Ritwik Ghatak – An Unwanted Film Maker

The famous Bengali poet and film director, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, had once said: “It may take some time for the fantasy and the reality of some films, hiding behind the rolls of films, to reach us. Certain films may need more attention from the viewers. Viewers may easily reject such films if they do not have the patience and the mindset to feel them.” It has indeed been found to be true. Many films that are regarded today as great creative works of art were colossal financial disasters at the time of their release. Mostly, this is the fate reserved for sensitive art films that enter emotions in the depths of our mind ever so slowly. In the same article, Buddhadeb Dasgupta emphasizes one point in particular. “Cultural background of a film largely determines the manner of its expression. It may affect proper appreciation capacity of a viewer who has no familiarity with the culture depicted in the film.” It was while speaking on the works of the Bengali film director Ritwik Ghatak that Buddhadeb Dasgupta had said that an uninformed, illiterate and culturally novice fan is likely to reject any great work of art. It was his contention that as Ghatak’s films are deeply rooted in Bengali culture and history, any viewer who is unaware of these will not be able to understand and internalize his films. But does a viewer really requires such information beyond his artistic sensitivities to appreciate a work of art?

I remember Thadathil Vijayan who was my neighbour in my childhood. He used to get work to draw a few political party banners or placards once in a while though he was a good artist and sculptor. Hence he lived as a farm labourer in dire poverty. He was an active member of a film club in the nearby town. With barely five years of schooling, he could not even read English sentences. But I first heard of the term ‘Art Film’ from him. I learnt of greats like Eisenstein, Kurosava and Satyajit Ray from him. It was he who told me about Ritwik Ghatak first. He was Ghatak’s ardent admirer.

It was many years later that I saw the films of Ghatak. I deeply appreciated his films without the benefit of any understanding of Bengali language, culture or history. A good film serves as a medium of emotional expressions transcending cultures. Most of Ritwik Ghatak films were such expressions of rare sensitivities that remain eternally with us. He places before the viewer complex thoughts and sensitive moments of life through the lives of ordinary and simple people in films that run at a sedate pace and in a simple style. His films are seen as poems in celluloid as he allows emotions, traditions and antiquities of Indian way of life to flow in his cinematic narration.

Ritwik Ghatak, considered a classical hero among  fans of serious cinema today, was little appreciated in his days and understood even less. Most of his films ran to empty theatres in Bengal. Nagarik was his first film. Completed in 1953, this film was not released in his life-time. 24 years later it was first screened in 1977, a year after his passing away. Satyajit Ray had opined that had Nagarik been released before Pather Panjali, it would have been recognized as the maiden effort of the Indian alternate cinema.

Nagarik remains a model for the modern Indian film. Its unique narration style and direction makes this film an important landmark in Indian films.  One of its highlights was the brief but emotional background score by Hariprasanna Das. The film’s form was the herald of the later films of Ghatak, especially in its sense of melodrama.

Ghatak was not the one to ever consider melodrama as anything less than realistic narration. As far as the Indian cinema is concerned melodrama with the touch of realism begins and ends with Ghatak. In Ghatak films melodrama is a form of alternate realism. Ghatak takes his thoughts and emotions to the viewer through conscious use of repeated narrations and coincidences.

Ghatak, as a person who trained in both folk art forms and theatre and as somebody who had a conscience with traditional value base, chose melodrama as the medium of his expression. His melodrama has been woven with Indian folk and classical elements and Bertolt Brecht’s stage devices of the west.

Ghatak had already perfected this form during his days as actor, director and dramatist with Indian People’s Theatre Association. He mentions this in his article ‘Cinema and I’ in 1963: “Melodrama is a much criticized narrative form. But from that alone the truly national film will emerge.” He had elaborated further in an interview in 1974: “I am not afraid of melodrama. Using it as a device is the birthright of the artiste. It is a very important form of expression in art.”

Ghatak was truly a cinema maker without peer. His art believes in celebrating it with all branches of life. He created his fluent style of picturisation incorporating hope, disappointment, curiosity, laughter and tears. He declared: “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 it today. But Time and people alone have to decide”

Ritwik Kumar Ghatak was born in Dhaka on 4th November of 1925. Dhaka was, like Calcutta, the centre of multi-faceted cultural activities in the beginning of 19th century. Many civil movements took form there. Following Independence and Partition, along with lakhs of people who migrated out of fear of riots and famine, Ghatak and his family arrived in Calcutta. Ghatak grieved over the partition of Bengal to the last. Considering himself a refugee was, to his mind, a metaphor for alienation from the basic culture and boycott of one’s own identity. Most of the characters of his films were people who lost their land and livelihood.

Ghatak joined the Communist movement and took active part in its cultural organ, IPTA. Before he plunged into drama, Ghatak wanted to be a litterateur but found it to be a form of expression without wider public participation. This search for the form with wider participation of public brought him to cinema. This is what he had to say: “I want to narrate the reality around me. I want to shout out to the people. Today, cinema alone appears to be the suitable medium for this. The reason is that as soon as I finish my work it can reach out to millions of people. I make films for my people.” But Ghatak had to confess on many occasions that cinema was not, for him, a natural medium. His films suffer from many mistakes of carelessness and in particular technical errors in picturisation. In spite of that, they grow on our mindscape like the sorrows and elations we experience from raw forms of music.

Ritwik Ghatak entered the world of cinema as an Assistant Director and Actor in the film Chinaamul (The Uprooted) made by Nimai Ghosh in 1950. Heavily in debt after being unable to release his maiden film Naagarik, Ghatak went to Bombay and worked for some time in Filmistan Studios there. In Bombay, he worked on the screenplays of Musafir (1957) directed by Hrishikesh Mukherji and Madhumathi (1958) directed by Bimal Roy. His comrade from IPTA, Salil Chowdhury, composed the music of both these films. Later in 1959, Salilda composed the music for Ghatak’s film Baari Theke Paaliye (Deserter).

After his return to Calcutta, Ghatak directed Ajantrik (Non machine) in 1958. It was the story of a driver of rented car in love with his old and dented car to the point of infatuation. The film placed before the viewer a very broad canvas story covering different types of people from different walks of life who travelled in that car. The famous Bengali sarod maestro, Ustad Bahadur Khan, had composed sensitive but penetrating music for Ajantrik, as he had done for many Ghatak films.

Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ghatak’s much acclaimed and biggest and lone commercial success was released in 1960. Social and economic problems related to partition of Bengal is the basic theme of the film. Meghe Dhaka Tara is an important musical film. It has many Hindustani raga based songs like the famous Hansadhwani raga number ‘Laagi Lagan Pathi Sakhi’. The film is enriched by many bits of Rabindra Sangeet including Tagore’s famous ‘Je Raathe More Dwaar Khuli’ (My Doors Are Open This Stormy Night) rendered by Hemant Kumar.

Film Komal Gandhar was released in 1961. It is the word for a music note. Gandhar refers to Ga, the third note in the music scale. Komal Gandhar refers to the softer Ga among the two ‘Ga’s. It is more or less the equivalent of the western music note ‘E-flat’.  But Komal Gandhar is not a music-related film. It is a film on drama troupes and stage dramas.

But the Ghatak film I loved most was Subarnarekha (Line of Gold). It is the name of a river in Bengal with waters of a golden hue. It is a rare film that used melodrama in place of mechanical realism with great élan.  This film too, like other great Ghatak films, was totally rejected by the viewing public. Today it is considered a classic poem in celluloid and a turning point in the history of Indian films.

The songs of the film Subarnarekha lent the film a dramatic pace and pseudo-realism. Though there were seven songs in the film, all the emotional moments in the film were held together by one song. The female lead of the film Sita singing that song from her childhood days. Whether she is sitting among hills or she is walking on the banks of Subarnarekha ‘Aaj Daaner Khethe Roudra Chaayai Luko Choorie Kela’is always on her lips. Based on a simple tune, the song describes the natural beauty of the rural landscape of Bengal.

Today the sunshine and shadows play hide and seek on the paddy fields
Today in the blue skies somebody has set afloat the boats of white clouds
Today the bees are foregoing the honey in flowers   to mob the beams of morning sun
Today we would rather stay out to drink of nature to our heart’s content
Today we would not go home

After the commercial disaster of Subarnarekha, Ghatak could not find a producer. Undaunted he produced two films on his own. Both films, Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (Titash is Name of a River) and Jukti, Takko Aar Gappo (Device, Logic and Story) were never properly released. Around this time, he joined the faculty at Film Institute, Poona. Later, he was to recall these years as the ‘most beautiful years’ of his life.

But he came out soon, unable to fit himself into the discipline and authoritarian ways of the Film Institute. However, during the time he was there, he left his indelible stamp on some of the students who trained there. They emerged as important creators in the Indian cinema world of seventies and eighties. Kumar Sahni, Mani Kaul, Syed Mirza, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ketan Mehta and John Abraham were some of his important students.

Ghatak lived with a sharp intellect bent on breaking establishments, an inquiring mind and a very restless honesty. He was a very direct person, impossible to second-guess and difficult to live with. He always argued against all established premises. He strongly criticized Film Festival circuits and Film Awards.

He saw his films as instruments of social change. But his society did not understand his work. He was ignored by the majority of film-goers. He was rejected by film producers. He was ignored during his life-time by important film critics. He died penniless as an alcoholic and a TB patient.

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

            Ritwik Ghatak
            For him life was holier
            Than his holy worship
            Death of a Ritwik Ghatak is an unusual happening
            I rise in pride to reminisce on my Ghatak-da
            He will live eternally
            In my thoughts
            In my senses and in my soul