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Article Bengali Hindi

When Ritwik Ghatak teamed up with Asrani and Subhash Ghai

Known for his incisive depiction of reality, Ritwik Ghatak was far from the glitz of commercial cinema. Yet, under his tutelage emerged two of the more successful commercial names Hindi cinema has known — Asrani and Subhash Ghai. On Ghatak's 41st death anniversary today (6 February), we look at how this happened.

Shriram Iyengar

Ritwik Ghatak and his cinema enjoy an exalted place in the hearts of film buffs. On the index of success measured by the commercial performance of films, Ghatak's name lies far beyond the boundaries of even Satyajit Ray. His films were shaped by and told the story of the reality around him.

Yet, it is not that he could not escape reality. Films like Ajantrik (1958) and Madhumati (1958) belonged to the period when the director was experimenting with the style of allegorical fantasy.

However, his legend stands strong on the basis of films like Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Subarnarekha (1962), Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (1973) and Jukti Gappo Tarko (1978).

While Ghatak remains an icon for the Indian film buff, the film student holds him at a higher position. Because one of the greatest successes of his life was his mentoring of students during his teaching stint at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune between 1963 and 1972. Filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Saeed Akhtar Mirza emerged with a cinematic philosophy that was strongly shaped by Ghatak.

"I don’t wish to make money by making films," Ghatak once declared. "Immediate success is not the final aim of cinema. Which film will yield money, which will not, you can’t find a doctor for that. I am making films for my people. I believe in fight. Art means war." The statement finds its calling in Mirza's films like Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho (1978) or John Abraham's Amma Ariyan (1986).

Thus, it was during his stint with the FTII that Ghatak truly managed to influence filmmakers who would go on to make a difference in Indian cinema. Among them were names like Subhash Ghai, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Asrani. Ghai, in particular, was a favourite of the filmmaker and would often be the last man to drop Ghatak home after his drunken lectures.

It was during this time that these commercial names came together in a strange manner. In 1965, Ghatak took on Asrani, Ghai, and a number of students to star in a self-written and directed film titled Fear. A story of a group of different individuals; scientists, a farmer, a pickpocket, a musician, a rich man, and a village girl huddled in a garrison to escape an attack on their town, Fear was the perfect example of Ghatak's ability to tell a universal story through individuals.

In an interview, PK Nair, the guiding light of the National Film Archives of India, said, "I remember Ghatak assembling all the characters for the film he had to make for the acting students then. He was able to leave his signature and the theme was trademark — human and mind. The drama, use of music, extreme close-ups, erratic camera angles and use of a staircase can be seen in the film. When Ghatak came to FTII, he had already made his feature-length trilogy Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1962). His stint at FTII was his break. He loved teaching till he went back to filmmaking with Titash Ekti Nadir Naam in 1973."

Ghai would go on to direct Karz (1980), which was almost a lift of Madhumati while Asrani went on to work quite successfully with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, another product of the Bengal renaissance that had entered Hindi cinema. Ghai would attain the title 'Showman' while Asrani continued his rise to fame for his portrayal as the faux Hitler in one of India's greatest blockbusters, Sholay (1975). 

As Ghai would say recall, "I was his blue-eyed boy. He often used to be drunk and it was my duty to take him back to his room at the institute from the liquor shop. There is something he often said in his drunken state: a filmmaker should think through his heart when making a film and let people with mind analyse it."

For now, Fear continues to remain within the NFAI, open for viewing by any fans of Ghatak who might want to experience his rebellious storytelling.