Ritwik Ghatak: A Director Ahead Of His Times

Ritwik Ghatak: A Director Ahead Of His Times

“The mind that probes deeper still sees the philosophical insights as well as those signals that come from the artist’s self-reflection.”

Ritwik Ghatak, Human Society, Our Tradition, Filmmaking, and My Efforts

Six and half decades of introduction to Nagrik, Ajantrik, Meghe Dhaka Tara, Subarnarekha. The list shall go on but we stop. We stop because we are awestruck. The brilliance of these classics of Bangla cinema doesn’t let us move without gaping at it’s magnificence. The power of Ritwik Ghatak’s ‘if only's and could have beens’ still resonate today, with us, the contemporary cinephiles. 

On his death anniversary, let us take a walk through the life of this painfully gifted filmmaker.

Atypical Life of a Genius

Alcoholism, lack of finances, and grappling with the lack of commercial success whilst categorically resisting conventions of national cinema, Ritwik Ghatak was a party to misfortunes. Name a tragedy, and you’d notice that Ghatak’s life meanders through it all. A surreal lotus floating amidst gallons of mud, struggle seemingly was his first name. Satyajit Ray, his popular contemporary once opined that Ghatak’s cinema had been introduced to an audience which was unfortunate to have not understood the sweat of his brow. A self-declared Marxist, he began with short stories and got attached to a cultural movement spun by the progressive left, a theatre of resistance-Indian People’s Theatre Association. 

Difference of opinion, parting with friends is not a new phenomenon. Ritwik did it too, and soon parted with IPTA because of differing ideologies. His critics slammed him with their constant questioning for they felt the films were rather obscure. Their most pinching of all criticism was that he portrayed ‘damaging sensationalism’.

Ghatak, however, in his own essay refuting the alleged allegations writes, “Try however I might, I could not peddle in nostalgic sentimentalism, which is the curse of many a fine worker in this country.” 

Being a first-hand witness to the ghastliness of partition and the cataclysmic Bengal famine, his work maps the generational trauma of the bruised sensitively. Yet, cracks of the heart were remnant because of his stillborn projects, half-made films, and wildly hampered releases contributing to severe nervous breakdowns. Nonetheless, if you were to speak to his student’s, he was their favourite legend. The teacher who hatched competent, young filmmakers like Subhash Ghai. Shocked much? It’s true. Ghai was his student at Pune Film Institute.

The Film That Was Almost Lost

Yes, you read it right! The film with a tinge of naturalism and an inconclusive end, Ghatak’s Nagarik (The City Dweller), was unreleased in his lifetime. The era thought they had lost it. But thanks to a lovely group of technicians who worked it out! Cheering to the positive story of their victory and their unfazed efforts. After his passing away, the battered print was put together, from which a new negative was fashioned. Finally, for the first time in August, 1977, it was released to the public at Calcutta. And the rest was history. The film had an overwhelming response from the audience in the first week itself! 

As it was rightly said, Ghatak made films which were undoubtedly ahead of its times. Nonetheless, who knows if it had been released then, it might have paved a new road for the evolving Indian Cinema. 

The Actor Ghatak

Did you know that Ghatak also had his debut in acting in a film which wasn’t his? He appeared on screen for the first time in the film Chinnamul (The Uprooted) which had been directed by Nemai Ghosh. There’s a huge possibility that the seeds of ideas for partition films in Ghatak’s mind were sown from then on. Over a course of time, he also appeared in his own films like Subarnarekha.

Ritwik’s Characters Enunciating the Provocative Discourse of Modernity

Ritwik Ghatak was a critic of crony capitalist forces, and an analyst of the human psyche which was trapped in the daily face-off with modernity. 

In his film Nagarik (The City Dweller), his characters of the violinist and Jatinbabu, throw a light on a new perspective which emerges from the romantic and comic enactments. It is interesting to observe how they keep reappearing with persistence to unsettle the narrative line. Additionally, Jatinbabu, the man twirling with his unattainable aspirations, comes across as an alter ego of Ramu; the fresh graduate with fresh dreams. What if I were to tell you that Jatinbabu is no one but Ramu seen from a comic angle? Thrown off guard, are you? The evocative scene wherein we notice Jatinbabu has lost all means to pay the rent which renders him helpless and eventually forces him to move out of the slum, is infact an eerie foreboding of the expulsion of Ramu's family later in the film. There seems to exist a never-ending cycle of horrors which each of those who move into the slum face. At first, they are optimistic of a hopeful future, but they are nothing but wishful thinking. A new tenant, post-Ramu’s evacuation of the space, almost appears to echo Ramu's previous hopeful dialogue reassuring his wife that the sun would shine brighter in sometime. But alas, the horrendous cycle. Of course, we aren’t shown that, but we, as the audience, understand what is to come for us. 

Ajantrik (The Pathetic Fallacy), another genius of his, highlights the effects of mechanization on human life. With reference to modernity, this film invokes us to think about the human-machine relationship and their larger dilemmas. The film represents the idea of commodity fetishization which enables humans to have a noxious obsession with the industrial revolution, much dependent on machinery, while ecology breathes its last. The obsessive enchantment within modernity is unfurled through the characters like Bimal, and Jagaddal, and their relationship. Based on the setting of a small town, Ghatak explores a cab driver's irrational attachment with his dilapidated car, whilst challenging the dominant response to technological modernity in postcolonial India via mythical awe. In Ajantrik, through his camera, he established a distinct continuity between the non-life (mechanical) and the living (animals or humans) effectively.

This constant negotiation of unproductive futility appears in his other films too through his characters such as the disillusioned father(Bijon Bhattacharya) in Meghe Dhaka Tara. He, who was once an English teacher, is now just a jobless defunct in the post-partition backdrop. 

What is even more fascinating is how affected Ghatak was by his own development of character sketches. In his essay, ‘Thoughts about Ajantrik’, the filmmaker writes, “Those troublesome summer nights when after walking quite a few miles on my way back home I remembered Jagaddal a lot. He reminded me of my dead mother. I will never be able to explain in all my life the similarity between them.”

Ritwik Da, we remember you with love. Our Meghe Dhaka Tara, the star who hid behind clouds.

Author’s Biographical Note: Lipi is a dedicated procrastinator who also happens to like writing and managing teams. A master's student at Ambedkar University Delhi who in an alternate universe, body-doubles Superwoman and grumpy seven-year-olds. Traveling around the world with the bare minimum is her dream. Being a self-proclaimed food enthusiast, she always chooses eateries before anything else.

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