During his undisputed reign in the filmdom, Ritwik Ghatak shed a light that was never there earlier ‘in sea or land.’ He waged war against a national cinema whose conventions he wanted to break with each of his work.
By Prasanta Paul
“Why do you always sing sad songs?” Ishwar asks his sister Sita in Subarnarekha. “It is almost as if there is nothing in this world beyond pain and suffering.”
When art draped in a film stems from lived experiences, it must harbour truth. This truth however, has little compulsion to end happily.
Cinema, for Ritwik Ghatak, was never a medium of ‘storytelling’, but a robust vehicle to reach out to the masses.
His extraordinary genius, though for a brief spell, left the audience in a spell because he shed a light in the medium that was never there earlier ‘in sea or land.’
“In an open-air performance, I could rouse the emotion in a gathering of maximum four to five thousand people. But, when I conceived of cinema, it was a matter of million minds that I needed to reach at the same time” Ghatak once said in an interview.
“That was the biggest factor behind my entry into films, not because I just wanted to make films. Tomorrow, if I find a better medium, I’ll quit films,” he was quoted saying.
Brief, but epoch-making career
Ritwik Ghatak’s career was nothing but a constant struggle, against an age that, according to his renowned contemporary Satyajit Ray, largely ignored his films; against a society that lost its way amid rampant modernization, and against a national cinema whose conventions he wanted to break with each of his work.
Unlike others, Ghatak’s undisputed reign in the filmdom lasted less than two decades; yet this brief period saw him completing eight feature films (and some documentaries too) that left an indelible mark in the history world cinema.
Critics(who have failed to fathom the man!) have tended to criticise him for often painting a bleak picture of life; what they have rather winked at is the fact that Ghatak had passed through some of the most traumatic periods in the 20th century India.
And they had a tremendous impact on the psyche of the maestro’s creative mind —the World War II, the culmination of India’s freedom struggle and the dawn of freedom, the partition and the resultant bloodshed.
Finally, the influx of millions of refugees from the then East Bengal.
West Bengal was thrown into a vortex, triggering myriad problems. It was from this cauldron that a new vision and a new hope emerged which Ghatak endeavoured to chronicle in his films. The chain of events by that time rendered him a diehard Communist though.
Unlike others, Ghatak’s undisputed reign in the filmdom lasted less than two decades; yet this brief period saw him completing eight feature films ( and some documentaries too) that left an indelible mark in the history world cinema.
Ghatak’s Feature films & Partition
Of the eight feature films, each was a landmark achievement in the history of Indian cinema. All of his works movingly reflected the social realities of a nation trying to revise its identity after the British colonial rule and the partition of India and Pakistan.
Ghatak chronicled the partition like few others – the refugee crisis and the rootlessness of a people affected him deeply, on a personal level.
He spent his childhood in East Bengal, amid green meadows and songs of boatmen. His characters, too, feel suffocated in the city, searching for a lost childhood and a home – suddenly a new country they can perhaps never return to.
His films thus leave us with a sense of emptiness, giving us a feel of what it is like ‘not belonging to roots’ – there is poverty and suffering, there is struggle. Yet, sometimes, there is hope. Sometimes, there is love. And wrapping it all up, there is music.
Many believe the seed of partition-oriented films was sown at that time when Ritwik Ghatak appeared in Nemai Ghosh’s critically acclaimed ‘Chinnamul’ (The Uprooted) in 1950.
The film received great appreciation from Russian filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin. He was so impressed with the film that he later bought the distribution rights of the film for release in erstwhile Russia.
After his maiden film ‘Nagarik”, “Ajantrik” has been acclaimed as one of the biggest milestones in the history of Indian cinema, much like Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’. The film depicts the relationship of a taxi driver with his Chevrolet car.
‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’, ‘Komal Gandhar’ and ‘Subarnarekha’ form the famous trilogy, portraying the complicacies of the refugee families from the erstwhile East Pakistan.
Sentiments of “Opar Bangla” Settlers
For many uprooted settlers with maternal and paternal ancestries steeped deep in erstwhile “Opaar Bangla”, they could understand the trauma of what “Opaar Bangla” might have been like before everything tore apart.
For them, “Opar Bangla” is a place which even the generation previous has only heard stories of and about – – perhaps, never will be able to set eyes upon that land, the blood of which flows through their veins, separated through the unforgiving gulf of time and tragic circumstances.
Gandhiji & Courting A Controversy
I will conclude my humble tribute on this maverick film maker with an incident that triggered an uproar in the entire country in the wake of his controversial observation on Gandhiji.
I was a kid then, feebly trying to grapple with myriad intricacies of an expression–“art film”- with a lot of trepidation. It was from the elders, ostensibly fans of Ghatak and Ray,that I came to know about this incident.
Immediately after the conferment of the Padma Shri award on Ritwik Ghatak in 1970, a group of Opposition MPs tabled a query-cum-show cause in Parliament (Mrs Indira Gandhi was prime minister then) as to why the award of Shri Ghatak wouldn’t be taken back.
The genesis of the controversy lay in the fact that Shri Ghatak, during an informal discussion with the students of Jadavpur University, slandered Mahatmaji as an “offspring of a pig from beginning to end” and abused other national leaders.
Within two weeks however, Ghatak retracted his observation stating that he had been ‘mentally ill’ and ‘not always in my senses’.
He claimed that he ‘talked irreverently’ with the students in the wake of his discharge from the hospital. Besides it being a private conversation, it had taken place when he was ‘sick in the head’.
Detailing further, he stated that in ‘Subarnarekha’, ‘through the incident of [the] murder of Gandhi, I have tried to show the utter decay that the nation is facing.”
“With the death of that one man, one epoch in India has ended. That tragedy, symbolically, conveyed the peril that we are facing as a nation’, he concluded.
Interestingly, much to the relief of Ghatak lovers, the Indian government, after carefully weighing that statement and its genuineness, inferred that the ‘father of the nation’ would have himself forgiven Shri Ghatak his tresspasses and recognised his creative talent embodied in his work of art’.
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The author has served no less than Al Jazeera and German TV, and India’s Parliamentarian magazine among others! To his credit goes a deep-rooted empathy for social issues and humans. He has wide experience in covering the northeast of India. His coverage on the 2020 Amphan cyclone in eastern India has easily been the best around the world