us. He is our father. Godfather. When we were young, his writings, theses, and his films made us go nuts. And those were not easily available back then. We had to hide them and import them very carefully. This man Eisenstein — and you can ask Satyajit Ray, too, and “he will admit that he is the father of us”. From him, we learned how to cut – editing is the key to filmmaking. Then there is Pudovkin. He was here in 1949 and I was fortunate enough to meet him. Party instructed me to follow him, spend time with him and learn from him. Pudovkin told me something that is the basis of all of my education. He said: “films are not made, filmmaking does not make any sense – a film is built”. Brick by brick, exactly like building a house. That’s how you build films, by cutting one shot after another. It is built, not made. These two individuals and then there is Carl Dreyer. I watched his films in Pune long time ago. The Passion of Joan of Arc. I totally lost myself after watching that film. And there is another person who I must admit to be one of my gurus. Luis Buñuel. They are my true gurus. Oh, and Mizoguchi. After watching Ugetsu Monogatari, I was “staggered”, I mean I went completely crazy. That’s what a real film is! Everything I know about films, I have learned from these people.
Will you talk about a few of the greatest films that you have watched?
The greatest film – you want me to name it? Battleship Potemkin. There has not been a film which can top that. None. The Odessa Steps scene – no one will ever be able to shoot anything greater than that. Film is all about editing. Cutting, editing. The scissors are the films – when to throw away, after exactly how many frames. The whole film depends on that. No one has created anything greater than Battleship Potemkin.
As an industry, film is capital-intensive. So how much dissident can it really be?
Totally and absolutely. But it all depends on who are building the film. If an artist is fearless and not spineless, he or she can do anything. In their films, they can capture the struggles and plight of the entire universe. But what can we do if they don’t? And usually they don’t. That’s why our films have become so ridiculous.
There is a tendency among film society audience to only watch uncensored vulgar pornographic films. How can we resist this temptation and stop what has been hurting an important movement?
You can not really do anything because some of these rascals — excuse my language –are only interested in that. And if they demand it, you will show those movies because you are thinking of getting some of your expenses back. “Film society has become another business”. You need to “decry” this and loathe this completely, but you don’t. This country is in a deep downward spiral. I am a drunk — and I do not hide the fact; most people know quite well that I drink — so leave me out of this, but you all need to be a lot more vocal and aggressive. You see, I — and Satyajit as well — do not go to watch your film society screenings any more because the films you are exhibiting can not be watched by gentlemen. I do not want to show them to my wife, my daughter. You will have to take up the fight. I can not. I have taken myself out of this. You know what is in my hand and that much I can do, but film society screenings and audience, you will have to…