For him Hollywood might not have existed at all.
– Satyajit Ray (1)
No Love for the Cinema
In Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen’s account of Ritwik Ghatak’s place in the history of Indian cinema, they propose Ghatak was truly an original filmmaker with no cinematic predecessors. Rather, they suggest that “aesthetically his work can be placed alongside that of Bengali novelist Manik Bandyopadhyay (1908–56) and the teachings of his music forbear Ustad Allauddin Khan” (2). Given this assessment, it is not surprising that some of the most intriguing comments made by one of India’s most well respected independent directors are about cinema itself. What is surprising is that Ghatak’s writings about the cinema regularly denounce a love for the medium. Instead, Ghatak drew a fine distinction between the opportunities offered up by the cinema and cinema itself, always insisting: “Film is not a form, it has forms” (3). Accordingly, it was the massive size of the film going audience, rather than a love for the cinema, that Ghatak claims brought him to the business of films. The only special skill he perceived in the cinema over any other artistic medium was that “It can reach millions of people at one go, which no other medium is capable of” (4). Ghatak declared on a number of occasions that if some other medium came along enabling him to reach more of the masses, he would happily drop cinema and embrace that other medium.
Equally at home writing fiction or theatre, Ghatak consistently investigated the question of whether filmmaking was an art form and what attributes made it such, remarking “raw meat is not exactly ‘Moghlai kebab’. A cook comes somewhere in between” (5). What mattered to Ghatak was that a work was artistically engaged. Ghatak’s work in the cinema itself never settled into any one genre of style.
My first film was called a picaresque episodic film along the lines of the eighteenth century Spanish novel Gil Blas De Santillane; the second was called a film of documentary approach; the next was a melodrama, and the fourth, nothing at all, just no film. (6)
An artist across many mediums, Ghatak wrote, performed in, directed and produced numerous plays on the stage and in the streets for the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the theatre branch attached to the Communist Party of India. His significant influence with IPTA is evidenced by his play Dalil (Document). It was voted best production of the IPTA All-India conference in Bombay in 1953. He formed his own theatre group, Group Theatre, following differences with IPTA, staging a play called Sei Meye in 1969 with the patients in the mental asylum at which he resided for some time. His film Komal Gandhar (The Gandhar Sublime or E-Flat, 1961) is about this split within the IPTA in Bengal, during the early years after Partition, and opens with a theatre performance of Ghatak’s Dalil, featuring many celebrated veteran IPTA actors, forging yet another crossover between media for Ghatak.
Between Human, Camera and Machine
So what are we to make of this director/writer/producer/actor/author of films/theatre/novels/short stories – in short, a self-proclaimed artist – who declared no attachment to a medium we, as cinema enthusiasts from all walks, claim to love? An anecdote about Ghatak’s own viewing habits might go a little way to explaining. I have been told that Ritwik Ghatak and Kumar Shahani (Ghatak’s prized pupil) used to watch the Lumières’ L’Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station, 1896) over and over again, and laugh. They laughed because they found funny the idea of “one machine looking at the other” (7). Whenever I think about this anecdote, it always connects itself to the events of Ghatak’s film Ajantrik (Pathetic Fallacy or The Unmechanical, 1958). Set in Bihar around the activities of a taxi driver who lives at a bus station, it was Ghatak’s first film to be released commercially.
It’s just a lump of iron. Why this attachment?
This is a question asked of taxi driver Bimal (Kali Banerjee, an IPTA veteran), the central character of Ajantrik, regarding his dedication to his very old and battered 1920 Chevrolet jalopy, called Jagaddal. It seems to me that it is the same question Ghatak wants to ask of the presumption of a filmmaker’s attachment to the apparatuses of the cinema – an attachment Ghatak claims not to possess. We could draw some interesting conclusions about Ghatak’s investigation of this taxi driver’s relationship to his car and Ghatak’s own attempts to explain what it is about the cinema that draws his commitment.
Let us consider further the mingling of the human and the mechanical that traverses Ajantrik.
“The gentlemen at the Bengali Gentlemen’s Club. They put it well.”
Bimal pauses, pensively.
“That I’m a machine. I like the smell of burnt gasoline. It makes me high…”
A light giggle escapes him.
“What they don’t understand is that Jagaddal is also human.”
The companionship Bimal feels towards his taxi in Ajantrik (which generates the accusation that Bimal “must be a machine”) in fact announces a profoundly ”human” attachment and dedication motivating him. Bimal holds onto his car, Jagaddal, for fifteen years, against the prevailing trend amongst his peers for ditching old cars and upgrading regularly to new “fashionable whores”. The sense of companionship between Bimal and his taxi is evident from the dialogue Bimal establishes with Jagaddal and his loving actions towards the car. Jagaddal is also invested with ”human” gestures and locomotion. These are implied in Ajantrik by emphasis on Jagaddal’s bodily functions and independent agency, epitomised by the camera’s attention to frequent autonomous movements of Jagaddal’s headlights. Sounds of drinking and exhalations of satisfaction exude from the car among descriptions of Jagaddal’s health and durability. According to Bimal, in comparison with other cars, Jagaddal never “catches colds” or “gets tummy aches”. That Bimal believes in Jagaddal’s independent agency is summarised in the final test of the car’s strength, after it has received new parts.
“I’ve pampered you enough,” Bimal warns, dropping several large boulders that he can barely carry into the back of Jagaddal.
“Today you must decide whether you want to stay or not!”
When Jagaddal struggles with the load and collapses (effectively dies), Bimal smashes the windscreen and bursts into tears, his head resting on the steering wheel.
Ghatak’s own comments about this relationship surprised me when I came across them as an already dedicated fan of the film. He is rather disdainful:
Only silly people can identify themselves with a man who believes that that God-forsaken car has life. Silly people like children, simple folk like peasants, animists like tribals. To us city folks, it is a story of a crazy man. […] We could imagine ourselves in love with a river or a stone. But a machine – there we draw the line. (8)
At first I was taken aback by such a seemingly superior attitude towards the central character of Ajantrik, for whom I hold much affection and for whom I believed the film held a similar affection. However, while the condescending tone is evident in these comments, Ghatak maintains a significant sense of curiosity about this phenomenon. He begins to make some very interesting connections between some of the cultural traditions of India in relation to this machine. He continues:
But these people do not have that difficulty. They are constantly in the process of assimilating anything new that comes their way. In all our folk art the signs of such assimilation are manifest. (9)
At the same time as Ghatak discusses this capacity for assimilation common to “children, simple folk like peasants, animists like tribals”, he acknowledges the trends of the modern era: “The order of the day is an emotional integration with this machine age” (10). Here we discover a curious confluence between the practices of folk art and the attitudes resulting from industrialisation. Bimal is certainly not the first man to fall in love with his car. We can all think of “city folks” of similar persuasion. Ghatak, it seems, is in fact well aware of this: “I have seen such men (I have had the doubtful pleasure of meeting Bimal himself in real life) and have been able to believe in their emotions” (11).
Surely we must acknowledge that the cinema and its apparatuses such as the camera are deeply engaged in this process of “emotional integration with this machine age.” Yet Ghatak is skeptical of this kind of emotional integration. This is why the director laughed when he saw L’Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat, describing it as “one machine looking at the other” and why he finds Bimal such a curiosity. In Bimal, we can envisage a loose metaphor for the quintessential filmmaker, defined entirely by his or her relationship to a machine that is his or her livelihood. Yet Ghatak resists offering Bimal as a portrait of himself because he refuses to accept any attachment to the cinematic medium, indeed to any medium in particular. He finds such attachment laughable, like many of Bimal’s detractors. He remains inquisitive about this phenomenon, however, drawing out the tension in Ajantrik between, on the one hand, a climate that encourages emotional attachment to machinery that constitutes livelihood, resulting in companionship, and on the other, a climate of constant upgrade that encourages discarding on a regular basis. Is Bimal an exemplary figure of the machine age or an anachronism? The unresolved tension between these possibilities feeds much of my own curiosity about this film.
Is it that Ghatak is uncomfortable with the kind of integration Bimal embraces and that the cinema potentially manifests because he perceives himself as a kind of universal artist hero, a Renaissance man in the shadow of his much admired hero Tagore? It seems it could be Ghatak who is anachronistic rather than his simple peasant folk and tribals. It is another interesting confluence: Ghatak, an innovative filmmaker, breaking and creating all kinds of cinematic rules and regulations, like Bimal, resisted the fashions of his day to respond in a certain way to his means of livelihood. The parallel between Ghatak and Bimal, then, lies not in their relationship to the machine age but rather to a sense of being isolated by a personal vision that goes against the grain. Further, both refugees of Partition, their sense of being out of place is magnified as individuals whose vision of the world differs strongly to many of those surrounding them.
Ghatak was born on 4 November, 1925, at Jindabazar, Dhaka, the cultural centre of East Bengal (now Bangladesh), which had become, by the beginning of his filmmaking career, East Pakistan. At that time, Pakistan had a general ban on all Indian films. As a consequence, for the majority of Ghatak’s filmmaking career, his films could not screen in his birth city. Ghatak migrated to Calcutta in early youth, attending the M.A. class at Calcutta University in 1948. His films are heavily influenced by his personal experience of Partition.
In our boyhood we have seen a Bengal, whole and glorious. […] Our dreams faded away. We crashed on our faces, clinging to the crumbling Bengal, divested of all its glory. (12)
Before I encountered Ghatak’s work, I knew plenty about Partition at the moment of its birth on the other side of the country – the trains full of corpses coming in and out of Lahore, the attacks made on old friends and neighbours. With Ghatak, however, for the first time, I experienced the mindset of the refugees of Partition, without statistics, and also the particular experience of Bengal, about which I had heard little. For the first time, I was brought most relentlessly into time and space of those left homeless, crumbling on the faded outskirts of a nation, living out a divided Bengal.
Ghatak’s pupil, Kumar Shahani, explains the importance of Ghatak’s approach to Partition as a radical political expression:
The heroes and heroines of Ritwik’s films, while their energies are sapped by a society which can sustain no growth, have inner resources that seem to assert themselves. […] He was extremely disenchanted with those of his colleagues who wanted to maintain a false unity and were not, implicitly, pained enough by the splintering of every form of social and cultural values and movement. It is these factors that make Ritwik’s films a vitally generative force for the young. He does not hide behind a medieval or a dead past or a decorative Indianess…Very few of his contemporaries have avoided these pitfalls whether they work in the cinema and the other arts, or in the theoretical and cultural sphere. It is as if they were ashamed of being themselves, today, with their true history. (13)
This potent attitude to Partition distinguishes Ghatak’s work acutely from the films of those such as Satyajit Ray. The difference between the two can be described in this way: “Instead of painstakingly trying to build up a realistic space-time, he would try to develop a story simultaneously on various levels, relying heavily on songs, melodrama and coincidences” (14). Kaleidoscopic, relaxed, discursive, Ghatak’s uneven style manifests the deep tensions weighing from various directions upon his characters and the trajectories of their lives. Meghey Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960), Kormal Gandhar (The Gandhar Sublime, 1961) and Subarnarekha (The Golden Line, 1962) form a trilogy around the socio-economic implications of Partition. Ghatak’s own description of a moment in his film Subarnarekha (which, like Komal Gandhar, was an absolute box officer failure) set in a refugee colony, called Nabajeeban on the outskirts of Calcutta in the 1950s, illustrates beautifully his cinematic manifestation of Partition:
When the camera suddenly comes to a halt at the dead end of a railway track, where the old road to East Bengal has been snapped off, it raises (towards the close of the film) a searing scream in Anasuya’s heart. (15)
A Place in the Canon: Ghatak versus Ray
Motivation for writing this profile arises partly from a desire to overturn, realign and respond to Satyajit Ray’s predominant position within the discourse of Indian cinema. I am aghast when I come across seemingly contradictory statements such as this one: “It all goes to prove once again that Satyajit Ray is the exception who proves the rule of Indian filmmaking” (16). Yet this statement captures perfectly a common general attitude about Ray’s place in Indian filmmaking history. The tendency, both in and outside India, to valourise the cinema of Ray as representative of everyday life in India or as representative of Indian cinema in general, is problematic. As a consequence of this tendency, other cinemas outside of the commercial mainstream that do not follow Ray’s distinctive model have had great difficulty registering their authenticity or authority to the viewing public, both indigenous and foreign. Ghatak is largely unknown outside India and outside certain Indian filmmaking circles, despite being regarded by Satyajit Ray as one of the best Indian directors of the twentieth century. This appears to be changing with increasing accessibility to his work and a successful retrospective of his work held in New York in 1997.
Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were in fact clearly admirers of each other’s work. Praise from both sides can be found in print on a number of occasions. Indeed Ray, a member of the Ritwik Memorial Trust, provided the foreword to the published volume of Ghatak’s writings on cinema in English, Cinema and I, reprinted in Rows and Rows of Fences. He is full of approval for Ghatak’s work:
Ritwik was one of the few truly original talents in the cinema this country has produced. […] As a creator of powerful images in an epic style he was virtually unsurpassed in Indian cinema. (17)
Likewise, in his Row and Rows of Fences, Ghatak’s praise for Ray is high: “Satyajit Ray, and only Satyajit Ray in India, in his more inspired moments, can make us breathtakingly aware of truth, the individual, private truth” (18). Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) is lauded in Ghatak’s essay on literary influence in Bengali cinema:
It is true that this film was also based on a famous novel. But for the first time, the story was narrated in the filmic idiom. The language was sound. Artistic truth was upheld. The fundamental difference between the two art forms was delineated. (19)
In the essay “Recollections of Bengal and a Single Vision”, Shampa Banerjee offers an interesting anecdote from Dopati Chakrabarty about the relationship between the cinemas of Ray and Ghatak:
Satyajit Ray once said: Had Nagarik been released before his Pather Panchali, Nagarik would have been accepted as the first film of the alternative form of Bengali cinema. (20)
Nagarik (The Citizen), the first film Ghatak ever made, was completed in 1953 but in fact released posthumously in 1977. Pather Panchali was released in 1955. The central character of Nagarik, Ramu, opens the film looking for a job in Calcutta, while his family struggles to make ends meet. Incredibly, in a memorial lecture on Ghatak, given after his death, Satyajit Ray had this to say:
Ritwik was a Bengali director in heart and soul, a Bengali artist much more of a Bengali than myself. For me that is the last word about him, and that is his most valuable and distinctive characteristic. (21)
Given the incredible praise heaped upon Ghatak by Ray at such times, it is a wonder his work was not more widely received with open arms. Jacob Levich goes a little way to explaining in part the difference in the reception of these two filmmakers during their lifetime.
Satyajit Ray is the suitable boy of Indian film, presentable, career-oriented, and reliably tasteful. Ghatak, by contrast, is an undesirable guest: he lacks respect, has “views”, makes a mess, disdains decorum. (22)
Indeed, Siddharth Tripathy puts it well: “if cinema were a religion…Ritwik Ghatak was a rare catholic from out country.” (23) But what’s not to like about a rebel? Edgy, uncouth, insulting, an alcoholic, Ghatak’s films are always challenging. They never make one feel comfortable. But why should they? My own response to this issue of Ghatak’s status within Indian cinema is merely to frame the competing views on his worth that exist within the discourse of this cinema and its history. In order to account for Ghatak’s unpopularity with audiences during his lifetime, we must balance Ray’s praise for Ghatak’s work with the attitudes of those who sought to bring Ghatak into disrepute:
The knowledge that Komal Gandhar‘s box-office potential was sabotaged by people who were once his friends, deeply hurt Ghatak. It is to this day widely believed in Calcutta that the Communists and Congress joined hands to finish him off. A large number of tickets were bought by goons of both the parties who then disturbed the viewing of the legitimate viewer by sobbing loudly during funny scenes and breaking into uproarious laughter at the serious ones. The audience was alienated and the viewer-ship fell dramatically after a promising run in the first week. The film had to be withdrawn. He, being the co-producer, had to share the burden of the financial loss. It broke him. His descent into alcohol began soon after. (24)
So it seems that the distress of Partition, ingrained in Ghatak’s very ability to perceive his surroundings, combined with an interest in extending the artistic possibilities of the cinematic medium, crystallised into something quite fascinating and unprecedented in Indian cinema, which was not well appreciated by many of his peers. What makes it so fascinating for me is not only a new outlook on the partitioning of India but, more importantly, the consequences of this for the cinema as a medium. It is as if the very frames and coordinates of his cinema regularly manifest the fracturing that took place with Partition. Cinema itself, it seems, must bear the scars of Partition as much as any individual or nation-state.
A passing train cuts deafeningly across the background of a shot as Neeta sits with Sanat by the river in Meghey Dhaka Tara, overpowering the soundtrack entirely with its travelling wheels, piercing whistle and screeching breaks so as to drown out their conversation, sabotaging the spectator’s ability to hear. The sound of the railway, unreasonably loud given its position in the very background of the image, breaks open the soundtrack as if a crack has formed and the train has surged through it. At a later moment in Meghey Dhaka Tara, the camera positions close up under Neeta’s chin as the light shines on her glistening hair, giving the impression that Neeta is looking upwards to the twinkling light that reflects off her hair like stars. Suddenly a whip sounds repeatedly on the soundtrack over Shankar and Neeta’s singing, prompting her to sob uncontrollably for the first time in the film, under the burden she carries supporting her family and losing her own dreams. Here again, it is as if the soundtrack pierces the image, breaking its beauty and breaking Neeta too, breaking her down in fact. Meghey Dhaka Tara has an absolutely revolutionary soundtrack, which at times reaches an incredible saturation point. I felt, at times, as if the soundtrack would swell open or burst, almost as song, spoken word, the sound of Neeta’s dizziness, drums and her tuberculosis-induced coughing rose to compete in the mix. Bhaskar Chandavarkar gives an excellent account of Ghatak’s experimental work on the soundtrack:
While mixing, he heard the whine of a projector leaking in from the projection room. Obviously, the glass pane on the projection room window was missing. A live track was also being fed into the mixer from the studio. Ritwik heard the whine a while and then advised the recordist to leave it that way. (25)
In a portrait of Bimal left waiting on a railway platform, Ajantrik generates a framing that reminds me of a “dynamic construction” (26): Bimal’s head is cut off from his body while the rest of the frame registers clear sky. The particular angle of framing in this scene operates a kind of de-framing in the form of an abnormal point of view. Bimal’s floating head, framed with a piece of the sky, offers us a slice of space, emphasising the quality of framing as cutting (27) reminding us that the “closed system” of the frame “is never absolutely closed” (28). Rather, the internal composition of this unusually angled close-up denotes a Deleuzian “affective framing”, carrying off with a scrap of the sky and forming between it and the face, a “virtual conjunction” (29). Bimal’s face, extracted from its spatio-temporal coordinates, carries “its own space-time” (30).
Here we must return to Kumar Shahani’s comments about why Ghatak was such a vital force for young independent filmmakers such as Shahani who have since achieved significant influence and support for their important work. As Shahani has explained, Ritwik Ghatak was “disenchanted with those of his colleagues who wanted to maintain a false unity and were not, implicitly, pained enough by the splintering of every form of social and cultural values and movement.” What must be acknowledged is that Ghatak’s recognition and incorporation of this splintering into his work may have borne the cinema some scars but this scarring, this splintering and fracturing of a false unity in the cinema, generated significant new growth and development. Further, recognising and embodying the truth of his own experience of Partition in the cinema, forged connections that were profoundly true to the experience of Indian people, rather than what Shahani describes as a “decorative Indianess”. The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema describes Ajantrik as:
…a new investigation into film form, expanding the refugee experience into a universalised leitmotiv of cultural dismemberment and exile evoking an epic tradition drawing on tribal, folk and classical forms (Buddhist sculpture, Baul music, the khayal). (31)
This statement is key to understanding Ghatak because it links the refugee experience – the experience of exile – to folk and epic forms which together expand into an investigation of film form. These are the key elements of Ghatak’s originality in the cinema – a potent mix. The folding in of all of these aspects produces cinema true to Ghatak’s experience of India in a form that others have found incredibly productive, as Shahani’s comments illustrate.
Ghatak had a philosophical attitude to cinema – his work asks the question “What is Cinema?” Fleeting concurrence is the mainstay of Bimal’s encounters with other individuals in Ajantrik. An incredible yet fleeting encounter occurs between a woman Bimal collects once deserted by the “local Romeo” and her train arriving on the platform in front of her. This encounter, well outside the central drive of Ajantrik, has captured me completely. It deserves lengthy attention. A woman stares straight ahead at the edge of the railway platform in close-up as a train arrives at her station. Passing train carriages block the light and cast a panel of shadow so that the area underneath her eyes becomes darker, as if she is exhausted, harrowed, under-slept. The darkness under her eyes disappears when panels of light, unblocked by the train, travel over her face and again return with the passing shadows. The alternation of light and shadow traces the movement of the train onto her face. The train slows down as it pulls into the station, its pace measured by this movement of shadow.
This woman’s face in Ajantrik becomes a reflective surface onto which the train’s rhythm is traced, projected. The train’s locomotion is reconfigured, temporally, by this trace. Her face, through the aspect of chiaroscuro, not only reflects the train but also refracts it into an expressive series. What results is that the train’s conquest of space and time is turned off-course towards a quality that is outside its coordinates. The optical effects rendered upon this moment render the railway station and the woman, together, an “any-space-whatever” (32), suspending their individuation to the creation of affect, performing the quality of the railway, rather than its function (33).
The abandoned woman in Ajantrik has been stripped of her jewelry and status losing her distinctive adornments. It is the ordinary blandness of her features, unadorned, that allow her face to operate as screen for the projection of the shadow of the train. Yes, this moment of conjunction between face as screen and train as projection is also a meta-cinematic image. The ratio of light to dark projected onto her face is approximately 90% dark and 10% light – exactly the ratio of light travelling through the film projector. The locomotion of the projector and the train merge and these moving shadows become a form of dynamic framing – the frame as dynamic micro-movement (34) – the frame passing over a still face.
The affection-image is the close-up, and the close-up is the face. […] There is no close-up of the face, the face is in itself close-up, the close-up is by itself face and both are affect, affection-image. (35)
The railway, under Ghatak’s incredible close-up of a face, becomes an affection-image.
This kind of transformative work Ghatak achieves in Ajantrik, in which the railway becomes the projector and a human face becomes a cinema screen, shifts machines so that the apparatuses of the cinema become locatable inside the image. Meghey Dhaka Tara likewise performs incredible transformations, this time between the river and Neeta, who is the “Cloud-Capped Star” of the film’s title. The relationship between the river and Neeta begins as the running water of the river sparkles behind the title sequence like exquisitely formed twinkling stars. Later on, the moonlight reflecting off the river filters across Neeta’s face in the darkness of her bedroom suggest the passing clouds over the night sky and over her face. As Neeta’s situation worsens – with Sanat, her sweetheart, marrying her sister Geeta – tiny particles of light stream through the thin gaps between the bamboo strips woven to form the family hut, twinkling in a way that recalls the river of the title sequence, as Shankar and Neeta sing together. The camera closes in on Neeta’s despairing face, the light source catching her hair in the dark so that it becomes filled with sparkles. The stars shift from their source in the river (we never see them in the sky) to surround Neeta completely at her most desperate moments – her face clouded in distress but shrouded by tiny twinkling, brilliant reflections.
Under the Influence – You Are a Fence Yourselves
It seems that despite Ghatak’s claim to have been drawn to the cinema by the size of the audience he could reach, as Satyajit Ray has noted, “Ritwik had the misfortune to be largely ignored by the Bengali film public in his lifetime” (36). While Ghatak has been classified as a “Great Director” by the likes of Satyajit Ray, he was not placed in this category because of his popularity. With incredible moments such as the one described above between an abandoned woman and an approaching train, Ghatak’s most unwavering influence was on other filmmakers. While very few of Ghatak’s films were influential at the box office during his lifetime, his influence as a teacher at the FTII had a profound impact upon the trajectory of Indian independent cinema. Ghatak was an influential lecturer and vice principal at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune from 1966 to 1967. He says of this time:
The time I spent working at the Film Institute in Pune was one of the happiest periods of my life. The young students come there with a great deal of hope, and a large dose of mischief by which I mean, “There’s a new teacher, let’s give him a bad time!” I found myself right in their midst. I cannot describe the pleasure I experienced winning over these young people and telling them that films can be different. Another thing that pleased me a lot was that I helped to mold many of them. My students are spread all over India. Some have made a name for themselves, some haven’t. Some have stood on their own feet, some have been swept away. (37)
The last film Ghatak completed was Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974) in which Ghatak played the lead role himself – an alcoholic intellectual with various nervous conditions, a state for which he was notorious among students. Much loved by students but suffering difference with the establishment, he lasted at FTII for only a few years. Ghatak passed away on 6 February, 1976, at the early age of fifty, leaving many unfinished projects. Always at odds with his requisite establishment, it seems, from IPTA to FTII, his influence was more wide reaching than might be expected. Reading recently Lalitha Gopalan’s book on action genres in contemporary Indian cinema, Cinema of Interruptions, I came across a reference to the influence of a group of directors Ghatak is famed for fathering:
Consciously setting themselves apart from commercial cinema, films by Adoor Gopalkrishnan, G. Aravindan, Mrinal Sen, Girish Kasarvalli, Kumar Shahani, and Mani Kaul focused on social and political antagonisms to narrate their tales of disappointment with the postcolonial state while also conveying hopes for a different society. […] [T]heir films drew the urban elite to cinemas and shaped film-viewing habits by encouraging the audience to focus more intently on the screen. A substantial number of commercial films made in the late 1980s borrowed from these film making practices while continuing to improve on conventions of entertainment. (38)
In line with this account, we could say that Ghatak’s legacy has been a kind of cinema that invites us “to focus more intently on the screen”. I like this idea. Interestingly, it might suggest a mode of contemplation asked of in front of great works of art, echoing Ghatak’s own claims to be an artist first and a filmmaker second. Certainly he has snubbed any value in ”entertainment” as a filmmaking practice:
I do not believe in ‘entertainment’ as they say it or slogan mongering. Rather, I believe in thinking deeply of the universe, the world at large, the international situation, my country and finally my own people. I make films for them. I may be a failure. That is for the people to judge. (39)
So Ghatak’s cinema asks us to contemplate “deeply of the universe” – to “focus more intently” rather than be “entertained”. This requirement appears to have proved unyielding in his lifetime and perhaps, still, for many of us today. So how can we access Ritwik Ghatak? How can we begin to watch his cinema? We can make an effort to judge differently if we can allow ourselves into to his particular cinematic rhythmic inflections.
To this end, I must canvas here my own encounter with what Gopalan has described as Ghatak’s ability to make us “focus more intently on the screen”. There is a scene in Ajantrik in which two taxi drivers sit atop their car bonnets and sing (to themselves, it seems) ”from their guts” in deep and bellowing voices, the one trying to drown out the other, in a contrapuntal cacophony. The whimsical singing of the two taxi drivers opens up a momentary pause, a delay in the movement of the film. Somehow, the camera frames this moment of vocal interweaving in Ajantrik so that it waits upon the drivers. It is scenes such as this one that have asked me to look and look again at Ghatak’s cinema, to inquire repeatedly into what Ghatak has achieved on the screen. I say that the camera waits or lingers on these two taxi drivers, partly because it is me who doesn’t want this moment to end. It is me who holds onto this singing so that it lingers in the images that follow, me that tries to squeeze out the duration of this scene and stretch it from within, indulging.
We can acknowledge that the spectator can open up a film by the desire to suspend and hold onto an image. Indeed, I must admit my own bias in writing this profile towards Ajantrik, a film for which I hold so much affection that it clouds my articulation of much of Ghatak’s other work which is less accessible to me. I too am a culprit of putting up a fence to Ghatak’s experimentations.
You might have been a bit more indulgent towards us if you only knew how many fences we have to cross to make a film. […] Filmmakers like us will be gratified if people just accept the fact that we are fenced in. […] You are a fence yourselves, the most ominous, perhaps. (40)
Examining the fences we put in place against Ghatak’s ambitious work should begin to open us up to this cinema. We too must bear his cinema’s scars if we are to learn from his vision.
All films are in the Bengali language and are black and white unless otherwise stated.
Nagarik (The Citizen) (1953) released posthumously on 20 September, 1977
Ajantrik (Pathetic Fallacy or The Unmechanical) (1957–8)
Bari Thekey Paliye (Running Away From Home) (1959)
Meghey Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star) (1960)
Komal Gandhar (The Gandhar Sublime or E-Flat) (1961)
Subarnarekha (The Golden Line) (1962)
Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Named Titus) (1973)
Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Arguments and a Story or Reason, Debate and a Tale) (1974) released posthumously on 30 September, 1977
Adivasiyon Ka Jeevan Srot (The Life of the Adivasis) (1955) in Hindi, commissioned by the Government of Bihar
Bihar Ke Darshaniya Sthan (Places of Historic Interest in Bihar) (1955) in Hindi, commissioned by the Government of Bihar
Scientists of Tomorrow (1967)
Yey Kyon (Why or The Question) (1970 ) in Hindi
Amar Lenin (My Lenin) (1970)
Puruliar Chhau (The Chhau Dance of Purulia) (1970)
Fear (1965) in Hindi
Rendezvous (Rajendra Nath Shukla, 1965) in Hindi; diploma film made under Ghatak’s supervision
Civil Defence (1965) at Film & Television Institute of India, Pune
Durbar Gati Padma (The Turbulent Padma) (1971)
Kato Ajanare (All the Unknown) (1959)
Bagalar Bangadashan (Bagala’s Discovery of Bengal) (1964)
Ranger Golam (The Knave of the Trump) (1968)
Ustad Alauddin Khan (1963) documentary about the musician
Indira Gandhi (1972)
Ramkinkar: A Personality Study (1975) colour
A note on obtaining these films:
Ritwik Ghatak’s films are difficult to locate so I’ve included a few directions here. Ghatak’s early feature, Ajantrik, is available in the Australian Film, Television and Radio School library for borrowing in Sydney. Nagarik, Meghey Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar and Titas Ekti Nadir Naam are available through the National Film and Video Lending Service at ACMI in Melbourne.
Meghey Dhaka Tara and Titas Ekti Nadir Naam are available for purchase at the British Film Institute website. Several other of his feature films are available at the British Film Institute for lending. Otherwise, more films may be found in the archives of the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. FTII may also be able to give directions on how to contact the Ritwik Memorial Trust.
Books on Ritwik Ghatak:
Jyotirmoy Basu Roy, Ritwik Ghataker Chhabi (The Films of Ritwik Ghatak), Calcutta, Rashbehari Book House, 1974.
Surama Ghatak, Ritwik, Calcutta, Asha Prakashani; Anustup, 1977; 1995.
Surama Ghatak, Ritwik: Padma Thekey Titas (Ritwik: Padma to Titas: a biographical documentation), Calcutta, Anustup, 1995.
Rajat Roy (ed.), Ritwik O Taar Chhabi (Ritwik and his Films, vol. 1), Calcutta, Sampratik, 1979.
Haimanti Banerjee, Ritwik Kumar Ghatak, Pune, National Film Archives of India, 1985.
Shampa Banerjee (ed.), Ritwik Ghatak, New Dehli, Directorate of Film Festivals of India, 1981.
Sibaditya Dasgupta and Sandipan Bhattacharya (eds), Ritwik Ghatak: Face to Face: Conversations with the Master 1962–1977, trans. Chilka Ghosh, Kolkata, Cine Central, 2003.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha, A Return to the Epic, Mumbai, Screen Unit, 1982.
Books by Ritwik Ghatak:
Dalil (The Document) [a play], Calcutta, Gananatya New Masses Publications, 1952.
Jwala (Rage) [a play], Calcutta, Jatiya Sahitya Parisad, 1965.
Ritwik Ghataker Galpo [a collection of stories by Ritwik Ghatak], Calcutta, Ritwik Memorial Trust, 1987.
Meghey Dhaka Tara [the reconstructed film script], Calcutta, Ritwik Memorial Trust, 1999.
Cinema and I, Calcutta, Ritwik Memorial Trust, 1987.
Rows and Rows of Fences, Calcutta, Seagull Books, 2000. [Includes all material from Cinema and I, now out of print.]
On the Cultural Front, Calcutta, Ritwik Memorial Trust, 1996.
Relevant Books on Indian Cinema:
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen (eds), Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, London, BFI & Oxford University Press, 1994.
Paul Willemen and Behroze Gandhy, Indian Cinema, London, BFI Dossier No. 5, 1982.
The British Film Institute
The best place to find Ghatak’s films. You can order The Cloud-Capped Star or A River Named Titus on DVD or VHS. At the BFI collections and catalogues index, click on ‘Ethnic Notions’ and look under the category ‘South Asian Films’ for access to the Ghatak’s films available for lending. They include the titles available for purchase as well as E-Flat (Komal Gandhar); Subarnarekha; Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Reason, Argument and Story).
On this website of the Indian bookhouse, you can order Rows and Rows of Fences: Ritwik Ghatak on Cinema and Ritwik Ghatak: Face to Face: Conversations with the Master 1962–1977.
Provides a detailed filmography of Ghatak’s work and some biographical details.
Recollections of Bengal and a Single Vision
By Shampa Bannerjee. There is a link to another article on Ghatak by Jacob Levich.
Sensibilities of Bengal: Ritwik Ghatak Revisited in this Millenium
By Dr Arup Ratan Ghosh.
Ritwik Ghatak…An Epic in Amnesia
By Siddharth Tripathy. From the Deccan Herald, Sunday Herald, February 23, 2003.
Instruments of Analysis
By Parg Amladi.
In Memory of Ritwik Ghatak
A review of Rows and Rows of Fences by Partha Chatterjee. To access this review you need to make a request via the feedback page.
Bengali Cinema: Ritwik Ghatak
Beautiful stills. Not much text but what text is available can be viewed either in English or Bengali.
Review of The Cloud-Capped Star by Acquarello on the ‘Strictly Film School’ website.
Meghey Dhaka Tara
Another review of The Cloud-Capped Star on upperstall.com, a website devoted to Indian cinema. Links to a review of Subaranarekha and biographical details on Ghatak.
The Cloud-Capped Star
Review of The Cloud-Capped Star by Travis Hoover.
India x 2
A review of Ghatak’s Ajantrik together with Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room by Donato Totaro.
Indian Cinema (general):
Bengal on the Net
Information on Ghatak can be found here among general popular information about Bengal.
Partition Through a Woman’s Eye
By Ranjita Biswas.
Click here to search for Ritwik Ghatak DVDs, videos and books at
- Satyajit Ray, Foreword to Cinema and I, Rows and Rows of Fences: Ritwik Ghatak on Cinema, Calcutta, Seagull Books, 2000.
- Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, London: BFI & Oxford Univ. Press, 1994 p. 96.
- Ghatak, “Film and I”, Rows and Rows of Fences, p. 5.
- Ghatak, “Film and I”, p. 1.
- Ghatak, “Film and I”, p. 4.
- Ghatak, “Film and I”, p. 7.
- I thank Laleen Jayamanne for this anecdote, which she received during discussions with Kumar Shahani. It was told to me during the completion of my Honours thesis at the University of Sydney in 2002.
- Ghatak, “Some Thoughts on Ajantrik”, Rows and Rows of Fences, p. 39.
- Ghatak, “Some Thoughts on Ajantrik”, p.40.
- Ghatak, “Some Thoughts on Ajantrik”, p. 39.
- Ghatak, “My Films”, Rows and Rows of Fences, p. 49.
- Kumar Shahani quoted in Paul Willemen (ed.), Indian Cinema, London, BFI Dossier No. 5, 1982, p. 41.
- See http://www.onmag.com/ritwik.htm
- Ghatak, “My Films”, p. 50.
- Monthly Film Bulletin Vol. 30 No. 355, August 1963. Cited in Rosie Thomas, “Indian Cinema – Pleasures and Popularity – An Introduction”, Screen, 26 (3–4), p. 118.
- Satyajit Ray, “Foreword”, Rows and Rows of Fences, p.ix.
- Ghatak, “Film and I”, p. 5.
- Ghatak, “Bengali Cinema: Literary Influence”, Rows and Rows of Fences, p. 26.
- Shampa Bannerjee, “Recollections of Bengal and a Single Vision”, http://220.127.116.11/filmmakers/ghatak/ghatak.html
- Jacob Levich on Ritwik Ghatak, http://18.104.22.168/filmmakers/ghatak/ghatak.html
- Siddharth Tripathy, “An epic in amnesia”,http://www.deccanherald.com/deccanherald/feb23/at4.asp
- Partha Chatterjee, “In Memory of Ritwik Ghatak”, http://www.biblio-india.com/articles/JA01_ar19.asp?mp=JA01
- Bhaskar Chandavarkar in Willemen, pp. 40–1.
- “[T]he physical or dynamic conception of the frame produces imprecise sets which are now only divided into zones or bands. The frame is no longer the object of geometric divisions but of physical gradations.” Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, London, The Athlone Press, 1986 (first published in France 1983), pp. 13–14.
- Deleuze, p. 18.
- “[W]hen we consider a framed image as a closed system, we can say that one aspect prevails over the other, depending on the nature of the ‘thread’. The thicker the thread which links the seen set to other unseen sets the better the out-of-field fulfils its first function, which is adding space to space.” Deleuze, p. 17.
- “…a scrap of vision with which the face is formed in power or quality”. See Deleuze, pp. 103–4 and p. 107.
- “Although the close-up extracts the face (or its equivalent) from all spatio-temporal co-ordinates, it can carry with it its own space-time – a scrap of vision, sky, countryside or background.” Deleuze, p. 108.
- Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, p. 96.
- Certainly, they have the primary condition Deleuze stipulates for an ‘any-space-whatever’: “a space full of shadows, or covered with shadows, becomes any-space-whatever.” Deleuze, p. 111.
- Gilles Deleuze’s comments about Bergman’s Persona prompted my own articulation of this scene: “The close-up has merely pushed the face to those regions where the principle of individuation ceases to hold sway. […] The close-up does not divide one individual, any more than it reunites two: it suspends individuation.” Deleuze, p. 100.
- “When a part of the body has had to sacrifice most of its motoricity in order to become the support for organs of reception, the principal feature of these will now only be tendencies to movement or micro-movements which are capable of entering into intensive series” Deleuze, p. 87.
- “[I]t is precisely in affection that the movement ceases to be that of translation in order to become movement of expression, that is to say quality, simple tendency moving up an immobile element.” Deleuze, p. 66.
- Satyajit Ray, “Foreword”, Rows and Rows of Fences, p.ix.
- Bannerjee, op cit.
- Lalitha Gopalan, Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema, London, BFI, 2002, p. 6.
- Ghatak, “My Coming into Cinema”, Rows and Rows of Fences, p. 1.
- Ghatak, “Rows and Rows of Fences”, Rows and Rows of Fences, pp. 44–7.