Dying Like a Roadside Dog: A Primer on Ritwik Ghatak

A short primer on the films and influence of Ritwik Ghatak, honored with a November retrospective at Film at Lincoln Center.
Christopher Small
When the Pingyao International Film Festival staged its improbable tribute to the “New Indian Cinema” of the 1960s and 1970s last month, its organizers—historian Ayesha Geeth Abbas, Deepti DCunha, and festival director Marco Müller—placed two films by Ritwik Ghatak (1925–1975) at the center of the tribute. Improbable, that is, because of the radicality of the non-Ghatak contents of the program; even Ghatak’s greatest defenders would concede that (at least with these films) he never quite pushed things as far as some of these filmmakers were able to, preferring instead to work within more popular contexts. Nestled among the more standard fare of PYIFF’s main program, the opaque and challenging delights of this twelve-film series benefited from comparison with other movies; when seen against the both the Chinese and international competition at the festival, it was perhaps inevitable that the life seemed to drain out of the new films, absorbed instead into these mysterious lode stars.
At first glance, the inclusion of the two movies by Ghatak—Ajantrik (dubbed Pathetic Fallacy in English, 1958) and Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960)—looked a little slavish. A tip of the hat, maybe, to a great master amidst a wider celebration of a later generation’s daring. The broad comedic strokes in which the first film is drawn and the intense currents of melodrama that consume and characterize the latter contrasted uneasily with the austere, impenetrable formal nexuses of Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972) or with the whole of the shimmering, eldritch wonder that is Mani Kaul’s Duvidha (1973).
Yet in absorbing these films together, what soon became apparent was that Ghatak—the man, the filmmaker, the teacher—loomed large over these projects and their makers. The inclusion of these two movies came to seem not merely permissible but in actual fact absolutely essential. Though these younger directors were working in a different set of conditions and with different pressures, regional particulars, and commercial considerations, it is clear that Ghatak’s obsessive independence, widespread perception—no matter his success—as an artistic outsider, and his once-in-a-generation genius for conceiving of image-flurries (and soundscapes!) of an Orson Welles-like density exploded like a bomb in the hearts and minds of these young filmmakers and gave them the wherewithal to push their own image-experiments even further than even Ghatak would have dreamed possible.1
Far from the PYIFF, New Yorkers too will get a chance to be marked by Ghatak's work, this time in a rather more comprehensive fashion. From November 1st to 6th, Lincoln Center will pay extended tribute to the great director with all but one of his eight feature films. As evidenced by such examples as PYIFF's program, Ghatak was very much a central figure of the broader Indian cinema of the period, his thumbprint left on a whole generation of colleagues and protégés a massive one. With the series at Lincoln Center, the programmers are clearly looking to reassert Ghatak as the major world artist he was.
Born in what is East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in 1925, as a young man Ghatak and his middle-class family were forced to flee famine and the partition of Bengal in the 1940s, settling in Calcutta. This seismic life event forever marked Ghatak as an artist. As one of the great refugee filmmakers, his work is characterized by stories of division across borders, displaced peoples, unending struggles to lay roots in new places. These were scars that cut so deep as to affect and warp, in Ghatak's life and that of his characters, all aspects of life. Beyond this obvious thematic connection, this trauma had a more subtle effect on Ghatak's thinking.
Looking over his body of work as a whole again, it is clear that the prevailing idea in all of Ghatak's movies is the impenetrability of other worlds. His are characters trapped at the margins of geographical, social, or psychic borders that themselves prove insurmountable. Staring out over the limits of their lives, these people, like Ghatak, are defeated by the sheer force required to cross these boundaries. Indeed, at times his work seems almost comically overripe in its melodramatic bleakness, his female protagonists robbed of their agency and cast aside by the capricious whims of fate (and, as drama, by their maker). But these women, crushed under the weight of all this, also occupy brief moments in which they stand and ponder at these metaphysical outskirts. Time and again, Ghatak lets us slip into the pockets of meditation alongside his protagonists; dwarfed by the physical world (a particularly colossal tree plays such a role in The Cloud-Capped Star) and pushed into the far edges of the ever-shifting frame, they reclaim these moments of thought, almost conscious of the outsize mechanisms of fate and melodrama to which they are cruelly subject.
To many Western cinephiles, Ghatak remains the equivalent of a “writer’s writer.” In other words: something rich and singular to be savored by those in-the-know. Of course Ghatak does get periodically revived, though often as the maker of one or two notable classic movies. Western culture’s conception of Indian cinema is so bankrupt, so insufficient that a figure of Ghatak’s stature and significance is heralded, if at all, as a cultish figure from the outskirts. A classic case of the woeful "best-kept secret." On top of this, as is often the case when an entire national cinema culture is reduced in the popular imagination to at best two or three names, Ghatak often appears as one side of a dull and fruitless historical opposition. Meaning: as the hip flip side to that (now under-appreciated and, yes, misunderstood even) titan of middlebrow taste-cultures of yore, Satyajit Ray.
But to blow away these cobwebs all you need is to plunge for any length of time into Ghatak's enigmatic floating worlds. These movies are, as seen before you on-screen, a continuously unfolding series of sublime momentary revelations that, through their spontaneity and starkness, belie the miserabilist nature of his plots and stress the ambiguous beauty of these flashes of terror or clarity. One such moment, which I think is worth detailing as a final way to introduce Ghatak's cinema, comes in Subarnarekha. The heroine, Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee), is greeted by a hysterical group of friends and neighbors outside her home in the slums of Calcutta. At this point, she has, like many Ghatakian heroines, sacrificed everything in pursuit of an ideal. Her romance with her adopted brother Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya), who is not only a relation but of a lower caste and therefore verboten, led to their arrival in the slums and their ostracization from Sita's older brother Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya). To the sound of voices outside speaking vaguely about some kind of accident, she approaches the edge of the house and looks out at their faces. Suddenly the fragments of speech she heard coalesce into a clear story: Abhiram was lynched by an angry crowd after killing a young girl with his bus.
Sita's slow approach to the limits of the home, stepping out with care from the dark interior, through a banner of shadow that briefly masks her eyes, and finally into the soft light is one of the moments in Ghatak's cinema where a character butts up against the brutal limits of the world, a visual metaphor for the crossroads at which she finds herself. Sita, like so many Ghatak heroines, stands at the edge of a universe painfully inaccessible to her. Think of the famous image of Neeta (Supriya Choudhury) in The Cloud-Capped Star, lingering like a leper behind those alluring wooden slats, unable to enter into a world that, in a cruel twist, vampirically and fatally feeds off her energy to sustain itself. But Sita does cross the threshold, passing from obscurity to illumination, and in the process is destroyed by it. She immediately lurches backwards and crumples to the ground, her neck bathed in sweat.
Beyond these social barriers that Ritwik Ghatak so deftly transforms into visual detail, no human can pass and return unmarked.

1. In introducing the Pingyao program, Dcunha offered a telling anecdote from her time spent with the late Mani Kaul. His two favorite filmmakers were Bresson and Ghatak. If you know Kaul’s work, it is not hard to grasp that first influence. The second, however, is more elusive, and Dcunha pressed him on it. “Bresson and Ghatak both,” he said, “cured me of the disease of realism.”
"Poetry and Partition: The Films of Ritwik Ghatak" is playing November 1 – 6, 2019 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York


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