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February 16, 2000


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The Marginal Man

Shoma A Chatterji

Ritwik Ghatak An artiste extraordinary, a Marxist and a loner, Ritwik Ghatak passed away on February 6, 1976, in Calcutta, at the age of 51. Had his first feature film Nagarik (1952-53) been released immediately after it was made, the history of Indian cinema and its position in the world may have been written differently.

But Pather Panchali came in 1955 and rewrote history. Ghatak was unlucky because Nagarik was not released during his entire lifetime. It was made available to the Indian audience 30 years after it was first made, in 1982!

Ghatak claimed Nagarik was a political statement which analysed the agonies of a middle-class family in Calcutta engaged in a grim struggle with oppressive social forces. It depicted the slow and tragic shift of the family from middle-class to lower middle-class, several rungs down the hierarchical ladder of socio-economic class structure which, though geographic on the surface, reaches deeper into the lives of the family members. Their characters metamorphosed to something quite different from what they appeared in the beginning of the film.

Born in Dhaka, now in Bangladesh, on November 4, 1925, Ghatak began his career as a litterateur. After the Partition, he felt restless and rootless at the same time. Disturbed by his own rootlessness, he wrote, "my feet are not on my soil, that’s 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."

When Nagarik fell into distribution and exhibition trouble, Ghatak came to Bombay to try his luck. He joined Filmistan as scriptwriter but neither the job nor the city appeared to suit him, and he returned to Calcutta.

Ajantrik "Film is not like any other art," he once wrote. "It is something totally for drudges to be making. When you are engaged in making, there is no scope for the luxury of dreaming. In fact, there is all the chance of making a hash of it, with, on the one hand, the sheer physical strain and the hassle of chasing a whole medley of people with the most diverse dispositions to run, willy nilly, towards the same goal; and on the other hand, the financiers baring their fangs at every point; and on yet another hand, the responsibility of completing the stuff on time. Unlike other arts, there’ll be too much to pay if one chooses to get moonstruck and stay agape. There is all likelihood that the film will get entirely mucked up in the process. One has to smuggle one’s vision in through this process surreptitiously. How can one do it unless one has a lot of conceit?"

Though most friends avoided him towards the end of his life, thanks to his increasing addiction to the bottle and his eccentric ways, death crowned him with a glory he could neither see nor hear. Ghatak created a commotion with his death. By the afternoon of the morning he died, hundreds of people from all walks of life -- artists and litterateurs, clerks and workers, film technicians and directors, actors and actresses from the stage and screen, political activists and common people, thronged the gates of the hospital where he breathed his last.

It was a unique funeral of a unique man. The thousands in his funeral procession sang his favourite songs as they made their way to the Keoratala burning ghat in Calcutta. But he could no longer hear them sing.

His first film was Bedeni which he took over from another director. He had to abandon this due to a camera-flaw. In fact, the number of projects Ghatak had to give up after some time is hardly modest. Few are aware of his documentary on Indira Gandhi made in 1972 which he had to give up midway.

Subarnarekha He also did an ad film for Imperial Tobacco to raise money for Subarnarekha which he was then making. Some important films he had to abandon are Kato Ajanare (1959) and Bagalaar Bangadarshan, the latter being stopped after just a week’s shooting in 1964-65.

In his essay, Making Cinema (1969), Ghatak explained what he meant by the phrase archetypal idiom. Archetypal idiom, he said, "is a language which will not say much, in itself suggestive and not burdened by allusion, but nevertheless a full edge, which is not loaded with reference but which reminds. Because the feelings it touches off and its imagery are archetypal. A language which will capture the entire mood in a patriarchal style, apparently dry, but juicy within like a Malda mango."

He discovered this idiom in the prose of Vidyasagar, Abraham Lincoln and in the Bible, in the poetry of the Upanishads and in the films of Flaherty and in Song of Ceylon by Basil Wright.

"Such an idiom has existed in cinema, but I am at a loss not to find it... This archetypal idiom cannot come unless one is very angry, very much in love, very much in sorrow and has to be in one’s unconscious." He remained determined to seek this mirage of an idiom. This, interestingly, he wrote from the mental asylum where he was a patient of schizophrenia evolved from a growing split in his sensibility and in his stress.

Meghe Dhaka Tara The most creative period in Ghatak’s career was between 1952 and 1967. It began with Nagarik, followed by Ajantrik, Bari Theke Paliye, Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komol Gandhar and Subarnarekha.

These were punctuated by a spurt of documentaries. Memorable among these are Orson (1955), Ustad Allauddin Khan (1963), Fear (1964-65) and Scientists Of Tomorrow (1967). He made Fear during his term as vice-principal of the FTII in Pune.

Among Ghatak's most successful students are Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. According to Shahani, "the impetus, not only to the obvious narrative content of his films, but to their very language, was given by the tremendous splintering of the social system, of its values, while a facade of a hoary culture was still being maintained. The contradictions of a society that could have modernised itself after attaining formal independence are the prime causes of a deeper division."

Vidyarthy, in a review, wrote, "Ghatak lived and died as the Ultimate Marginal Man. When he died, there died with him an epic vision, albeit occasionally flawed, equally if not more important, a constant grappling with varied challenges to create pioneering and lasting works."

Some say he died because he persistently failed to cope with the trauma of Partition. He died of the frustration of having failed to reach his kind of cinema to the pople. He died of alcohol, of schizophrenia and of the excessive passion he had for life, for the things he believed in and lived for.

His childhood in East Bengal was interlaced with turbulent rivers and blessed with nature’s abundance. These memories haunted him throughout his life, underscored with the poignant pain of the 1947 Partition which fell with the killing impact of the guillotine on his mind and body, slow-poisoning him surely and steadily to death and disaster.

In Ritwik Ghatak: A Return to the Epic (1983), Ashish Rajadhyaksha wrote, "The initial question of the split of Bengal was to become for him a larger quest -- an attempt at portraying the relationships between the new classes formed by the process of urbanisation and the machine-revolution and their old traditions.

"It led him to take a look at the whole issue of rootlessness afresh -- the search of the refugee for a new identity. For him, this identity had links directly with the past, the centuries-old cultural heritage of our ancient societies wherein lay the unifying forces of the present. What within the present was a recognition of the material level of struggle, extended into the past to a recognition of the material traditions that once held the people together, traditions that had been destroyed over the centuries."

When he crossed over to West Bengal, he studied at the Krishnanath College in Berhampore. At 22, he let off steam in his first unpublished story Dalil (The Document). He used the typical Dacca dialect in writing it. When it was staged by the IPTA, Ghatak himself played an important role in the play. In the story, Ghatak writes, "you can sever Bengal, but not its heart."

He joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1948 when he came to Calcutta. He also translated Bertolt Brecht’s A Caucasian Chalk Circle in Bengali. He then wrote, produced and acted in nine plays, one of them being Tagore’s Bisarjan (The Immersion). He dropped out of postgraduate studies to assit Manoj Bhattacharya in Tathapi.

By then, he was convinced that cinema was the only medium which had the power to inspire the masses. In 1951, he made the transition from theatre to cinema because he realised its tremendous possibilities as a socio-political instrument of change. In 1969, he wrote, "I came to cinema for this, not for filmmaking for its own sake. If a better medium comes up tomorrow, I shall kick out cinema."

Before he ventured into direction, he assisted in a film called Tathapi (1951). He then scripted 17 feature films of nine directors of which nine were released and eight were abandoned. He also did minor roles in six feature films including three of his own, Subarnarekha, Titash Ekti Nadir Naam and Jukti Takko Aar Gappo.

He made five short films between 1970 and 1975, Chhau Dance Of Purulia, Amar Lenin (both in 1970), Yeh Kaun, Durbargati Padma (both in 1971) and the unfinished Ramkinkar (1975).

Ritwik Ghatak "My joining films has nothing to do with making money" he explained. "Rather, it is out of a volition for expressing my pains and agonies for the suffering people. I do not believe in ‘entertainment’ or in ‘slogan-mongering.’ Rather, I believe in thinking deeply of the universe, the world at large, of the international situation, my country and finally, my own people. I make films for them. In case of cinema, when the audience starts seeing a film, it (the film) also creates -- a filmmaker throws up certain ideas, it is the audience which fulfills it. Only then it becomes a complete whole. Film-watching is a kind of ritual. When the lights go out, the screen takes over and then the audience increasingly becomes one. It is a community feeling. One can compare it with going to a church, or a mosque, or a temple."

Ghatak’s faith in tradition found expression through the chanting of the Vedas and the Upanishads in his films. He, almost unfailingly and deliberately, chose a child, or a lunatic, or a drunkard to chant them because, "you can say volumes through them which people apparently neglect, but cannot escape."

Perhaps, he was summing up his own life. There was a child in him, vulnerable, helpless. There was a little of the madman in him seeking stability and peace in the asylum. And he was the sad, ruined, defeated drunkard who could not escape his destiny. But his footprints remain stamped on the sands of time, imprinted forever in world cinema history.

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