Article Bengali Hindi

Ritwick Ghatak and his melodrama of Partition – Death anniversary special

On the director's 42nd death anniversary (he died on 6 February 1976), we see how his style separated him from the rest of the Bengali film industry.

Shriram Iyengar

Last September, India's home ministry submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court saying the influx of Rohingya refugees from Burma was a "potential threat to the internal and national security of the country [and would result in the] diversion of national resources to the detriment of Indian citizens".

The ministry's affidavit was based on the fact that India remains a non-signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. This left  more than 40,000 illegal immigrants and refugees without a home. Incidentally, this happened in the 70th year of the bloody Partition of India which left a permanent impact on one of the country's great filmmakers, Ritwick Ghatak, who was born in Dacca, now in Bangladesh.

The Ghatak family moved to Calcutta before 1943. Soon after, the city began to face an almost interminable flood of immigrants seeking to escape the infamous Bengal famine of 1943. Just four years later, the city was again faced with a flood of refugees, this time from Partition. Thematically, these incidents were to remain a lifelong obsession in Ghatak's filmography.

Films like Subarnarekha (1965), Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (1973) and Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974) remain some of the finest documents of the emotional damage caused by Partition. 

At the Pune International Film Festival 2016, director Jahnu Barua, speaking on Ghatak's filmmaking, said, "He was an observer of all this trauma. As an artist, and a creative mind, his suffering as an observer got reflected in his work. He was looking for a medium to express what he felt and in cinema he found that medium." 

Recalling his memory of watching Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) for the first time, director Amole Gupte said in an interview that he could not stop crying while watching the film. "I swear I have never cried so much in my life. It's pure emotion, core emotion," Gupte said. 

It is this ability to tap into heightened emotions while espousing his personal philosophy that made Ghatak such a powerful filmmaker. 

Often mentioned in the same breath as the great Satyajit Ray, Ghatak was a prolific writer, director and playwright. What set him apart from Ray was his ability to use melodrama as the lever to elevate the mood and tempo of his cinematic emotions. 

In an interview with BBC's Channel 4, Mani Kaul, one of Ghatak's students, describes his method thus: "I would also use the word melodrama for Ghatak, and to make a distinction in where the difference lies in how he uses it or the mainstream — if you look at melodrama, it is easily given to an epic form because melodrama in its true form does not work on cause and effect. It is also not interested in characterization. Its interest lies in the unfolding of action and the spread of action." 

For Ghatak, cinema was a 'personal statement'. In the book, Cinema and I, a collection of essays co-authored by him and Ray, Ghatak writes, "I think a truly national cinema will emerge from the much-abused form of melodrama when truly serious and considerate artists will bring the pressure of their entire intellect upon it." 

For his own cinema, he chose to use the tool of melodrama to heighten the impact of Partition and its effect on refugees. 

Whether it is the shocking, bloody end of Subarnarekha or the unforgettable cry in Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ghatak could build up emotions slowly through minor incidents leading up to the climactic moment. 

While the themes of his films varied, they revolved around the struggles faced by those who are displaced. In Meghe Dhaka Tara, Nita is the sole earning member of a family of refugees that lives in a suburb of Calcutta. It is this responsibility that sucks the joy out of her life. 

In Subarnarekha, displacement destroys an entire family, with a fatal finale that is as shocking as it is cathartic. In Komal Gandhar (1961), the theme of Partition is dealt within a mise-en-scene in a play. Thus, the director often returned to the memories of his own childhood, recreating what he had lost. 

Like Satyajit Ray, Ghatak often turned to music as an instrument to elevate melodrama in his films. Meghe Dhaka Tara, for instance, is renowned for its use of Rabindra sangeet to accompany what was an epic tragedy. 

As Ghatak describes it in the book, "Music: this is a great implement for a film; at times it has the last word. Through music one lets the film speak on a parallel level, a different level.There are many ways to do it. For instance, before we write sound of the first few bars, we have already conceived the total musical structure in our iminds — a kind of overture for the film during the credit titles. From there follow the other sequences, other incidents, along with corresponding musical compositions. The principal idea is to use a particular tune as complementary to the theme." 

While he never worked in Hindi cinema, he did write the story for Musafir (1957) and Madhumati (1958). In many ways, Madhumati captures Ghatak's philosophical, musical bent to melodrama, re-shaped into a more commercial form. The film won him a nomination for the Filmfare award for Best Story. 

As someone who admired Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Luis Bunuel, and Kurosawa, Ghatak managed to create his own space in the increasingly commercialized world of Indian cinema. With abstract images, epic narratives, and heightened melodrama, the director created films that have become landmarks in cinema technique in India. 

The despair of his films not being appreciated, and sometimes ignored, by audiences led the director into the grip of alcohol, and eventually, to poverty. But not before he had taken on a stint at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).

It was here that his ideology shaped the future of modernist cinema auteurs. Filmmakers like Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul, Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Subhash Ghai. Ghai even went on to adapt Madhumati's story into a modern form with Karz (1980).

Despite his passing, Ghatak's memory as the obsessive, idealistic poet-creator has been immortalized over the years. While his almost fantastical zeal towards cinema and technique is admired, it is his vision as an artist that draws more cineastes to him.

As the filmmaker wrote in an essay in Cinema and I, "Film going is a kind of ritual. When the lights go out, the screen takes over. Then the audience increasingly become one. It is a community feeling, one can compare it with going to a church or a masjid or a temple. If a filmmaker can create that kind of mentality in his audience, he is a great one — such as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Bunuel, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Cacoyannis, Kozinstev, John Ford and others. I do not know whether I belong to their category, but I try." 

Even in his writings, he retained a sense of melodrama.