997 (132). Subarnarekha / The Golden Thread (1965, Ritwik Ghatak)

Screened February 3 2010 on YouTube in Brooklyn, NY TSPDT rank #784  IMDb Wiki

Be sure to also check out Ritwik Ghatak: An Online Primer

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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!

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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:

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WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

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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

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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.

- Upperstall 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

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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 FujiwaraBoston 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

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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.

- Dennis Grunes

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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.[48][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.”[49]

His songs often celebrate Nature and the Divine, specifically in the physical and spiritual context of Bengal.[50]

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.”[51]

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.

venicelionThe 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:

Ritwik Ghatak: An Online Primer

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)

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ABOUT RITWIK GHATAK

IMDb Wiki

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.

Calcutta Web

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

Ajantrik / The Pathetic Fallacy (1958)

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.

Upperstall

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:

Ritwik was one of the few truly original talents in the cinema this country has produced. […] As a creator of powerful images in an epic style he was virtually unsurpassed in Indian cinema.

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

Bari Theke Paliye / The Runaway (1958)
Bari Theke Paliye / The Runaway (1958)

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 PahwaIndian 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.

Meghe Dhaka Tara / The Cloud-Capped Star (1960)
Meghe Dhaka Tara / The Cloud-Capped Star (1960)

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 RosenbaumRouge

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'DonnellJump Cut

Subarnarekha / The Golden Thread (1965)
Subarnarekha / The Golden Thread (1965)

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.

venicelionThe 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

ritwik3

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.

Wide Screen Journal

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 MazumderRitwik Ghatak: The Committed Creator

Titash Ekti Nadir Naam / A River Called Titash (1973)

In the art of filmmaking, who have influenced or inspired you? And how those inspirations or influences have worked their way into your art?

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...

- Excerpted from a five part interview with Ritwik Ghatak, by Prabir Sen, published in Ritwik Kumar Ghatak (edited by Atanu Pal, Banishilpa, 1988). Posted on Dipanjan's Random Muses

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Jukti Takko Aar Gappo / Reason, Debate and Story (1974)