In the pantheon of Indian cinema, two filmmakers rule at the top, the brilliant and maverick Satyajit Ray, and the impulsive and creative Ritwik Ghatak. Though both the filmmakers started at the same time, it was Ray who went on to become a legend and the poster boy of Indian cinema, while Ghatak seeped into near oblivion. It was only after Ghatak’s early death in 1976 that his fame grew. Ghatak had been a chronic alcoholic throughout his life; and the failure of his films to do commercially well drove him deeper into depression which eventually claimed his life. It is an irony that all his films are now considered masterpieces; in fact, some of his films have served as a pastiche for numerous other films.
His film Ajantrik was probably the first film to depict an inanimate object as the protagonist, much before the Herbie films. Madhumati, a Bimal Roy film, for which he wrote the script, was the first film to deal with the theory of reincarnation much before Karz, Om Shanti Om, Chances Are etc. and, his film Bari Theke Paliye, released in 1957, was one of the first films to deal with the issue of a truant child and childhood angst, two years before Francois Truffaut released 400 Blows. While 400 Blows went on to become a timeless classic and heralded the French New Wave, Bari Theke Paliye never received its just treatment.
One of Ghatak’s final films, Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (1973), is one of the earliest films to be told in a hyperlink format, featuring multiple characters in a collection of interconnected stories, predating Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) by two years. Ghatak also had a short stint as a teacher in FTII in 1966, but it was far from futile. Ghatak shaped a generation of filmmakers from Adoor Gopalakrishnan to Jahnu Baruah to John Abraham and many more like Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul and Saeed Akhtar Mirza, all of whom went on to stir the nation with their edgy filmmaking. His nervous wit and subtle political satire coupled up with his penchant for music and Indian mythology have all shaped up his cinematic landscape. He was particularly derisive of the establishment, and unlike Ray who thought it best to maintain a neutralised political ideologue in his films, Ghatak would send strong political messages through his films. Undoubtedly, Ray was more refined and cultured as a filmmaker, whereas Ghatak had a hint of raw finesse, something that can be attributed to his IPTA days.
One of Ghatak’s most endearing and brilliant films was Meghe Dhaka Tara, an adaptation of Shatipada Rajguru’s social novel of the same name. The film leaves you with an overwhelming sense of loss, and surreal agony. When you look back upon those 134 minutes of your life that you spent watching Meghe Dhaka Tara, pangs of grief grip you tight, twisting and turning your guts. It’s Ritwik Ghatak’s poem to all those lives devastated by the partition, and its subsequent miseries. At the heart of the story is Supriya Choudhury’s character Neetu, the daughter of a retired school teacher. She’s the sole breadwinner of her family that includes her parents and two siblings-elder brother, played by Anil Chatterjee, and a younger sister, played by Gita Ghatak. They are refugees living in a refugee camp in Kolkata (although this isn’t stated explicitly). As with most of Ghatak’s films, the mood of the film is dark and sombre.
It’s interesting how Ghatak deliciously weaves metaphors into the dense fabric of his cinematic landscape. Neetu, throughout the film, wears only white saris, something that bears testimony to her monotonous life, devoid of any joviality. She constantly wears a pale smile that dissolves as quickly as it appeared. Even when the film starts we see her mildly appreciating her brother’s singing with a Monalisa-esque smile. This scene completely hooks you on and glues you to your seats. The ensuing scene is even better where the straps of her slippers tear away, and she picks it up with an ironic smile. The smile itself captures the angst of all the refugees; Neetu’s character becomes a symbolic representation of the lives of all the refugees.
There is a hint of sentimental overtone garnished by Ghatak, as he does with most of his films. But, it does not leave a bad taste in the mouth; in fact, the raw appeal of Ghatak moulds the film into a brilliant essay; a tribal poem that is eschewed of all sophistications yet is beautiful for all its naivety. The cult of Mother Goddess frequently punctuates the film. Symbolically, Neetu’s character is drawn parallel to the Mother Goddess. She is the giver; she sustains her family yet seeks nothing in return. If one probes a little deeper, it would become evident that she is sustaining their life. Without her they are all dead. Also, Neetu’s desire to escape her monotonous life; the role of a woman seen as a Mother Goddess is very infectious. This is where Ghatak gets nasty. He punishes her for questioning her traditional role, for questioning establishment. She loses her job, her fiancÃ©, and contracts tuberculosis that condemns her to death. Ghatak’s sarcasm radiates with anger. In subtle undertones he blames Kolkata, for Neetu’s deprived condition. He’s angry with the establishment for murdering the soul of a woman.
Music plays a major role in Ghatak’s films. His used of the sound of a whip to describe Neetu’s predicaments is now legendary. It emotes a kind of surrealist force. The cinematography is brilliant too. In fact, it can be safely surmised that the camera is Ghatak’s doppelganger. One scene that is very mesmerizing is when the character of Gita Ghatak looks into a mirror that is broken in the middle, and smiles. This is a brilliant example of how Ghatak devises metaphors. Another brilliant scene is when a dying Neetu walks out into the rain and starts playing. This is the first and only time in the film when Neetu exposes unbridled emotions. She’s happy, while her parents are sulking, more at the thought of losing a breadwinner than a daughter. This brief escape from womanhood displays the strength of her visceral revolt. And, long after the film ends, one can still hear the echoes of Neetu’s cry-Â “Dada, ami baachte chai” (Brother, I want to live)! The infectious desire to live and to survive in a world of odds still lingers passionately; twinkling surreptitiously like a Meghe Dhaka Tara!