Born on November 4, 1925, the Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak got limited recognition in his lifetime, but was hailed as one of the great Indian filmmakers after his death.
He was born at Dhaka in East Bengal, which was then a part of India, but in his lifetime became East Pakistan and, then, Bangladesh. Like millions of others, Ghatak too was forced to move to West Bengal in the 1940s, but the trauma of displacement never left him, and Partition and exile occur as recurrent motifs in his films. He was also immersed in Indian culture and theatre, and the cult of the ‘Mother figure’, in particular, was another significant marker of his films.
Ghatak would poetically describe his beloved East Bengal where he spent his childhood: “My days were spent on the banks of the Padma — the days of an unruly and wild child. The people on the passenger boats looked like dwellers of some distant planet…In the drizzling rain a joyful tune would float in the village air, pulling at one’s heart-strings with the sudden gusts of wind.”
Starting his creative career as a playwright, Ghatak wrote his first play Kalo sayar (The Dark Lake) in 1948. He joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association in 1951. He was both actor and assistant director in the 1950 film ‘Chinnamul’. In 1952, he completed his first feature film, ‘Nagarik’ (The Citizen), but it was not released in a theatre until much later. ‘Nagarik’ reflects the pain of Partition through the travails of a family living in Calcutta (now Kolkata) that yearns for a return to the joyful past in East Bengal that has gone for ever. In its themes and concerns, ‘Nagarik’ foreshadows much of Ghatak’s later work.
‘Nagarik’ also reflected Ghatak’s unique sensibility when it came to cinematic sound. “Another innovation of Ghatak which he used in Nagarik and which became a characteristic of his later style was the device of using deep focus to place his characters firmly in their social environment,” theatreperson and activist Safdar Hashmi wrote later.
‘Ajantrik’ (Pathetic Fallacy), his 1958 film, was a remarkable accomplishment for its time, given it is the story of a man’s feelings for his car, which is almost shown as a living being. The New York Times has called it “a laugh-out-loud comedy of naive anthropopathism [but] also an allegory of India’s stumbling emergence into the industrial age”.
Of the eight full-length features he directed, ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ (The Cloud-Capped Star) and ‘Subarnarekha’ (Golden Lining) are his greatest works. “[The] deep concern with archetypes informs the main body of [Ghatak’s] work,” film scholar Ira Bhaskar wrote. “Orchestrated repeatedly in all his films, the concern is best integrated in Meghe Dhaka Tara.”
‘Subarnarekha’ is the story of Isvar who is forced by circumstances to go to Calcutta to look for work and brings along his sister Sita and a young boy, Abirham. Isvar finds work at a mill near Subarnarekha River. He raises the two children there. But Sita and Abirham eventually marry, and their links with Isvar are broken. When Abirham dies, Sita is forced into prostitution. Isvar realises this under disturbing circumstances.
About ‘Subarnarekha’, Bhaskar wrote: “Subarnarekha is and will remain a fearless critique of modern civilization, and yet its meaning emerges only through a consideration of its cultural significations.”
In 1966, Ghatak moved to Pune where for a year he taught at the newly-opened Film and Television Institute of India. Among his students were the filmmakers Mani Kaul, John Abraham, and Kumar Shahani.
Ghatak made two more films, in the 1970s, ‘Titash Ekti Nadir Naam’ (A River Called Titas), and ‘Jukti Takko Aar Gappo’ (Reason, Debate And Story), himself acting in the latter. But by this time he was heavily drinking and his health was steadily worsening.
Ghatak’s work began to find a global audience more than a decade after his death in 1976. A critics’ poll conducted by the film magazine Cinemaya ranked ‘Subarnarekha’ No. 11. in all-time great films.
His fellow Bengali filmmaker, the great Satyajit Ray, had this to say of Ghatak: “He was one of the few truly original talents in the cinema this country has produced. Nearly all his films are marked by an intensity of feeling coupled with imaginative grasp of the technique of film-making. As a creator of powerful images in an epic style he was virtually unsurpassed in Indian cinema…For him Hollywood might not have existed at all. The occasional echo of classical Soviet cinema is there, but this doesn’t prevent him from being in a class by himself.”
Ghatak once said in an interview that art was not a trivial thing. “The primary objective of making films is to do good to mankind,” he said. “If you do not do good to humanity, no art is a true work of art.”
In his own way he remained true to his words.
Also on this day:
1845 — Vasudeo Phadke, Indian revolutionary who fought against the British, was born
1971 — Tabu, Indian film actress, was born