Ritwik Ghatak is the doyen of the Bengali Neo Realist form of Cinema that Bengal witnessed. Politically leftist, ideologically, with the “others” of society, his cinema was his mouthpiece.

One of the symbols of first brainy reel flicks of Bengal, Ritwik Ghatak is not only the name, but the momentum, the ideology and yet the ‘cloud capped star’ of the New Wave Cinema that rocked Bengal during the era that witnessed a sea change in the facets of politics, social infrastructure and contemporary idiosyncrasies. He was the outsider with Promethean fire in his hungry eyes obliquely positioning himself forever on the periphery of the overtly explored realms of commercial cinematic domains, and remaining an unsung genius of Bengal Cine land.

ritwik ghatak1 Ritwik Ghatak: The Radical Genius

Early Life of Ritwik Ghatak

Ritwik was born in that West Bengal; then still not bifurcated by geographical and authoritarian boundaries. The Ghatak family moved to Kolkata during the famine that infected Bengal in 1943, leaving their homelands behind. Ritwik’s childhood was mapped by the ebbs and lows of displacement issues and his reel depictions whisper those canonizing moments of his experienced refugee identity. His relentless familiarity with the experience of refugee camps and the sense of being an abandoned outsider; never wholly accepted by the society had carved him as a warrior in the perennial journey from lack of identity to the attainment of one. Throughout his life, he spoke and cried through cinema, the medium he felt would make him reach to a larger audience to have his say!

Transcendence, and beyond, is an oft recurred vision through his lens; however, issues like Post partitioned Bengal’s socio-economic condition, the Bengal famine, the IPTA and Left movement- all had cast a penumbra of shadows eternally on his personal chambers and his professional unconquered territories. The social erosion and disintegration of Bengal in the post Independence period is coloured by the deft use of mythology in his cinemas that drew life. Till date, they haunt the bioscope lovers who can feel the lingering essence of meaningful cinema. His films and his works lay the bricks, the essence of longing, and a search that is quite often metaphorical. The exploration beyond the known realms had been his favourite subject. In the year 1971, Bangladesh experienced her liberation war, the bloody story of the brutal killing of men etched in the slaughter house organized by the contemporary hegemony. As a result of the war, numerous refugees arrived to India, nameless, faceless masks whose number plates had been their only strip of identity. The issue of acceptance in an unknown world and a desire to belong perturbed these homesick homeless masses. Ghatak felt it all. His heart cried for them and time and again the films he made, spoke for these rootless dysphoric souls.

For Ghatak, “The movie camera was not just an obstructive eavesdropper, but a commentator, philosopher, historian, critic and poet, not a peep window into the lives of a group of characters, but a testament – narrating, recalling, rejecting, accepting, questioning protesting, losing and winning,” wrote the late Safdar Hashmi. In a 1973 interview he had characteristically remarked, “If tomorrow or ten years later, a new medium arrives, which, is more powerful than cinema, I will kick out cinema and embrace the new medium.” Ritwik was intensely preoccupied to reach out to the people, as he believed that “ manushi sesh kotha bolbe (“people are the last word of all forms of arts”.

Films of Ritwik Ghatak and his created brilliance on screen

Nemai Ghosh’s Chinnamul (torn from the root) in 1950, was his first venture where he acted and worked as a directorial assistant. His speculation into the directorial province had been with Nagarik (1952). An awakening call to the fellow comrades for political action for a new dawn, the film was the product of Neorealism, lesser known to Bengal that time. Shot in 1952, the film saw its release in the late seventies. The film dealt with the favourite topic of Ghatak- partition of Bengal and the life of the refugees. The ending of the film witnesses Ramu, the protagonist abandoning his house and his individual aspirations to join a political struggle for equality between classes. As movies went on being his mouthpiece, Nagarik, showed Ritwik’s leftist inclination. The movie was the garangutan repercussion of the Language Movement when thousands of students preferred death bed and voiced their revolt to achieve ‘ Bengali’ approved as a state language officially. Next followed Ajantrik (1959,) that pen pictures his love for originality. An inanimate object – an automobile had been the central character of a movie many years before the Herbie films arrived.

Bari Thekey Paliye (1959) was his next take to discover his self chosen path of self discovery. The film had similar concurrence to Trauffaut’s film 400 Blows. A child runs away from the sacred, safe boundaries of domesticity to venture into un-traded ways and in his way he meets warmth, nurturance and the boorish crude world of men, money and business. His masterpiece that christrianised him was Meghey Dhaka Tara. It was the only one test in the exam of the box office where he came out with flying colours. Neeta portrayed by Supriya Chaudhuri is the cloud capped star, the bread earner of a refugee family who bears the existential burden and subtracts her personal chapters of happiness and longing to provide bare essentials of life to her poverty stricken family. She is the archetypal figure of sacrificial totem, the unsung scapegoat in the cudgels of the economic crisis of Bengal. In fact, she symbolizes the degenerated Bengal and the social structures that rape her emotions for greed and selfish desires. The intensely felt film is an indictment to the oppressive social structure and the solitary struggle of a woman. Neeta is not only physically and emotionally sacrificed by her family, but sacrificed as the goddess. She is the benevolent Jagatdhatri, the goddess of eternal provider and Laksmi the goddess of prosperity. One of his concluding films A River Named Titas (Titas Ekti Nodir Naam ) is catered in a hyperlink format with an abundance of interconnected narratives running throughout the cinematic canvas that predated Robert Altman’s Nashville by two years. After he finished making Titash ekti Nodir Naam, he observed “I did not realize that whatever ideas I had about Bengal, the two Bengals together, were thirty years out of date”,. “My childhood and my early youth were spent in East Bengal. The memories of those days, the nostalgia maddened me and drew me towards Titash, to make a film on it. The period covered in the novel, Titash, is forty years old, a time I was familiar with…Consequently, Titash has become a kind of commemoration of the past that I left behind long ago…when I was making the film, it occurred to me that nothing of the past survives today, nothing can survive. History is ruthless. No, it is all lost. Nothing remains.

His swan song Jukti Takko Aar Gappo( 1974) may be considered a biopic that he himself directed . Neelkantha Bagchi is the protagonist whose name has a mythological connection to Lord Shiva, who became ‘neelkantha’ or ‘blue throat after he drank poison during Samudra Manthan. Neelkantha, is a middle class leftist intellectual who is ceremoniously isolated by the society in general.

One feature of his films was the characteristic of melodrama. Kenji Mizoguchi of Japan and Rainer Fassbinder of West Germany, were much indulged in melodrama. Ghatak seemed to follow their footsteps. However, the melodrama had very little to do with soap opera melodrama, but rather an exaggerated expression that surpasses the realist norm. The passive assimilation of screen drama and to engage the bespectacled spectators is what the director desired as he nurtured the belief- ‘showing extreme antipathy against the evils and deeply caring the finer elements of the society is the responsibility of every artist of all ages’.

Ritwik’s Engagement with IPTA Movement

IPTA movement happened to Ritwrik and as he was not only a playwright, director, but a cultural theorist, and it remained with him. The movement was an association of the leftist theatre artists under the left parties. His thesis ‘On the Cultural Front’ came out in 1954 demarcating the cultural agenda of IPTA and the Communist Party in general laying bare the ideological, political and organizational program. This thesis was not wholeheartedly accepted by the Communist Party and he bade a goodbye to them. In his later film Komol Gandhar, he documented his observations on this. One of his fellow travelers, the folk singer and composer Hemanga Biswas felt about Ritwik: “Ritwik made an error in understanding the people’s theatre movement because – he did not get into it through any people’s movement. His misconception was reflected in the film Komal Gandhar where conflict between leaders, cell meeting and so on became his main concern, whereas the main point, the people’s movement, was left untouched.”

Ritwik: A Genius, born ahead of his time

What is the definition of meaningful cinema? Where lies the differentiating line between political, apolitical or parallel cinema? Frequent pertinent quested queries would forever blow with the wind and remain trapped in the whimsical world of the cinema called life or vice versa. And they would be embroidered with an eternal thread whenever Ritwik’s cinemas would be explored by any hungry movie buff. His films were not easy, nor were he or his queries that were being perpetually evoked through his cinematic projects. As Bernard Shaw would put it, “to bring the minds into theatre and use it” his works smelt such.

Self destructive geniuses have the sea of wilderness deep within them that is engulfed by madness. Ritwik was one such, a flawed genius perpetually dismissed by his time. Each refusal pricked him like a fatal blow and undauntingly, he went on to verbalise through his sword-cinema. Unlike Satyajit Ray, who had plunged himself into middle class issues, Ghatak was glue struck with the scars of partition and the untold repertoires of the uprooted nomads-the outsiders. “If Satyajit Ray’s films were eye-openers to classics, Ritwik Ghatak was unique in his varied experiences with form and content. The content of his films was pro-people and their narratives were strong, angry, even universal,” says Kamaleshwar Mukherjee, one director of Bengal who directed a biopic commemorating Ritwik.

Noted contemporaries of Ritwik like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen had been successful in creating and maintaining their chain of loyal audience during their lifetime. But Ritwik was surely not the chosen one by fate. He was a man who could never see the overreaching boundaries of fame and the magnanimous opulence surrounding his films during his lifetime. They came but it was too late, the train of life by then had passed the station carrying him with it. Ritwik was different to the core. He embodied the idealism that at once is revolutionary and nonconformist in nature. A tireless crusader for the cause that he believed in, he was far, far ahead of his time. And over and above that, impulsive to the point of being self destructive due to which his personal life suffered too, bringing in an irrevocable separation with his wife Surama Ghatak. His relentless drinking and eccentric lifestyle were the extension of his desperate depression. The director is physically no more, but his works, his statements still echo with the parameters of the Avant Garde cinema with sepia tinged memories blurred into colours.

By Adrita Dey Ghatak

Also See:
Remembering Nanda – A Musical Tribute
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra

Image Source: Sajal Mazumdar@Facebook

Video Source: Jukti Takko Aar Gappo-angel@YouTube, Portrait of the Director: Ritwik Ghatak-DoordarshanNational@YouTube

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