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Enduring relevance of Ritwik Ghatak

Anit Mukerjea |

Ritwik Ghatak&’s cinematic masterpieces have social reality playing a major role and they present an alternative perspective with brutal honesty. With that in mind, Debjani Halder’s book Illuminating Agony Ritwik — spanning his times from 1942 to 1976 — delves on the mindset of Ghatak against the back drop of socio-economic and political Marxist culture. 

The book launch took place at the Princeton Club in Kolkata recently. It was released in the presence of yesteryear Tollywood star Madhabi Mukherjee — the leading lady of Ghatak’s Subarnarekha —, the late filmmaker&’s daughter Samhita, actor Saswata Chatterjee — who essayed the role of a character heavily inspired by Ghatak in Kamaleswar Mukherjee&’s Meghe Dhaka Tara — and the lead vocalist of Chandrabindoo, Anindya Chattopadhyay. Also present  were two senior technicians who collaborated with Ghatak, Ujjal Bandopadhyay (the assistant scriptwriter of Jukti Tokko Goppo) and Ranjit Sengupta, who assisted the master filmmaker during the making of Bari Theke Paliye, Komal Gandhar and Meghe Dhaka Tara to name only a few. 

Speaking at the launch, Manab Chaudhuri, who is the producer, publisher and chief executive officer of Dreamz, said that they had decided to publish books related to the film industry and as has happened, the first one is based on Ghatak. Illuminating Agony Ritwik will showcase many hitherto unknown facts about the veteran film maker. 

32-year-old Halder did her doctorate on Ghatak from 2007 to 2010, and she stated at the launch, “In my book, I have attempted to analyse Ghatak’s work from a historical perspective.” She completed both her Master’s in History and Phd from Jadavpur University and did postdoctoral research from the Indian Council of Social Science Research through a project titled, “Visualising Women Protagonists in the Context of Post-90s Indian Cinema.” Currently, Halder is associated with the Calcutta University Women&’s Studies Research Centre as a Dr S Radhakrishnan post-doctoral fellow. She has covered different aspects of Indian cinema, gender studies and the sociology of Indian law. Her current research encompasses topics like “Patriarchy versus Rights of Womb” through the lens of post-90s Indian cinema. 

Apart from being a research scholar and author, Halder is also a documentary filmmaker and social activist. Excerpts from an interview:

What spurred you to pen a book on such a controversial filmmaker like Ritwik Ghatak when you have never met or seen him but rather depended on available source material?

First, I have an objection with the phrase, “controversial filmmaker”. Actually people, especially, Bengalis always dig for controversies and gossip rather than acknowledge the creative world of an artist. I personally find no controversies when it comes to a master filmmaker like Ritwik Ghatak who composed the Kumarsambhaba of a restive post-Independence Bengal on screen. Thus, when I decided to pursue my doctoral research on Ghatak, I was determined to deconstruct his thoughts and creations in the context of economic, political, social and Marxist cultural concepts prevalent during his lifetime rather than dabble in a biographical sketch. 

It is true that I have never seen Ghatak but I treasure his presence through his writings, films and documentaries. I received enormous assistance from Surama Ghatak and Samhita Ghatak, the Ritwik Memorial Trust, late Samar Mukherjee, and eminent filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. I knew I had to face impediments while conducting my research methodology but as a researcher it is always my first target to supersede the paucity of reference material. Nevertheless those who are Ghatak&’s contemporaries extended a helping hand to me.  Also my supervisors and professors Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay and Sudeshna Banerjee guided me on how to execute my research questions.  

How did you rediscover Ghatak through his celluloid creations? 

Ritwik Ghatak is celebrated as one of the 20th century&’s foremost filmmakers who helped establish Bengali cinema as an art form. It was he who liberated the visual form by lending moments of poetic grace. His camera becomes instrumental as a tool of negotiation with crass reality in all its naked manifestations and that marked a clear departure from the traditional aesthetics of filmmaking. Ghatak belongs to a different breed whose creations, which came in for much criticism, has attained both contemporary relevance as well as a classic status because of his original thinking and modern sensibilities. 

Apart from writing quite a few short stories and plays, he made eight full-length feature films — Nagarik (1952-53), Ajantrik (1958), Bari Theke Paliye (1959), Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961), Subarnarekha (1962), Titas Ekti Nadir Nam (1973) and Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974). I tried to explore Ghatak’s creations from several perspectives – “Ritwik and the Marxist cultural movement”, “Partition and the agony of Ritwik Ghatak”, “Ritwik as the critic of post-colonial society of Bengal”, “Inspiration for Ghatak&’s creation” and "Women in Ghatak’s films”.

While authoring this book did you have a target readership in mind?

Yes, my target audience comprises scholars of film study, diaspora study, social science and film lovers in general. 

Do you think his alcohol addiction spelt his doom as a film maker and influenced his films in a negative way?

I am at a loss to understand why people always dub Ghatak an alcoholic? A recent film based on him also made the same mistake. I think an apt quotation from a British film critic will sum up what I feel about this. Marie Seton, who named Ritwik as the enfant terrible of Indian cinema wrote, “Ritwik Ghatak&’s creation is daring, intellect-enriched and, to a large extent, rational and argumentative.” 

Eminent film maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan who was Ghatak&’s student, has written the foreword to my book and said in it, “The most important part of his teaching or rather sharing was the screening of his films and talking about them — about the how and why. We relished those post-screening sessions and learned how both visuals and sound could be used in cinema innovatively. Yes, he did experiment with both picture and sound as never before.”

Ghatak&’s contemporary Satyajit Ray also acknowledged his genius and his chief merit lay in his originality that he preserved till the end. 

Ghatak was a Marxist but he used archetypes through his films. Do you find any conflict between these two ideologies? 

It is worth noting that the same Ghatak who carried Marxism in his heart till the end was also influenced by Carl Jung&’s theory of the collective unconscious and drew his own conclusions from the same. Actually mythology shows that the history of all civilisations is the history of conflicts between two kinds of human consciousness — one of karmayogis and the other of people such as poets, artists, shamans, medicine-men, rishis and mystics.

Ghatak accepted the fusion between Marx and Jung but he did not stray away from Marxism. According to him, Marxism is correct insofar as man becomes socially conscious and conscious as a class but Marxism has no explanation for dreams as expressions of the unconscious, and in this respect Jung is the last word. In an interview with Chitrabikshan he said, “There&’s no conflict of Jung&’s theory with Marxism. Marx deals with one world and Jung with another, and there is no inherent contradiction between the two. The collective unconscious greatly determines man&’s unconscious behaviour and the class structure determines conscious behaviour. But, is it worthwhile analysing the dream world through Marxism? For that there is Jung, this is why I feel there&’s no conflict between Marx and Jung insofar as they deal with two different worlds. They are very much complementary to each other.” 

Ghatak realised that the collective unconscious becomes a receptacle of memories before man becomes a conscious being following in the footsteps of mythology that leaves behind some archetypes, which determine reactions vis-à-vis events. 

Your book reflects the films of Ghatak against the backdrop of political and socio-economic turmoil in post-independence Bengal. Keeping this in mind, how relevant is Ghatak&’s cinematic contribution now?  

In the present context when Europe is wounded by refugee problems and the displaced people of Palestine, Kurdistan, Syria have spent sleepless nights on the pavements of Germany, there is no greater relevance for his works. In fact Ghatak visualised unemployment, price hike, starvation and poverty through his creations. 

How would you compare the basic cultural differences between Ghatak and another master film maker Satyajit Ray?

I think Ghatak freed Indian cinema of stereotypes and gave the most modern articulation of social reality. When Indian filmmakers — influenced by Hollywood cinema — were copying its idiom, it was Ghatak who ensured his place in the history of international filmdom by treating the complex socio-economic and political issues in India in a manner, which is both analytical and full of emotion. In fact Satyajit Ray commented, “… an approach which is the hallmark of Ritwik&’s films. Those among us, who have been watching films for the last 40 years, have spent almost 30 of those watching  Hollywood films as there was no opportunity to see other kinds of films. Thus, all of us have been influenced by Hollywood in one way or another.  But for some mysterious reason Ghatak was completely free from that influence — his chief merit lies in his originality that he preserved till the end.”

Ghatak also acknowledged Ray as a genius as he was meticulous in detailing and he admired that greatly. I think like the many hues embellished in nature, Ray and Ghatak should not be compared as they are a class by themselves.  

Do you find any positive angles in the perspective of Ghatak&’s celluloid creations? 

Ghatak portrayed the tragic dimension of social decadence by the use of coincidences and, never felt that his films were pessimistic although, he did deal with the theme of exploitation, struggle, death and defeat. He nevertheless raised hopes of a positive end through the eyes of the newborn and that exalted the realms of optimism.