“I am burning, everyone is burning, the universe is burning”: Derek Malcolm on the films of Ritwik Ghatak

Despite a career affected by his troubles with alcoholism, Ritwik Ghatak was one of India’s most obviously talented filmmakers, wrote Malcolm in our Summer 1982 issue.

1 November 2023

By Derek Malcolm

Ritwik Ghatak
Sight and Sound

Of all India’s many comparatively unsung directors, Ritwik Ghatak (1926-76) was possibly the most obviously talented. Yet he made only a handful of films, the first of which, Nagarik (The Citizen), was completed in 1952 but unreleased until after his death from chronic alcoholism and tuberculosis at the age of 51.

The first occasion a group of Western critics was able to look at the body of his work was at the Madras Festival in January 1978. The prints were tattered, the subtitles virtually unreadable when they were there at all and the projection was below even Indian standards. But the impact of the films on all present was considerable. Here, we all felt, was a passionate and intensely national filmmaker who seemed to have found his way without much access to the work of others but who was most certainly of international calibre. Two years after his death he was already a legend – as a radical intellectual who had destroyed himself but whose career had also been blighted by the circumstances of his life as an emotional refugee, and by the refusal of the establishment to recognise his talent. Arrogant, overbearing and hopelessly unreliable, he was also much loved and admired as a restless iconoclast whose dreams were never likely to be wholly fulfilled but still worth dreaming in the fractured society which he seemed to epitomise.

Ghatak came to films, like many other Bengali directors, from the stage. And it was almost certainly the experience of the war years in undivided Bengal that encouraged him to leave the theatre for the screen. He was a radical from the Indian People’s Theatre and the Communist Party who felt strongly the pull of a more widely influential medium. Having written, directed and acted in travelling theatre, moving from village to village and town to town, his urge after the traumatic experience of Partition was to reach as large an audience as possible. Totally shattered himself by Partition, since his roots were in that part of Bengal which had now become foreign territory, Ghatak’s sense of urgency never left him.

It also played a considerable part in destroying him, since few of his projects reached the wider audience he hoped for them. This was essentially because they were too difficult and too sophisticated. But whereas Satyajit Ray was encouraged to continue not as much by local success as by international acclaim, Ghatak’s Ajantrik (Pathetic Fallacy) was sent to the Venice Festival two years after Pather Panchali only to be vetoed at the selection stage, largely because there was no one from India to argue what now looks a perfectly obvious case. It was nevertheless accorded a special screening, and one of the few who saw it was Georges Sadoul. He wrote: ‘I do not know Bengali and the film was not subtitled. But I have been under its spell… I am as much in love with that film as the driver is with Jagaddal…’

Ajantrik (1958)

Jagaddal means ‘the loved one’ or ‘a special friend’, and in Ajantrik it is a ramshackle taxi driven round the town of Ranchi on the Bengal-Bihar border by an eccentric peasant called Bimal. The taxi is an object of ridicule to most who see or drive in it, but for Bimal it has a soul that is alternately jealous, loving and uncaring. That is why it breaks down when Bimal is attracted to a stranded girl. Having spent all his savings to get the vehicle back on the road, Bimal takes it to a secluded place to test its engine. But Jagaddal has finally given up the ghost. Is it the engine or the heart that has burst? Even Bimal is not sure.

If the film sounds like a sentimental short story, Ghatak’s treatment belies it. As a study in obsession and a gentle satire, it has both weight and entertainment value. Bimal, superbly played by Kali Banerjee, is a brilliantly convincing figure – more credible than the character played by Soumitra Chatterjee in Ray’s Abhijan as he breaks into a stentorian version of a religious song while seated under a tree or bursts into a frantic harangue when Jagaddal lets him down. And the opening scenes of a dotty bridegroom’s drive across rainswept hills, with Bimal intense at the wheel, are not easily forgotten.

Yet Ajantrik transcends its limitations in another way, also becoming a kind of cinematic essay on the acceptance of the machine into the mental make-up of someone steeped in an ancient and totally unmechanical tradition. There is artistic exaggeration and some obscurity in the tale – what are the connections, for instance, between the tribal dancing and the taxi? But Ghatak’s preoccupations in later films are all enmeshed in this one, including those concerning the likelihood of betrayal either by fate or human perfidy, and his ideas about the continuity of life. At the end of Ajantrik, with the taxi’s death caused by a betrayal that makes the machine seem after all rather more reliable than its human counterparts, a small boy plays with its discarded horn. It is a note of affirmation practically all Ghatak’s films, however tragic, do not fail to contain.

‘This was a story,’ the director has said, ‘which sought to establish a new relationship in our literature – the very significant and inevitable one between man and nature. Our literature, in fact our culture itself, has never cared very much for the machine age. The idea of the machine has always had an association with monstrosity for us. It devours all that is good, all that is contemplative and spiritual.’ Ajantrik was Ghatak’s way of disproving such a view, or at least testing it in a provoking manner.

Nagarik (1977)

Nagarik, Ghatak’s preceding film, was not so clearly the product of a natural film-maker. But its story of a young man in search of a job, based on the plot of a didactic play, is by no means lacking in interest. The young man dreams romantically of a better life, is eternally optimistic after every interview, but in the end has to face what seems to us an obvious reality. His family is forced to move into a slum. Revolution, bloody or otherwise, is regarded as the only answer. In some ways the central character reflects the perplexity of Bimal, Ghatak’s lower caste taxi-driver, and unquestionably the same feeling for individuals caught up in the toils of a fragmenting society is there.

Bari Theke Paliye (The Runaway) was made in 1959 as his third feature but the first to signal a deeper search for something beyond the alienation of everyday Bengali life. The story of a 10-year-old boy who runs away from a cruel father and his village home to the huge city of Calcutta, the film is seen through the naive eyes of the child with sharpness as well as sentiment: I saw it only without subtitles, and would hesitate to comment further, save to say that Ghatak’s attempt to prove his point about innocence never being wholly corrupted seems only partially successful.

Ghatak’s next film, Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star), was a considerable advance and it is usually thought to be his masterpiece. Certainly few other Indian films have used music and sound to better effect. It was the first of three films on what was for him the highly personal theme of the plight of refugees from East Pakistan, and vocal music is integrated into the story, setting the mood for hope and despair. The central character is Nita, who virtually sacrifices her life to keep her family together even when she realises that the man she loves, and who professes to love her, is about to marry her more sensual sister. All this is watched by Shankar, her musician brother who eventually leaves home, returning to find Nita in a sanatorium.

The film has some almost Chekovian subtleties and an Ibsenite sense of passion while remaining completely Indian. And although its tone is very different from that of Satyajit Ray, it can clearly be seen that Ghatak’s urgency is underpinned by the same Tagorean verities. ‘No national art can be built without reclaiming tradition,’ he once said, and, though a much more radical figure than Ray, it was this constant pressure that gave his films their undercurrent of turbulence and what some consider their melodramatic weaknesses. ‘Don’t you think you create melodrama, by overdoing things?’ he was once asked. ‘It is the right and privilege of the artist to take the leap from the ridiculous to the sublime,’ he answered.

The Cloud-Capped Star (1960)

There are certainly sublime moments in The Cloud-Capped Star, a film I would place as highly as any by Mrinal Sen and all but a handful of Ray’s. Almost all these moments are intimately connected to both music and soundtrack – the broken phrases of the raga Hamsadhwani which are completed towards the film’s end (‘Her whole being exists for him alone’), the sound of the whiplash when Nita discovers her sister’s perfidy and the myriad other sounds included in the effects track, made to underscore the music. In the film’s last scene, with the singer brother visiting Nita in hospital, the warning vibrato of a Pahadi folk song can be heard before he enters, as we see the beautiful countryside around the clinic. Its point is understood as Nita, sobbing, says to him: ‘Brother, I want to live. I want to live.’ For Ghatak, sound and music often became overtly and obviously symbolic. But in these scenes he surely achieves a perfect synthesis.

Neither this film nor his next, Komal Gandhar (translated as The Soft Ga of the Sargam), was successful at the box-office, and Ghatak’s drinking continued unabated. In fact, such was his reputation as the enfant terrible of the Bengali cinema that no producer could be persuaded to risk more money for some six years. Yet Komal Gandhar was also a considerable achievement, a more experimental work whose hero has affinities with the director himself as the leader of a People’s Theatre group and a refugee in India who seeks the meaning of patriotism in a partitioned nation. Here Ghatak, the writer of many short stories and several plays, is sometimes at odds with Ghatak the director, but the effort to translate literary ideas into imagery and argument is by no means unsuccessful, and once again the soundtrack has bold and surprising felicities.

After this outpouring of his social and moral concerns, largely rejected by the public and in the case of Komal Gandhar by many of his colleagues in the communist theatre movement, Ghatak made only one film, Subarnarekha, for over a decade. At a time when he should have been most prolific, his life degenerated into a series of excursions with the bottle, relieved by one year as vice principal of the Poona Film Institute, where his students often remember him as a kind of eccentric uncle who nevertheless was able to inspire a new wave of film-makers such as Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul.

Shahani has paid eloquent tribute to him. ‘At the time I met him in the early 60s he had already rejected the mechanistic and somewhat alienated modes of some of his colleagues. He was extremely disenchanted with those who wanted to maintain a false unity and were not implicitly pained enough by the splintering of every form of social and cultural values… it is these factors that made his films a vitally regenerative force for the young. He does not hide behind a medieval or dead past or a merely decorative Indianness… very few of his contemporaries have avoided these pitfalls, whether they work in the cinema or the other arts, or in the theoretical and cultural sphere… the problems of underdevelopment have led them to civilise themselves through a totally alien reference system. It is as if they were ashamed of being themselves, today, with their true history.’ At least no one could say that Ghatak was ashamed of being himself.

Subarnarekha (1965)

Subarnarekha is the most fragmented of his three films about the refugees and as anathema to some of his radical friends as Kamal Candhar. It suggested that there was no political answer to Partition and that the resulting spiritual confusion could not easily be resolved. The deep sense of waste is sharply expressed and the film itself Ghatak’s most brutal description yet of the social consequences of a political act. Even so, life begins again for the hero of the tragedy, with his sister’s child looking forward to a better life on the banks of the Subarnarekha river. And certainly the film remained visually and aurally one of Ghatak’s most exciting achievements. In particular, his camera roams an abandoned airstrip and the riverside with unsentimental eloquence, and the scene when the once-revolutionary brother, in search of a prostitute, finds his sister as one, which leads to her suicide, is melodramatic but enormously direct in its strength. This is not a scene that Ray would have contemplated, but it works as well as that of the drunken refugees, disillusioned and arguing, in a wayside restaurant. Ghatak consistently went for broke, and his failures were often as exciting as others’ successes.

Ghatak’s penultimate film was a project close to his heart, but, given his nature and the state of his health, one which perhaps he should not have embarked upon at all. Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Named Titus) was originally an epic novel on the tragic lives of a fishing community in the valley of the River Titus, Bangladesh. Ghatak was invited to make it by a young producer, with possibly more money than business sense, who was determined to persuade the director to make a film in his home country for the first time. Accordingly, Ghatak was offered substantial facilities, including the use of a brand new Arriflex camera, donated by the Chief of the Films Department in Bangladesh. And he was received as a returning hero when he arrived in Dacca. This, the new government of Bangladesh felt, was a chance to start a coherent film industry in that country. But the shooting did not go well. For one thing, Ghatak’s improvisatory technique frequently left an inexperienced crew in the dark as to his intentions. For another, Ghatak himself had more and more doubts. The country had changed since he had left in 1947, and so had he. He scarcely recognised it as his homeland.

He was also no longer fit enough. During the scoring of Ustad Bahadur Hussain Khan’s music, he collapsed and was admitted to hospital, where tuberculosis was diagnosed as an ancillary difficulty to alcoholism. He was taken by helicopter from Dacca to Calcutta for special treatment. When the film was first shown, it was said to have looked unfinished and hastily cut. Not surprisingly it was another commercial failure, and though Ghatak later trimmed it by some 2,000 feet, he was unable to get permission to reshoot certain sections since the producer had finally given up hope and closed his bank account.

‘It was an act of suicide,’ Ghatak said. ‘Only a lunatic or an ass would have tried to make a film like that and I was both.’ But the failure of A River Named Titus had more repercussions than that. It effectively prevented Bangladesh filmmaking from developing along economically feasible and culturally worthwhile lines. Yet, looking at the film now, it is by no means unremarkable, though obviously flawed and unsatisfactory. Painted on the widest canvas he had attempted, the ebb and flow of the river – the floods and the droughts – is reflected in its rhythm, and Ghatak undoubtedly proved that there was no lack of acting talent in Bangladesh. What the film lacks is stylistic consistency to go with its vision. It is romantic, melodramatic and angry in turn but tends to veer between pessimism and a kind of uplifting optimism that is not really reflected in the story. But its last sequences, where the dying heroine, searching for water, sees visions of a child playing the flute in a field swaying with corn, are very fine.

Jukti, Takko aar Gappo (1977)

Jukti, Takko aar Gappo (Reason, Debate and a Tale) was officially dated a year later than A River Named Titus but in fact started before that project. It was specifically the story of a group of young men involved in an ever more futile armed struggle against the state, and there is little doubt that it was a comment on the Naxalite cause by which Ghatak had been both attracted and repelled. Essentially, however, it was his own autobiography, with the drunken intellectual – who in the end confronts the Naxalites – played by himself. ‘This will be my most serious and my most complex film,’ Ghatak had said beforehand and there is little doubt that it makes a fascinating epitaph. His own performance is certainly a revelation.

Kumar Shahani has written that Ghatak was chronically short of funds and vomiting blood when he made the film, yet his portrayal of the drunken man was ‘unparalleled’. ‘I remember him on the days when he stalked down the Institute corridors and we addressed him as the Tiger from Blake’s poem which he loved to quote. In Jukti, Takko aar Gappo, he seemed to remember it too – only with a change of meaning: “I am burning, everyone is burning, the universe is burning.”’ Shahani notes the scenes of confrontation with his wife, the young woman from Bangladesh and the Naxalites, and the individual shot where he sits against the light falling from his window, the face emerging from the washed-out area almost as that of a ghost. ‘In Indian cinema,’ he writes, ‘the only other performance of such great simplicity and directness that I know is that of the saint-poet Tukaram (in the film of the same name) played by Pagnis.

‘The saint was also considered a deviant in his own time. Is it a commentary on our society – perhaps in the vein of Ritwik himself – that modern saints should be so driven to alcoholism and suchlike that they are emasculated before they can make a lasting impact? Tukaram has lived through his songs and the legends about him amongst the people of Maharashtra. He made a permanent dent in the rigid caste structure. In his own way, Ritwik must have hoped to make a change. In all the fifteen years that I knew him every crisis brought to him a sense of euphoria. The communist uprising of his youth had taught him renewed vigour and hope. But like most other poets he had not the ability to organise. He chose instead to sing.’

Ghatak died two years after the completion of his last film. At 51 he had lived enough for two men, but frequently self-destructively. His body was taken to the crematorium in an open public vehicle so that his many friends could see him. It was, a witness has commented, like a scene from one of his own films. Perhaps the way Jukti, Takko aar Gappo should have ended. He had certainly summed up his own tragedy in the film within the lines: ‘For a bottle I will lie and steal but for name or fame or position I will never lie.’ To which a young man replies: ‘You have practised that pose long enough to become an adept.’ Yet his justification remains in the small group of films which can be accounted among the most lively, committed and passionate to be made in postwar India. ‘I have no right,’ he once said, ‘to indulge in art unless I am able to bring into sharp focus at least one facet of the acute crisis facing our country. Most of my films are humble efforts to come to grips with that.’

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