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Ritwik and His "Meghe Dhaka Tara"-A Study Into Oppression and Feminism in The Alter
It is one of life’s great ironies that Ritwik Ghatak, who is today something of a cult figure in Bengal, was so little understood and appreciated during his lifetime. Although today his films have won a lot of critical acclaim, the fact remains that in their day they ran mostly empty houses in Bengal. Ghatak films project a unique
sensitivity. They are often brilliant, but almost always flawed.
Born in Dhaka (now in Bangladesh), the partition of Bengal and the subsequent partition of a culture was something that haunted Ghatak forever. Joining the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), he worked for several years as a playwright, actor and director. When the IPTA split into factions, Ghatak turned to films.
Generally, Ghatak’s films revolve around two central themes: the experience of being uprooted from the idyllic rural environment of East Bengal and the cultural trauma of partition in 1947. His first film, Nagarik (1952) weaved the oppressive tale of a the young man, his futile search for a job and the erosion of his optimism and idealism as his family sinks into dire poverty and his love affair also turns sour. Ghatak then accepted a job with Filmistan Studio in Bombay, but his ‘different’ ideas did not go down well there. However, he scripted Musafir (1957) and Madhumati (1958) for Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Bimal Roy respectively, the latter becoming an all-time hit.
After this brief stay followed by his return to his good old Calcutta, he made Ajantrik (1958) about a taxi driver in a small town in Bihar and his vehicle, an old Chevrolet jalopy. A variety of passengers gives the film a wider frame of reference and provides situations of drama, humor and irony.
However, his “magnum opus” is none other than Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), the first film in a trilogy, which examines the socio-economic implications of partition. Protagonist Nita (played by Supriya Chowdhury) is the breadwinner in a refugee family of five. Everyone uses it and the strain proves a lot. She submits
tuberculosis. In one memorable moment, a dying Nita cries out “I want to live…” as the camera pans across the mountains, emphasizing the indifference and timelessness of nature even as echoes reverberate over the scenery.
Despite the complexities, Meghe Dhaka Tara reaches out to the audience with its fairness, simplicity and unique stylistic use of melodrama. Melodrama as a legitimate dramatic form has continued to play a vital role in Indian rural theater and popular dramatic forms. Ghatak returns to these roots in his presentation of a familiar struggle for survival, which has lost its dramatic force and pathos through real-life repetition.
In Meghe Dhaka Tara, everyday events are transformed into high drama: Nita’s troubled romance intensifies with the harsh whiplash on the soundtrack; Shankar’s song of faith in a moment of despair culminates in emotional surrender with Nita’s voice joining his and Nita’s will to live, becoming a universal sound of affirmation that rings out in Nature, among the distant peaks of the Himalayas.
The three main female characters in this film embody traditional aspects of female power. The heroine, Nita, has the protective and nurturing quality; her sister, Gita, is the sensual woman; their mother represents the cruel aspect. Nita’s inability to combine and contain all these qualities is the proximate source of her tragedy.
Moreover, here Ghatak tries to dig deep into our roots and traditions and discover a universal dimension within it. And for the first time, he says he experimented with overtone techniques. In the film, Ghatak manages to achieve a magnificent whole through an intricate yet harmonious blending of each part with the whole within.
film fabric. Meghe Dhaka Tara moves into a great work of art that enriches and transforms visual images into metamorphic meanings…
The music in the film blends perfectly with the visuals, neither crowding out the other, whether it’s an incredible orchestration of a hillbilly motif with a female moan or a staccato cough with a booming song.
Here, it would be relevant to mention that Ghatak weaves a parallel narrative evoking the famous Bengali legends of Durga, who is believed to come down from her mountain country every autumn to visit her and Menaka’s parents. This double focus, compressed in the figure of Neeta, is rendered even more complex at the level of
the language of the film itself through elaborate, sometimes non-diegetic sound effects that work together or as comments on the image (eg the refrain Ai go Uma kole loi, ie Come to my arms, Uma, my child, used in the last part of the film, especially on Neeta’s face flooded with rain just before she leaves for the sanatorium).
This approach allows the film to transcend its story by opening it up to the realm of myth and to the conventions of cinematic realism (e.g. evoked in the Calcutta sequences).
Meghe Dhaka Tara was followed with Komal Gandhar (1961), about two rival theater companies in Bengal, and Subarnarekha (1965). The latter is a surprisingly unsettling film that uses melodrama and randomness as form and not
His next film, Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (1973), made for a young Bangladeshi producer happens to focus on the life and eventual disintegration of a fishing community in Titash. However, this epic saga ended after many problems at the filming stage, including his collapse due to tuberculosis, and was a commercial failure.
Notably, Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974), more autobiographical and allegorical
of his films, was made shortly before his untimely death. Here he himself played the lead role of Nilkanta, an alcoholic intellectual. The film has been talked about in the critical circle for Ghatak’s stunning use of wide-angle lenses for the most powerful effect.
Unfortunately for Ghatak, his films were mostly unsuccessful. Many years unpublished, he abandoned almost as many projects as he completed. Ultimately, the intensity of his passion, which gave his films power and emotion, took its toll on him, as did tuberculosis and alcoholism. However, he has left behind a limited but
A subtly rich and intricate body of work that no serious scholar of Indian cinema can dare ignore.
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