Biographical Feature: RITWIK GHATAK
by Shoma A. Chatterji
Ritwik Kumar Ghatak was born on November 4, 1925 at Jindabazar in Dhaka. He and his twin sister Prateeti, were the youngest of nine children.[i] The other children were – Manish, Sudhish, Tapati, Sampreeti, Brototi, Ashish Chandra and Lokesh Chandra.[ii] His father, Rai Bahadur Suresh Chandra Ghatak was a Deputy Magistrate. Their lifestyle was a fusion of the West and the East. Ghatak’s niece, Mahasweta Devi, noted author and activist for tribal communities in West Bengal and Bihar recalls how she, Bhaba (Ritwik) and Bhabi (Ritwik’s twin sister), would form a small group.
Mother Nature roused in him a passion for a wider horizon. As a child, Ghatak was interested in drawing and music. Abanindranath Tagore held a great attraction. Raj Kahini, Buro Angla remained a permanent source of joy. Surama Ghatak, his widow says, “He would read out these stories endlessly to our son Ritaban and both reader and listener would be so overwhelmed that tears would roll down their cheeks.” Five paintings by Gaganendranath Tagore fascinated him. Other writers whose works moved him deeply were – Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Tarashankar Bandopadhyay and Manik Banerjee besides the works of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Abraham Lincoln and Lenin.
Ustad Allauddin Khan taught him the universal language of music. Western classical masterpieces that fascinated him were Beethoven’s Choral, Violin Concerto, Leonora and Moonlight, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Nutcracker Suite, Sleeping Beauty and Hamlet, Paul Robeson’s Ole Man River, Old Folk At Home, Poor Old Joe and Songs My Mother Taught Me. Among Indian music composers, the music of S.D. Burman and Abbasuddin influenced him deeply. The poetic works of Rabindranath Tagore and Sukanta Bhattacharya made an impact. Ghatak used Sukanta’s poem Cheel in Bari Theke Paliye and his 1946 in Komal Gandhar.
Ghatak married Surama who was imprisoned as a political prisoner for two years. They met around 1953 and Surama had joined the IPTA when it was almost on the verge of being disintegrated in Calcutta. They married in 1955 and had three children, none of who, however, took to films as a vocation. It is a measure of Ghatak’s artistic caliber that he turned an essentially provincial experience into an expression of universal validity.
[ReviewAZON asin="613001452X" display="inlinepost"]Ghatak led a lively childhood in East Bengal, with its lush green carpet of enchantment, its turbulent rivers, its fish, its mango groves, its fine-grained rice devoured with pungent fish curry. Memories of this heavenly childhood haunted him all his life, wrote film historian Bibekananda Ray. “My feet are not on my soil. That is my obstacle. How shall I find another soil and when? Because I have to return to my mother’s womb to seek the source of this archetypal idiom,” said Ghatak, describing his restive mental state. Ghatak is the only Indian filmmaker whose works began to get international notice only after he died. The cinemas of France, Italy and UK consider him one of the greatest of cinematic geniuses that graced world cinema.
“Every artist somehow manages to carry his childhood with himself, tucked in his pocket, right into adulthood. Once that eludes him, he is left an old fogey. He ceases to be an artist and becomes a theorist. This childhood is an extremely fragile mental state, a state of folding into oneself like one of those shy, delicate creepers that wilt at the slightest touch. At the gross touch of the workaday world it cracks into a hundred fragments, withers and loses its sap. All artists have had this experience,” wrote Ghatak.[iii]
During the later part of his adolescence, Ghatak was witness to dramatic events that shaped the history of India such as Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement, the Chittagong Armoury Raid under Surya Sen, the economic impact of World War II and the consequent migration of people forced to leave their roots. The joint family began to disintegrate. Against this backdrop, a group of young writers emerged around the 1920s, forming the legendary Kallol group. Manish Ghatak, Ghatak’s eldest brother, was a member. It was a radical group enriched by the literary mastery of Manik Banerjee. These developments left a deep impression on the young Ghatak.
Cinema and Ghatak
Ghatak’s first tryst with the film world offered no hint of his future contribution to world cinema. His second brother, Sudhish Ghatak, a cameraman who had worked in New Theatres’ Street Singer as assistant, introduced Ghatak to Pramathesh Barua and Bimal Roy. But he could not interest Ghatak in films. Manish then sent Ghatak to Kanpur to work in a textile mill. This inspired him to write a short story about the hardships of a mill worker. This story, Raja, was published in Sanibaarer Chithi.
By the time he made Titas Ekti Nadir Naam, Ghatak was a ghost of his former self. He had stopped making films after Subarnarekha (1962.) The Ghatak, who had once led a crusade against drinking in Calcutta studios much to the dislike of cinema tycoons of that time, was now reduced to a chronic alcoholic given to serious phases of depression and schizophrenic behaviour. No one believed that he was capable of directing a film. But a young Bangladeshi financier had faith in him. He volunteered to finance a full-length film provided Ghatak directed it. His admirers in Bangladesh found out the right material – Titas Ekti Nadir Naam – an epic novel and a classic on the tragedy-stricken lives of a fishing community living along the banks of the river Titas in Bangladesh. Though the producer gave him the best in technical and production facilities, Ghatak failed to recapture the pulse of the soil he had left behind in 1947. Later, he said, “I tried to make a film with such a theme in such a country which, on reflection, I consider to be an act of suicide. Only a lunatic or an ass would try to make a film like that in that country. I was both a lunatic and an ass.”[iv]
Belying the scepticism of cynics who knew Ghatak had left at least four, full-length feature films in different stages of incompletion, he completed Titas Ekti Nadir Naam in 1973 and it was released in Bangladesh soon after. Bangladeshi writer Alamgir Kabir says, “The film hardly carried the signature of the director of such towering films like Ajantrik and Meghe Dhaka Tara.[v]” Kabir offers two reasons for the tragic downfall– (1) Ghatak’s disillusionment with the newly liberated Bangladesh distanced socially, politically and culturally from the Bangladesh he had left in 1947; (2) he was neither physically nor mentally fit to make the best of his personal and improvised technique of film-making that carried little on paper, leaving everybody else in the dark about how he was going to do the film or what he was thinking. He went about Jukti, Takko Aar Gappo with a vengeance as if to prove to himself that he was not quite “finished” yet. “The general consensus on this film, never released publicly in theatres, suggested that he had made a determined comeback,” says Kabir.
Jukti, Takko Aar Gappo is “about a failed life and an argument that goes beyond it, beyond Ghatak himself,” according to Geeta Kapur in Self into History: Ritwik Ghatak’s Jukti Takko Aar Gappo. “When he made Jukti in 1974, he was at the end of his tether; his health and sanity were disintegrating. But he was astute enough to realize that the nation, polarized between political expediency and ultra-radicalism was on the brink, and if it was the last thing he did, he would intervene as an artist.” Jukti, Takko Aar Gappo was Ghatak’s violent assertion for unity and for human dignity. He sang through it, as through his other films like a great poet. “No filmmaker can change the people. The people are too great. They are changing themselves. I am only recording the changes that are taking place,” Ghatak once said in his quintessentially unique brand of English.
“The story of the physical suppression of his work is too long to be recited here,” wrote Safdar Hashmi in a tribute in 1981. His first full-length feature film Nagarik, (1952) lay in damp vaults for 25 years condemned to perpetual obscurity. A year after Ghatak died in 1976, the film was restored, a print taken out through the initiative of the Left Front State government. “When the film was seen in different cities of India, people began realizing the enormity of the damage done to the subsequent career of Ritwik Ghatak,” added Hashmi. Subarnarekha lay in cold storage for three years before it could be released. Ustad Allauddin Khan (1963) was released without his name as director. A short film called Amaar Lenin (My Lenin) has not been permitted public release though it was made in 1970 and given a clear censor certificate in 1971. His last film, Jukti, Takko Aar Gappo ran into trouble with the censors.
An innovation in Nagarik that became a characteristic of his later style was the use of deep focus to place his characters firmly in their social environment. The first visual introduction of the central character comes only after a panoramic sweep of Calcutta, the camera panning over shanties and shops, high-rise buildings and ghettoes, electric wires cob webbing the skyline and streets crowded with common people going about their daily chores. This is followed by a long crane shot from a height of about 20 feet that introduces the character, one of a crowd, helping an old woman cross the street. He tracks the man to his house through narrow and dirty bylanes, passing street performers and beggars. The camera then closes up on the face of the hero. Ghatak claimed that Nagarik was a political statement. It set out to analyse the agonies of a middle-class family of Calcutta engaged in a grim struggle for survival against oppressive social forces. It portrayed the slow and tragic descent of a middle-class family.
Ajantrik (1958) based on an unusual story by Subodh Ghosh won critical acclaim abroad. Georges Sadoul of France praised it as a ‘landmark in world cinema.’ Henry Langlois wished to have a print for the French film archive. Ajantrik is a masterpiece in cinema because it establishes through cinema for the first time perhaps, a new relationship between man and machine. The film humanizes Jagaddal, a Chevrolet reduced to a jalopy, thus christened by its master, yet draws attention to the fallacy of investing an inanimate or natural object with human feelings. Komal Gandhar unfolds Ghatak’s constant preoccupation with the shattering of dreams he nurtured and fought for, to forge a unity where all objective conditions threaten to tear up the social and political fabric that hold people coping with new-found Independence together. In Subarnarekha, he began to break up the narrative with a written text, thus emphasizing the past tense in the narrative. The songs of Sita are echoed back by the barren landscape. “He believed in sharp and startling dramatization that defied convention,” says Madhabi Mukherjee who portrayed Sita in Ghatak’s incisive film, Subarnarekha. “For example, he would leap from a 35-mm lens to a 100-mm, ignoring figures in between. This jerk created the drama in the scene where Sita suddenly confronts the Bahurupi (impersonator) and is stunned.” Ghatak indulged in some technical experiments in Bari Thekey Paliye. For instance, the speed of a particular sound was increased on the transferring table, or, the use of special lens (300) gave fascinating results when the wheel of a car appeared to rotate even while the car was static. The use of 18-mm lens captured objects in their distortion. Bari Theke Paliye is an enjoyable film, which critics say contains autobiographical accounts from Ghatak’s own truant childhood.
Ghatak invested Indian cinema with a sense of discipline and with the conscious use of a new language. He made pioneering use of sound as an instrument of restructuring his film within a dialectical framework. In his hand, for the first time, sound in Indian cinema graduated from merely amplifying dialogue and ‘effect’ music to become a conscious part of the whole design, serving to comment, analyse and throw into analytical perspective the immediate dialogical and narrative context. From Ajantrik (1958), through Bari Theke Paliye (1959), Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and Komal Gandhar (1961) to Subarnarekha (1962), Ghatak developed a style distinct enough to create a new structure of cinematic expression his narratives called for.
Women characters in his films are eternal, infinite, because they are drawn from mythology, interwoven with Marxist ideology imbued with a Marxist critique of the materialist, immoral petty bourgeoisie that defined Calcutta when he came from Bangladesh. His female characters are unique and Indian and also have within them, the grains of the Universal Woman because they are universal. They concur with the savage brutality Ghatak had converted into an idiom. They form the essence of his oeuvre. This feminine sensibility coming from a man as eccentric as he was a genius, stuns us forever when we, as women distanced from his women by a generation or two, sit back to watch his films.
Ghatak scripted 17 feature films of which nine were released and eight were abandoned. He did minor roles in six feature films including three of his own – Subarnarekha, Titash Ekti Nadir Naam and Jukti Takko Aar Gappo. His first film was Bedeni. He had to abandon this due to a camera-flaw. The number of projects Ritwik had to give up could make a book. Few know about his abandoned documentary on Indira Gandhi in 1972. Few know of his ad film for Imperial Tobacco to fetch money to complete Subarnarekha. Other memorable films he had to abandon are Kato Ajanarey (1959) and Bagalaar Bangadarshan stopped after a week’s shooting in 1964-65. The most creative period in Ghatak’s career was between 1952 and 1967. It began with Nagarik, followed by Ajantrik, Bari Thekey Paliye, Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha. This was punctuated with a spurt of documentaries. Memorable among these are Orson (1955), Ustad Allauddin Khan (1963), Fear (1964-65) and Scientists of Tomorrow (1967.)
Ritwik Ghatak died an ignominious, tragic and painful death on February 6, 1976. Two years after playing out his own death by police bullets in Jukti Takko Aar Gappo, Ghatak died in Calcutta’s S.S.K.M. Hospital, much like Bengal’s rebellious creative artists Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the poet, Pramathesh Barua, filmmaker and actor, and Manik Bandopadhyay, the classic litterateur. Like the mythical Phoenix, he was consigned to flames, not knowing that he was destined to rise from its ashes. Till today, he remains the stormy petrel of Indian cinema. He hit cinema in India like a tornado, and disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared. His films got international attention only after his death. Things other than cinema he was involved with, at different phases of his life, also began to emerge. Before his entry into films, he was involved with theatre as an actor-activist. He wrote too, short stories, essays, and plays in Bengali and in English. Ghatak could not escape the heritage of a phase in self-indulgence into poetry, into prose and into an ideological stand that was markedly Leftist. “The ideological base of my work is fundamentally Marxism,” he said.
[i] Dr. Basu, Tapati: Ritwik Ghatak and His Films, Department of Journalism, University of Calcutta, UGC Project, date not mentioned.
[ii] Ghatak, Surama :Ritwik – Padma Thekey Titash (Bengali), Anustup, Calcutta, 1999.
[iii] Ritwik Ghatak – Commemorating his 75th Birth Anniversary, A Calcutta Film Festival Publication, 1999.
[iv] Kabir, Alamgir: “Ritwik Ghatak – A View from Bangladesh,” in Celluloid, Rainbow Film Society, Volume 19, Issue –1, January 30, 1997.
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