“The raw experience of the event, particularly the overwhelming sense of loss on seeing his motherland suddenly turn politically alien was etched deeply in his emotions.”
This line about Ritwik Ghatak by film theoretician Ashish Rajadhyaksha in the book A Return to the Epic in many ways captures the ethos of the auteur’s oeuvre. Born on November 4, 1925 in Dhaka, East Bengal, Ghatak had not only witnessed Partition but was one of the many who were forced to leave their land behind. The “overwhelming sense of loss,” on seeing it happen, as Rajadhyaksha writes, and the subsequent rage the director felt never left him. He passed away in 1976, leaving behind eight feature films and some documentaries, and in each one of them, he can be seen chasing the event, frantically trying to present it on celluloid and conferring an identity on his motherland that was hitherto denied.
Bengal Partition was first explored in Nemai Ghosh’s 1950 film Chinnamul. Both Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, who were making films alongside Ghatak did deal with Partition and its aftermath, but their treatments differed. “In Pratidwandi (directed by Ray in 1970) one cannot understand that the protagonist Siddhartha and his family are refugees till his mother speaks in that dialect,” says Dr Sanghita Sen, a PhD scholar currently researching into the films of Ghatak, Sen, and Ray for her second doctoral thesis at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. It is quite the same with Sen’s Calcutta trilogy. “Consisting of Interview, Calcutta ’71 and Padatik, it deals with the Naxal andolon (movement) that changed the history of India. The movement is indirectly linked to Partition, both sharing a similar sense of deprivation of the disenfranchised,” says Sen. “Those who were from colonies had jumped into the movement with more vigour,” she adds.
Ghatak and Partition
Cinema, by Ghatak’s own admission, was nothing more than a means of expression. After using literature as a tool, he had joined the CPI and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1951 to get his point across. However, he soon realised the limitation of the medium and recognised the potential of films to reach millions of people. And films he chose.
“It (cinema) is a means of expressing my anger at the sorrows and sufferings of my people,” Ghatak had said in one of his interviews as quoted in his book, Cinema and I. His films do bear his anger as the director, unlike his contemporaries, placed Partition and the sense of loss it created on the foreground of all his films. He obdurately refused to present a unified picture of Bengal or look at the jubilation of Independence. Instead, he focussed on the price one had to pay for it and compelled the audience to do the same. While this sense of loss created by displacement engulfs all his films, it is most palpably felt in Meghe Dhaka Tara (1961), Komol Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1962), also known as Partition trilogy.
Infuriated by the “clamour” of Independence, Ghatak populates his films with characters who were forcibly uprooted from their motherland. Almost all of them share the director’s insouciance and disenchantment towards Independence, if not rage. In Meghe Dhaka Tara — a searing tale of a family with bourgeois aspirations who inadvertently end up exploiting one of their members — a song celebrating Independence is sung at a school next to the colony in which Nita, the protagonist, resided with her family. It not only pronounces the struggle they were going through but also shows how ironic the verses were. In Subarnarekha, Ghatak undercuts the optimism of the refugees as a patriotic song sung by them is followed by a man exclaiming in horror, “We’ve been duped. Somewhere, we have been duped.”
The decadence of the physical habitat the characters resided in, owing to being “duped” by the promise of Independence, forms the crux of Ghatak’s narrative. Having left their land behind and posited in a new city they know little about, the filth of Calcutta enters the very bones and souls of these characters. His narratives are unified by their moral degradation as the perpetual state of loss and penury metamorphose them into a grotesque version of their past self.
In Meghe Dhaka Tara, the grief of losing all that they had transforms the family into predators as they feed on Nita. The mother blames her apparent cruelty to their perpetual poverty. And when Nita coughs blood, her father screams out loud, “I accuse,” only to recoil and add, “Nobody”. He is as guilty as the rest in exploiting her.
The refugee family in Meghe Dhaka Tara gives way to two lone figures- Ishwar and Sita in Subarnarekha. The grime that was restricted to a house in the first film of the trilogy expands and overwhelms the entire city by the time Ghatak arrives at the final film. Relics of the war lay scattered as Ishwar leaves the colony and takes his sister with him to give her a new lease of life, a house that would perhaps resemble the one they had left behind. He joins a factory and earns the epithet of being a traitor from others. Later, the same Ishwar, in a singular moment of dramatic co-incidence, arrives at the doorstep of his sister on a night of drunken stupor as a patron. Sita’s husband had passed away in an accident, leaving her alone with her son to fend for herself. Sita, who used to sing krishna kirtan, was forced to sing for people in exchange of money. The degradation of the city not only “corrupts” Ishwar and his sister, but also irrevocably tarnishes their bond leading Sita to kill herself.
Komol Gandhar, the second film in the trilogy is perhaps the most hopeful. Narrating the story of two theatre groups, the film might be free of some of the oppressive despair of Meghe Dhaka Tara, but the love between the protagonists is unable to triumph over the irrevocable sense of loss they suffered from. “We lost everything. Father died like a beggar, Mother died of starvation,” Bhrigu, the protagonist tells Anasua, the woman from the rival theatre group he was in love with, as he points towards what was one his home. The serenity of the river Padma accentuating the claustrophobia of the smoke-filled, dingy Calcutta.
Knowing too well that people were already numb with the violence, Ghatak refrained from introducing gore in his narrative. He documented the pathos and struggle of his characters to come to terms with their reality by resorting to language and nostalgia, and in turn, reconstructed the identity of the land they had left behind. The land they were forced to leave assumes an idyllic status the moment it is contrasted with the murk of Calcutta they were abandoned in.
Women in Ghatak’s films
Standing at the heart of his tempestuous Partition trilogy are the women Nita, Anasua and Sita. Ghatak weaves the tales of loss around them till they begin personifying it. Women being used as a metaphor of a motherland has been a tried and tested practice. “During the days of anti-colonial nationalism, the images again gathered importance as they were used to symbolise the Motherland, race, language, nation, etc,” Anindya Sengupta, Professor at Jadavpur University writes in the article The face of the mother: Woman as image and bearer of the look in Ritwik Ghatak’s films. But Ghatak destabilises this. The women in his films do not present a picture of abundance, rather they mired in poverty. “Ghatak’s use of the images differs largely from the nationalist use by opening up the hitherto closed significations. He was using the images somewhat against the official nationalist discourse, commenting on the betrayal of the promise of anti-colonial struggle of Independence in the subsequent transfer of power in 1947,” he writes.
Sengupta makes a pertinent point here. Ghatak does depart from the common practice as the women in his films — betrayed, tortured, and ultimately sacrificed, resemble the land they had behind. Women serve as his voice of protest and also as the objects through which he vents his anger. They are that part of Bengal others are carrying with themselves and as they perish so does the identity of the land.
Even though living in a family that is struggling to make ends meet, Nita is the only person who is defiant to not let her brother and suitor undertake the sundry jobs. She knows that doing that would eventually rob them of their identities. She struggles for them and also suffers. And as she gets more embroiled in it, her frailty gets more pronounced. Nita emerges as no hero even though she is likened her to Uma, the goddess of fertility through the songs. She succumbs with a feeble cry, “Dada, ami bachte chai.” (Brother, I want to live), perhaps echoing the cry of the left-behind land itself. Ghatak follows a similar practice in Subarnarekha. Sita, unlike her mythical counterpart does not return to the earth, pristine. Abused, commodified and ravaged by the city, she kills herself. In the post-Partition world, even the goddesses do not survive.
Ghatak and his unique position as a director
“One doesn’t notice any influence of other schools of filmmaking on his work. For him Hollywood might not have existed at all.” Satyajit Ray had written about his contemporary Ghatak in the forward of the latter’s book. Moinak Biswas, Professor, Department of Film Studies at Jadavpur University echoes Ray’s opinion, “Ghatak was indeed a solitary figure so far as filmic conventions are concerned. It is difficult to find a school that he would fit into,” he says.
Partition forever haunted Ghatak and the “refugee problem” that arose out of it became a much broader issue for him — a division of culture. The films he made, the techniques he used can all be read as reaction against it as they stood out significantly among those made by his contemporaries.
At a time when others were experimenting with neo-realism style of filmmaking, Ghatak had fallen back on the much-abused genre of melodrama. He sought to use this genre —so popular during the 1950s and 60s— as a political tool to convey his message. He believed that “a truly nationalist cinema will emerge from the much abused form of melodrama when truly serious and considerate artists will bring the pressure of their entire intellect upon it,” and he duly acted upon creating some.
“Something had to be done,” the character Neelkantho Bagchi said in the director’s last film Jukti Tokko Goppo just before his death. It is not incidental that Ghatak played Bagchi in the film. The cry is familiar. If one listens closely, one can hear each character in Ghatak’s film say this, sometimes in rage, sometimes in exasperation, sometimes letting the words out as an incomprehensible sigh. They might not use similar words but the tongue with which they are uttered remains the same.