Days after his 96th birth anniversary, here’s a look back on Ritwik Ghatak’s filmography and how relevant it still is.
Revolutionary auteur Ritwik Ghatak is recognised for his profound portrayal of the Bengal partition and the subsequent refugee crisis in the famed trilogy that includes Megha Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961), and Subarnarekha (1965). In an interview, Ghatak acknowledged that cinema to him is nothing more than a means for honest expression. Throughout a stellar career, the ace filmmaker pushed the envelope and refused to let his talent be imprisoned by the ethos of the state. In his films, he obdurately refuses to present the jubilation of Independence, instead choosing to focus on the painful price that one had to pay for it. Over the years, numerous filmmakers have moulded Indian cinema and attained international acclaim, while others have been ostracised for daring to showcase the injustices meted out by society and governments. Ghatak’s provocative voice stands out from the pack and his contributions to contemporary filmmaking are undeniable.
Born on November 4, 1925, in Dhaka, Ritwik Ghatak is renowned for directing an impressive list of films. However, when the need arose, he also played prominent roles as actor, writer, playwright, and producer. Ghatak did not believe in vacuous entertainment and is instead known for serious content that involves healthy doses of realism, naturalism, symbolism, and a keen eye on the sociopolitical climate of the times. In his essay, My Coming Into Films, the auteur wrote: “I do not believe in ‘entertainment’, as they say, or slogan-mongering.” He believed that a director needs to have a strong vision and describe the truth, which he must contemplate through a painful private process. Universally credited for pioneering the parallel cinema movement in India, Ghatak rolled out riveting stories based on the partition of Bengal and captured the imagination of his audience. His representation of the refugee crisis largely stemmed from his harrowing experiences during the Bengal partition.
One of the scenes of Komal Gandhar depicts an old, confused man with unkempt hair and a dusty beard. He plaintively asks a young man about his future as a refugee. Unable to reconcile with the fact that he has to leave his fertile land near the Padma river, the man shuts his ears because everything he knows and loves is forever behind him. The director paints a ghastly, yet tantalising picture, that voices the emotions of several generations of humans who were adversely affected by the political move.
Ghatak directed only eight feature films over his career. Although they were critically acclaimed and propelled him to legendary status, none of them were commercially successful. The talented director established a reputation as a rebel with a set of films where he explored complex human reactions to the prevalent sociopolitical scenarios. In Nagarik (1952), he examined post-colonial India through the eyes of a fresh graduate trying to find work. The film was reportedly completed in 1952 but was released in 1977, a year after his untimely demise. Nagarik follows a hopeful young man searching for a job in the crowded, unforgiving post-partition Kolkata. The responsibility of his family lies on his shoulders and failing to find work would mean living in unhygienic slums. The film is widely regarded as the first example of an art film in Bengali and precedes Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955).
During the 60s, Ghatak directed a moving trilogy that reflected the torture inflicted on the common man after the partition of Bengal. The acclaimed trilogy begins with Meghe Dhaka Tara, a film based on the lives of an elite Hindu family living in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kolkata. Having left their fertile land and lavish lifestyle behind, they are forced to reside in a decadent neighbourhood that they know little about. The family’s perpetual state of loss and penury after being duped by the promise of Independence form the essence of the narrative. The film is considered Ghatak’s masterpiece and ranks high on the list of the finest Bengali films ever made.
The director continued his scathing commentary on the political divide with Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha. He built all his films around female protagonists, etching them in various colours to highlight the agony of partition and the ensuing refugee crisis. In Meghe Dhaka Tara, it was the selfless Nita (played by Supriya Choudhury) who willingly sacrifices her money, happiness, and health for an unappreciative family. In Subarnarekha, it was the Hindu refugee girl, Sita. Through his films, Ghatak never once celebrated the idea of Independence and chose to show the cost at which Independence was won. His unabashed narration was the opposite of Satyajit Ray’s and often made his audience uncomfortable.
His last film, Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974), bore his trademark spirit of rebellion. The director himself played the lead character of an alcoholic, disillusioned intellectual who comes across a band of Naxalites in Bengal while on a quest to reason with his estranged wife. Apart from being breathtaking, the choice of background scores in Ghatak’s films is fragmented and experimental. In Meghe Dhaka Tara, the soundtrack is largely expressionist and musical, but the discordant blocks of strident, wailing sound accompanying Nita’s agony and an extraordinary range of musical moods unlock a spectrum of vibrant, melancholic, and unnerving scenes.
To this day, Ghatak’s works are a testament to the struggles that he faced in life and depict the social and political turmoil of those times. Although overshadowed by contemporaries like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, Ghatak’s films and plays bear the stamp of his pain. He was bestowed with the Padma Shri for Arts by the Indian government for his contributions to Indian cinema. Despite having faced rejection during his times, Ghatak has been later hailed as a pioneer of meaningful cinema, securing a spot in the pantheon of great Indian directors.