Article Bengali

Ritwik Ghatak, filmmaker who created his own language of cinema – Death anniversary special

From his debut film to his last creation, Ritwik Ghatak remained a thoroughly political filmmaker, perhaps more so than any other in India till date.

Roushni Sarkar

Though Ritwik Ghatak is considered one of the more prominent Indian filmmakers with Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, he followed a trajectory all his own throughout his career.

Ghatak, a filmmaker deeply conscious of the history of social ferment, did not consider cinema a mere medium of art. He exploited it in a deliberate manner to serve a certain end.

As a result, Ghatak was never commercially successful. And while his contemporaries earned accolades all over the world, his work was mostly recognized in India only by a young intelligentsia that was just as painfully aware of social inequities as the filmmaker himself.

According to Sanjay Mukhopadhyay, former professor of film studies at Kolkata's Jadavpur university, Ghatak created his own language of cinema which broke from the established idiom inspired by Hollywood.

Even Satyajit Ray, while mourning Ghatak’s death, said, “While we were all conceiving and understanding films that were made in the likeness of Hollywood films, Ghatak ventured completely out of it. It is hard to understand how he did so, but his films show the way.”

Mukhopadhyay explained that Ghatak’s language of cinema was primarily based on the notion that there is always more to discover than what is shown on screen. “His motto was to relate every sequence of a film with history," the scholar said. "He realized and made sure to project that even the movements of an individual are connected with his/her socio-political and temporal background. He believed there was no purpose to making a film if he could not establish this connection and show it to the audience differently.”

In Mukhopadhyay’s reading, Ghatak was never merely interested in telling stories, which is the conventional reason for making films. For him, filmmakers and audiences mostly ignore the film itself in their attempt to know the story it tells. He found this practice problematic because unlike reading a literary work, when one only follows a logical progression of words, in a film, words or dialogues play just a small part among various other aspects.

Ghatak’s proposition was not acceptable to producers who proceeded to put hurdles in his path. Ghatak’s spirit never flagged, however. “He knew that the intense thought process behind making a film was not to be shut down," Mukhopadhyay continued. "We have to understand that making films differently can be easy but Ghatak was careful of the fact that his films would be examined by the common people in theatres. He did not have protection like directors of this generation have.

“He wanted to initiate conversations with the peasants, labourers, and people who sweat to arrange money for their children’s weddings.”

Ghatak’s first directorial Nagarik (1952), or The Citizen, which was released after his death (on 6 February 1976) along with his last film Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974), defined a new idiom of cinema. “Many are of the opinion that if Nagarik had been released at the right time, Pather Panchali (1955) would not have received the same accolades it did," Mukhopadhyay pointed out. "I do not agree with that, but Nagarik definitely dismissed all the standard parameters that previous films, be they Udayer Pathey (1944), Devdas (1935) or Chandidas (1932), followed.”

For the first time in Bengali cinema, Nagarik resorted to a distinct expressionist portrayal. “As a member of a political party [the Communist Party of India], Ghatak sincerely believed he could bring change through his films. His ideology is quite apparent right from the credit sequence of the film,” the professor added.

Ghatak’s Nagarik depicts a picture of the city which was not previously seen in Sharey Chuattor (1953), Shap Mochan (1955), Aparajito (1956), or any other film based on an urban landscape.

“The city he shows in low light with a tinge of bitterness in Nagarik is not a post-Independence city full of promise," explained Mukhopadhyay. "Instead, he followed the trend of the Kallol era [an influential movement in Bengali literature, usually placed between 1923 and 1935], during which there was a tendency to paint the city as a dark place, as in film noir or German expressionist films.

"He used the camera from low angles to depict a larger-than-life moment and to convey something more than what was being shown. Nagarik can be considered the first political film.”

From his debut film to his last creation, Ghatak remained a thoroughly political filmmaker, perhaps more so than any other in India till date. “No director made his political ideologies so clear as Ghatak," said the scholar. "Everyone has cared for awards, rewards and security. Ghatak did not even have a bank passbook. Perhaps it is only such lack of interest in security that encourages an artiste to be so courageous.”