Retrospective / Cinema
Never known to sugarcoat his films, Ritwik Ghatak’s in-your-face portrayal of life still wields tremendous impact, writes Pankaja Srinivasan
Idealism Vs Realism
Stills from Subarnarekha, which Ritwik Ghatak called his most philosophical film
Ritwik Ghatak was born in 1925, and came of age during the great Bengal Famine, the Second World War and, the upheaval when twice, Bengal was “physically rent apart—in 1947 by the Partition … and in 1971 by the Bangladeshi War of In dependence”.
Like millions of others, he had to leave home in Dhaka, and the uprooted, the dispossessed and the homeless became the leitmotif of most of his films, including the three — Subarnarekha, Meghey Dhaka Taara a nd Komal Gandhaar — that were screened at the Ritwik Ghatak retrospective by Konangal Film Society.
Inevitably, Ritwik Ghatak was compared with Satyajit Ray. But, while Ray was the toast of town and the blue-eyed boy of Indian films, Ghatak didn’t quite make the cut.
He was as in-your-face, unpredictable, and uncomfortable to be with as Ray was refined, suave and one of the boys.
Says writer-activist Jacob Levich: “Viewing Ghatak is an edgy, intimate experience, an engagement with a brilliantly erratic intelligence in an atmosphere of inquiry, experimentation, and disconcerting honesty. The feeling can be invigorating, but it’s never comfortable.”
Ghatak is “like an undesirable guest: he lacks respect, has ‘views’, makes a mess and disdains decorum”.
So in Subarnarekha, idealism always comes a poor second to realism. In a flush of enthusiastic patriotism, schoolteacher Hariprasad wants to start a new life in Calcutta for himself and his fellow refugees from East Pakistan. But, t he protagonist Ishwar wants no part of it, and he accepts a job in a foundry elsewhere, and moves with his sister Sita and a little boy Abhiram (who is separated from his mother in the chaos after partition). Hariprasad calls Ishwar a ‘deserter’.
Ishwar prides himself on being upright and principled, but is unwilling to let his sister marry Abhiram who is from a lower caste. Abhiram spurns a lucrative offer to go abroad in order to write, but abandons his idealism and becomes a bus driver for survival after he elopes with Sita to Calcutta. However, he dies in an accident.
Meanwhile, Ishwar, devastated by the hand life has dealt him, along with his erstwhile friend Hariprasad (who has since discovered lofty ideals get one no where, and that there is no distinction between being noble or cowardly), decides to live it up in Calcutta.
In search of carnal pleasures, Ishwar lands up with a woman who is soliciting a customer for the first time. And, in one horrifying sequence she takes a machete and kills herself. She is none other than his sister Sita.
There aren’t too many sunshine moments in Ghatak’s works. In Meghey Dhaka Tara, it is a bleak house all the way.Neeta’s story
Neeta is the sole breadwinner of a family. The father does no more than quote Keats and Yeats; a brother does endless riyaaz hoping to become a renowned musician; another gets a job, but contributes nothing to the house. Neeta’ ;s younger sister only has new clothes and romance in her head. The mother sees nothing wrong in marrying off her younger daughter to the man Neeta loves. How will the family survive without Neeta’s money, asks the mother.
Komal Gandhar, often referred to as Ghatak’s favourite, portrays the rivalry and jealousy between two rival theatre groups as they struggle to put up a joint production. A Rabindranath Tagore poem is the inspiration for the t itle where a girl is compared to a musical note, which in turn, is likened to Bengal.
In the film, Anasuya mirrors the divided leadership of the People’s Theatre Movement, and ultimately, a divided Bengal.
Symbolism and metaphors abound in all three films. The debris of an aircraft, an abandoned runway, a truncated railway track, wastelands, snatches of music that are abruptly interrupted, all go towards depicting loss, helplessness and hopeless yearning.Hope not lost
Ghatak’s films were a stinging critique of modernity. For, the euphoria that erupted after independence slowly turned into ashes for many.
Instead of an improved life, existence became even worse. Industrialisation dehumanised values, and cynicism and pessimism smothered patriotic fervour and optimism. But, Ghatak’s films did not cut off hope altogether. The filmmaker leaves the door a little ajar, for a ray of hope to enter.