Considered to be among the golden trio of Bengali directors and with a filmography limited to only eight films and some documentaries, Ritwik Ghatak was misunderstood by his peers and the audience, with Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen overpowering him with their individual styles. But, as is evident everywhere in the world, you can only gauge the worth of a person after he has gone. After passing away at the age of fifty, Ghatak’s films came under the spotlight again and people began to realise the powerhouse that he was, in turn influencing many filmmakers after him. Involved in politics and theatre from a very early age, Ghatak was moulded in the Brechtian form of drama, thereby rejecting many of the cinematic conventions of his times. Considered to be a maverick, Ghatak’s films dealt with the raw human emotions attached to the partition of Bengal and the violence that came with it. Being a member of the Communist party of India (later banned by the party), Ghatak always considered himself an activist rather than artist. His films are deeply political in nature and dealt with themes of separation, homelessness and the refugee situation. He combined his themes with popular content such as melodrama, songs and dance. He considered Cinema to be just another medium for his political expression.
With better grasp of technology than most of his contemporaries, Ghatak employed some of the most breathtaking technologies on screen, often leaving the audience confused. It was only after a deep engagement with his films, did people begin to understand the intrinsic layers of emotions he dealt with through the medium of cinema.
Making a list of Ghatak’s top five films is a daunting task in itself, all the more so because he has made only eight full length feature films during his lifetime, all of them stellar in every aspect of filmmaking. Still, for the need of the readers, a list is being compiled below of his top five creations and I am also hoping Ritwik babu won’t descend with full fury in my dreams.
Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star, 1960)
Based on a novel by Shaktipada Rajguru, this was the most commercially successful and widely viewed of Ghatak’s films. It is considered to be a part of Ghatak’s revered partition trilogy. The film revolves around Neeta, played by Supriya Choudhury, a self-sacrificing individual and her family, all of them refugees from East Bengal, a direct result of the partition. The film is a superb example of Ghatak’s mastery over the medium and his understanding of the human situation after the partition. The film serves as an allegory for the traumatic consequences of the partition of Bengal, and captures the systematic breakdown and demoralization of the human soul and the family.
Using techniques that were unknown before, Ghatak presents a sensorial experience which charts the human suffering through Neeta’s suffering. One particular scene to note is when Neeta visits Sanat (Niranjan Ray) at his house and comes down the stairs. The camera goes to a big close up of Neeta with the sound of oil burning in the background. It is an allegory to Neeta’s emotions when she sees Sanat with her sister, even though Sanat and Neeta were supposed to be married. These techniques employed were Ghatak’s forte and would be later used by many filmmakers, but never with such impact.
Ajantrik (The Unmechanical / The Pathetic Fallacy, 1958)
Made in 1958 and adapted from a short story of the same name by Subodh Ghosh, Ajantrik is the story of Bimal, played by Kali Banerjee and his attachment with his car, a rickety 1920 Chevrolet Jalopy which he affectionately calls Jagaddal. It was arguably the first time that an inanimate object, in this case the car, is made one of the protagonists of a film. With a sound design which was deeply layered and an unsentimental approach to the narrative, where an awkward relationship is shown between a man and his car, Ghatak used this as a platform to symbolise his wider ideas of man’s tryst with machine and the foreboding spell of industrialisation and exploitation which was already taking shape. Kali Banerjee’s impeccable performance in the film, where he goes from being proud to angry to being a loner at the very end, sets the tone of the narrative. Even though the audience knows that Bimal is talking to an inanimate object, sometimes in the narrative you feel as if Jagaddal, the car, is responding too. Also interesting to note is Ghatak’s observation of the Oraon tribe through their dance rituals.
Ajantrik is also perhaps the first road movie of India, following Bimal and Jagaddal’s journey across the plains of the Gangetic Delta and providing some stunning imagery of the rural landscapes.
Subarnarekha (The Golden Line, 1965)
Made in 1962 and released in 1965, Subarnarekha is the last film of the partition trilogy and perhaps the most complex one. Directly dealing with the plight of the refuges after the partition and the trauma attached to it, Subarnarekha is also the most expressive of Ghatak’s films. The film revolves around Ishwar Banerjee, played by Abhi Bhattacharya and his sister Sita, played by Madhabi Mukherjee, both refugees from East Bengal, trying to settle in a refugee colony. Ishwar gets a job in Chaatimpur near the bank of the river Subarnarekha, and relocates there along with Sita and Abhiram, another refugee kid whom Ishwar rescued. While living their lives in the quaint town of Chaatimpur, a romantic relationship develops between Abhiram and Sita out of their childhood intimacy. But keeping Abhiram’s low caste origin in mind, Ishwar rejects the marriage proposal, compelling both of them to move to Calcutta, where Abhiram takes up a job as a bus driver. But, as luck would have it for Sita, Abhiram gets killed in a bus accident. With a child in her arms and no means of sustenance, Sita is pushed into prostitution and to her utter shock finds her first customer to be her brother, Ishwar. The shock becomes too much for Sita to handle and she kills herself. Ishwar is left with no choice but to accept Binu, Abhiram and Sita’s son and start off on a new journey.
Subarnarekha employs the melodramatic genre by joining different episodes into a story of coincidences. Ghatak said in this regard, “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 scene to note in this film is Sita’s suicide, where Ghatak creates a powerful montage of sight and sound. He juxtaposed the sound of Sita’s heavy breathing with the image of the kitchen knife a big close up of her unblinking eyes, setting new heights of cinematography and montage in Indian cinema.
Komal Gandhar (E-Flat, 1961)
Also part of the partition trilogy, Komal Gandhar, released in 1961, is strongly autobiographical. It revolves around a theatre group that is dedicated towards the art form but is struggling to make ends meet. The film primarily revolves around Bhrigu (played by Abanish Banerjee) and Anasuya, played by Supriya Devi, both members of their respective theatre groups and the memories of their homeland (which they have left in the wake of partition). The film resembles much of Ghatak’s own life, who was an active member of IPTA, but had to leave because of his radical critique of their policies and touches upon the issues of idealism, corruption and the relation between art and life in this film. Komal Gandhar, like other Ghatak films, is a technological masterpiece. Using folk songs and songs of fishermen, Ghatak tries to underscore particular political moments. Perhaps one of the most important and brilliant shots in the history of cinema, is the tracking shot over a railway line which ends abruptly, signifying the demarcation and division of a country and leaving millions of people dead in the process.
This is also perhaps the only film by Ghatak which ends on a happy note, with Anasuya deciding to stay with Bhrigu and not go to Samar, her romantic interest living in Paris.
Jukti Takko ar Gappo (Reason, Debate and a Story, 1974)
Ghatak’s last film in 1974, Jukti Takko ar Gappo is considered to be an autobiographical film, where he plays Neelkantha Bagchi, an alcoholic and disillusioned intellectual whose family leaves him because of his drinking habits. Set against the backdrop of the Naxalite rebellion, the film deals with various themes such as politics, disillusionment of youth, an artist and his thoughts on politics and society. The film is a journey in itself, with Neelkantha travelling throughout the film to reconcile with his wife, along with Nachiketa (Burman) and Bangabala (Shaoli Mitra), a young refugee from Bangladesh. Over the course of his journey, he meets many people – a former contemporary (played by Utpal Dutt), a trade union leader and a Chhau mask maker. The film ends with Neelkantha meeting a group of Naxalites where he delves into a long political discussion with them and ultimately gets shot when the police ambush the group in the forest.
This film is considered to be the most superior of all of Ghatak’s films because of its technological and narrative display. As with all of his films, Jukti Takko ar Gappo is also rife with themes which recur in all of his films – partition, homelessness, leftist politics, familial alienation and vanishing rural traditions. One of the most brilliant sequences in the film is of the energetic and poignant Chhau dance.
As with all lists, this one too is not a final word on Ritwik Ghatak’s top films. In fact, he might be the only director whose filmography cannot be compiled into a certain list. I request all the readers to watch all of Ghatak’s films and read his essays (some of them available online). His understanding of the medium and his craftsmanship is a reflection of a man totally dedicated to speak in favour of the millions of unheard voices whose lives have been ruined by politics, to which they have no relation.