Probably no other auteur in the history of cinema has garnered such a tremendous influence by churning out only eight movies and one script in his entire career span, which Ritwik Ghatak did. Having led a life which had witnessed the wrath of partition, in a state of penury supplemented by the habit of binge drinking; Ghatak remains a controversial, yet a pivotal figure in the history of the New-Wave of Indian cinema. Speaking about the ‘New-Wave’ or ‘Alternate cinema’, one cannot afford to give a miss to the famous trio of Satyajit-Ritwik-Mrinal, who pioneered the movement. Ray, without even a shade of doubt has been the most prolific and colossal figure and received immense accolades both in India and throughout the World. Mrinal Sen’s artistic description of social reality and constant experimentation with parallel cinema made him an award winner in almost all the major film festivals; Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Moscow, Karlovy Vary, Montreal, Chicago and Cairo. Retrospectives of his films have been shown in almost all the major cities of the World. Ray, who has directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts earned numerous awards, which comprised of 32 National Film Awards, a number of awards at International Film festivals and other ceremonies, a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1992. The Government of India honored him with the Bharat Ratna in 1992, which is the highest civilian award granted by the Republic of India in any field of human endeavor.
I often wondered what made people to place Ghatak in the same row of these stalwarts. A man, who did not receive an Oscar, whose films with the lone exception of Meghe Dhaka Tara, failed miserably at the box-office, who was never a Jury in a prestigious film festival, is so much talked about till date. He was a cutthroat speaker, a perceived iconoclast of nihilism, had a profound alcoholic addiction, a conformist to communist ideologies. Did these attributes added feathers to his colorful public image, so much so that he became a topic of discussion, an issue of debate especially among the Bengali intelligentsia. Why has he always been a subject of comparison with his much-revered contemporaries, in particular with Ray?
I have once read in a novel (can’t remember its name), life is a marathon race where each one of us is running with a flamed torch. It is not possible for us to reach the finish line. What we can do at the utmost is to ensure that the BURNING TORCH gets passed on to someone with fresh vigor and unexhausted vitality before we stop permanently. The true success does not lie in the wealth we accumulate, the laurels we procure. It is our capability to inspire generations in future that really counts.
WHAT WE CAN GIVE TO THIS WORLD THAT IS THE QUESTION.
Treading by this line of thought, let us take a glimpse of some of the accomplishments of the Maestro that can serve as BEACON LIGHTS for the ages to come and have already served many.
1. His first movie Nagarik (The Citizen) was completed in 1952 was released 24 years later, even after the demise of Ghatak. Nagarik was the first instance of an art film in Bengali Cinema. Renowned critics like Derek Malcolm, Safder Hasmi, Someswar Bhowmick and many others regarded it as the maiden attempt to explore the inner-essence of realistic situations in Indian cinema. Satyajit Ray himself opined that had Nagarik been released before Panther Panchali (Song of the Road), it would have been the initiation point or emergence of Indian Alternate Cinema.
2. Ajantrik (The Unmechanical), a comedy-drama film with science fiction themes, was one of the earliest Indian films to portray a relationship between a cab-driver Bimal and an inanimate object, his old modeled car, Jagaddal. The movie was considered for a special entry in the Venice Film Festival in 1959. Based on a short story by Subodh Ghosh, the movie deals with the themes of artificial civilization and fallacy of the changes rendering the society mechanized thereby yielding to internal inconsistencies within its multifarious strata. Georges Sadoul, the noted film critic remarked, “What does ‘Ajantrik’ mean? I don’t know and I believe no one in the Venice Film Festival knew. I can’t tell the whole story of the film… There was no subtitle for the film. But I saw the film spellbound till the very end”. The protagonist Bimal (played by Kali Banerjee) was clearly an influence for the cynical cab driver Narasingh (played by Soumitra Chatterjee) in Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan (1962), which in turn aided to create the character of Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s epic movie Taxi Driver (1976).
3. Legendary French Director Francois Truffaut’s most successful film in his home country, The 400 Blows, depicting the tale of a runaway kid was clearly inspired from Ghatak’s masterpiece Bari Theke Paliye (The Runaway). The film, based on a short story by Shibram Chakroborty,depicted literary tools of metaphor, abstract symbolism with great elan. Ritwik handled issues of a child’s visualization of Utopia and his ultimate realization, which resulted in a compromise to perfection. The film served as a reference point, which culminated, to the NEW-WAVE in cinematic history, The French-Wave.
4. Subornorekha (The Golden Thread), my favorite of all the gems he created, vividly described the stark reality of the aftermath of the Partition of Bengal. Ray’s unique feature was his eye for detail, Mrinal’s was the ability to stir a realistic situation to such an extent that the audience became an integral faction of plot development; Ghatak’s specialty was BOLDNESS. Many Directors have displayed the aftermath of a political mishap in terms of sufferings inflicted, tortures tolerated and fragmentation of the society- Polanski in Pianist, Spielberg in Schindler’s list have all portrayed such instances. Ritwik plied a distinct route. He canvassed the scenario with poignant pictures of human distress- not just the pangs of separation that caused so much hardship but also the long term effects on mind. Erin O Donnell rightly points out; the majority of Ghatak’s films are narratives that focus on post-independence Bengali family and community, with a sustained critique of the emerging petit bourgeois in Bengal, specifically in the urban-environment of Kolkata. The story revolves around the tragic fate of a family separated and shattered owing to a turn of events following the event of partition. The Asian Film Magazine CINEMAYA ranked the movie starring Abhi Bhattacharya, Bijon Bhattacharya, Satindra Bhattacharya and Madhabi Mukherjee in key roles as the 11th greatest movie of all time.
5. Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star), which many regard to be his Magnum Opus and his solitary successful commercial venture is a landmark in the history of Indian films. The story revolves around the struggle of a young woman named Neeta, who sweats her blood to provide for the basic amenities of her family. Her brother does not accept any sort of a responsibility to run the family and chases his aspirations to become a singer. Neeta carries the entire burden on her shoulders. Her family thrived on her income. However, what she got in turn was exploitation; everybody took advantage of her goodness. She was the embodiment of self-sacrifice who suffers immense personal losses. First she loses her fiancé, then her job and finally succumbs to chronic tuberculosis. Her brother is the only person who cares for her at the end. She expresses her deep-rooted agony, her screams “DADA AMI BACHTE CHAI”(Brother, I want to live) ends up in vain and provides the enormous sense of loss to the viewer. Meghe Dhaka Tara is strongly melodramatic in tone, especially in respect of pains heaped on the protagonist. There is also an ample use of surrealistic sound effects.
Regarding this Ritwik said, “Melodrama is a much criticized narrative form. But from that alone, the truly national film will emerge. I am not afraid of melodrama. Using it as a device is the birthright of an artiste”.
In 2002, the movie was ranked #231 on the Sight and Sound Critic and Director’s poll for all-time greatest films. In a confirmation of the popularity of Meghe Dhaka Tara, a recent survey by a leading Indian news group reported that the concluding line of the film “DADA AMI BACHTE CHAI” was the most well known line of any film.
6. TITAS EKTI NADIR NAAM (A River named Titash) Ghatak’s only Bangladeshi movie, based on a novel of the same name, by Advaita Malla Burman, was one of the earliest films along with Ray’s Kanchenjunga and Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71 to resemble hyperlink cinema, featuring multiple characters in a set of interconnected stories. This was attained before Robert Altman could conceptualize Nashville (1975) in Hollywood. The movie TOPPED the list of ten best Bangladeshi films, as chosen in the audience and critics poll conducted by the British Film Institute.
7. Madhumati (1958) Produced and Directed by Bimal Roy, Madhumati was scripted by Ritwik Ghatak with dialogues by Rajinder Singh Bedi. The film, which included an ensemble, star-cast of Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala, Pran, Johhny Walker with soulful music by Salil Chowdhury. Madhumati was the record-holder for the most awards received by a film at the Filmfare Awards (9) for 37 years until the release of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which won ten awards. Ghatak won his only Filmfare Award for the Best Story. What makes it really special is the fact that it was one of the earliest films to deal with reincarnation and had a gothic-noir element to it. The movie has been a source of inspiration for the American Film “The Reincarnation of Peter Proud” and Hindi movie “Karz”. Many films Indian as well as foreign have captured similar themes in their plots; Chances Are, Sooryavanshi, Karan-Arjun, Om-Shanti-Om etc.
8. Jukti, Takko ar Gappo (Reason, Debate and a Story)- The Swan song of the maverick was his only movie to bag a National Award for Best Story. It is one of the rarer films to receive astounding critical success where the lead actor, scriptwriter and the director are one and the same person. The film is considered to be technically superior to other films of that era due to its camera work and is placed in the league of Jean Cocteau’s Testament of Orpheus and the Nicholas Ray and Wim Wender’s noted documentary film, lightning over water. In the movie Ghatak portrays his alter ego, Nilkantha Bagchi, a disillusioned intellectual who has drowned himself in the ills of alcoholism. The film deals with multiple themes. Nilkantha, having been deserted by his wife and child owing to his excessive drinking habits, wanders through the countryside and meets unusual folks along the way. He meets a young woman who is driven away from Bangladesh and seeks shelter in Kolkata, a schoolteacher who is in the lookout for a new job as his school is closed on account of political unrest, a group of naxalites whom he describes as misguided. The film does not preach or protest any political ideology in particular but paints the pitiful state of affairs on account of fading moral values, decant attitudes and exploitation all-around. In an interview, Ghatak mentioned “The Great Mother Image” exists in its duality in every aspect of our existence. This is what he has attempted to show through Neeta and Bangobala. Hence, Keno cheye acho go Ma mukhopane, era chahena tomare chahena re,apono ma ere nahi jane ( Why are looking at their face Mother? They don’t want you, they don’t even know you.)
Ghatak lived with a sharp intellect bent on breaking establishments, an inquiring mind and a very restless honesty. He always argued against the well-established premises. Ray and Mrinal openly conveyed their love for the cinematic medium. Ritwik gave a damn to it. In an interview he declared ” After quitting the tax department job, I tried writing poetry but found myself singularly incapable of it. I shifted my interest to writing short stories and won a bit of fame. More than a hundred of them were published in “Desh”, “Parichay”, “Shonibarer chithi” and other leading magazines of Bengal.That was when I found that literature delves deep in the soul of man, but it works slowly. It takes a long time to grow roots inside. With typical adolescent impatience, I wanted to make an immediate impact, because I felt people should be roused immediately”.
Yes… PEOPLE- that was the word. He wanted to reach out to his audience. He further added by saying, “I just want to convey whatever I feel about the reality around me and I want to shout. Cinema still seems to be the ideal medium for this because it can reach umpteen billions once the work is done. That is why I produced films- not for their own sake but for the sake of my people. They say that Television may soon take its place. It may reach out to millions more. Then I will kick the cinema over and turn to T.V”.
He never believed in the production of tales depicting the clinically disinfected state of poverty, a tale where poetic justice is restored with a dramatic turn of events, a story where everything is unscathed and the background music rings “TA RA RA TAA TAA, TA RA RA TAA TAA, TA RA RA, TA TARARA”. Barring Komolgandhar, all of his films have a doleful ending.
The enigma still remains why did an inborn genius like him completely destroyed himself? Why the real life Nilkantha did drank poison and embraced a ruin? Probably there are two possible explanations to this, which I have tried to explain to the best of my knowledge.
HIS VIEWS ON PARTITION
He could never accept the partition of India in 1947 that divided Bengal in two countries. The drudgery of people owing to the phenomenon of partition has been a recurrent theme in almost all his movies. To deprive someone of his land, to snatch away his nationality is to deny his very existence. It is the greatest crime of all. He could never live with the fact that such a heinous deed was carried out in the name of religion, ordained with the concept of Independence. It is like cutting the head off in order to remedy a headache. He once remarked,
“Being a Bengali from East Bengal, I have seen untold miseries inflicted on my people in the name of independence- which is fake and sham. I have reacted violently towards this and have tried to portray different aspects of this”. While the films “Refugee”(1959) directed by Shantipriya Mukherjee or Rajen Tarafdar’s “Palanka”(1976) have now faded into oblivion, Ritwik Ghatak is the only director whose films and worldview have become synonymous with partition. While depicting this cruel saga, Ghatak was not satisfied with a form that exalts the historical flow; but sought to turn history itself into an object of investigation. It is Nilkantha’s dictum “Chinta korte sekho” (learn to think), what he tried to make the audience do. Was partition a ploy for the benefit of the nation or a platter for the power mongers? It is an issue, which he made us to think over and over again.
His people meant everything for him. He stated his by quoting, “I do not believe in the label entertainment, nor do I accept sloganeering. I would like to deeply meditate on this universe, this World, International situation, my country and my own people. I would like to make films for them. I might have failed in today. But time and people alone have to decide”. His livelihood in a state of abject poverty induced him to do a TVC for the Imperial Tobacco Company. The money helped him to complete his film “Subornorekha” after its producer left. Ghatak shot a film based on a novel by Shankar – Koto Ajanare. A day’s shoot was left when the film got shelved. Many opine that Koto Ajanare could have made history in Indian Cinema, as the novel was a widely celebrated one. Despite all this, he continued making films. The people were his sole motivation. His films had a unique Indian feel to it. Unlike Mrinal Sen’s dig at Victorian nitty-gritties, Ray’s fascination towards Italian Neo-realism, Ghatak followed the Indian way, which was something his very own – Astute, Hard and full of melodrama. Although Ghatak credited Eisenstien and Bertolt Brecht for his dramatic display of scenes, yet they seemed to have been deep engrafted in the Indian psyche. It is when most of his works ran to empty theatres in Bengal, he sank deep into depression. He did not do films for money, for awards. Had he pursued such a path, he would not have left Mumbai after the phenomenal success of Madhumati. He left because he could not adapt himself to the market governed Mumbai film industry. He was lacking creative freedom there. He could not reach out his own people in his very own way. The audience was his God and the follower’s prayers remained unanswered for the major part. It was this set back which gave place to dejection. His apparently scornful remark “My films did not flop. The audience flopped” is an outcome of the widespread rejection he received. It is quite astonishing to know that the filmmaker was a tea-totaller before turning 35. Once, he issued a notice against alcohol consumption for studio technicians during work hours. It is this man who surrendered himself to this vice out of misery, frustration and remorse out of a life that he considered WASTED.
The perfect tale of an unrewarded genius.
During his teaching stint at the FTII, Pune he has been a mentor to personalities like Mani Kaul, John Abraham, Kumar Sahani, Saeed Akhtar Mirza and the legendary Adoor Gopalakrishnan. He also made two short films with the students in Pune – Rendezvous and Fear.
John Abraham, known as one of the first eminences of the Alternate Malayalam Cinema, was one who followed Ghatak to the hilt, from his nihilism to his drunken ways. This is what he wrote of his Guru:
For him life was holier,
Than his holy worship.
Death of Ritwik Ghatak,
Is a happening very unusual.
I rise in pride to reminisce on my Ghatak da.
He will live eternally.
In my thoughts,
In my senses and in my soul.