BY Shiv Kotecha in Opinion | 01 NOV 19

‘It’s Time You Became a Refugee!’: The Films of Ritwik Ghatak

At New York’s Lincoln Center, the artist’s films speak to the enduring violence caused by forced exile

BY Shiv Kotecha in Opinion | 01 NOV 19

Ritwik Ghatak, A River Called Titas, 1972, film still. Courtesy: Janus Films

Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s 1961 film Komal Gandhar (E-Flat, 1961) begins during the second act of a play. A close-up depicts an old, confused looking man – his hair and beard dusted with white powder, his plaintive gaze stressed by the thick kohl around his eyes – directly questioning the camera: ‘Where should I go? Tell me. Leaving my fertile land – the Padma river – where should I go?’ A younger man behind him delivers an abrupt, gruff reply: ‘It’s time you became a refugee! Time you became what the journalists call you.’ Unable to reconcile whether to go with this new appellation – a refugee – the old man shuts his ears and runs to the stage’s edge; everything he knows is forever behind him.

Ritwik Ghavak, The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960, film still. Courtesy: Janus Films

Komal Gandhar is the second act in Ghatak’s exquisite, heartrending ‘refugee trilogy’ – the first being Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960) and the last, Subarnarekha (Golden Lining, 1962) – all three of which will be screened as part of the timely ‘Poetry and Partition: The Films of Ritwik Ghatak’ this weekend, and into next week, at New York’s Lincoln Center. Set in 1950s Calcutta (now Kolkata), the old man in Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar refuses to accept the narrative of statelessness and the threat of disappearance. In all of Ghatak’s films – eight features, 10 documentaries and hundreds of unfinished works – as well as his essays, treatises and fiction, the turbulent sense of dislocation that accompanied India’s violent 1947 Partition seeps into the films’ homes and gullies, in the tense relations between siblings or between neighbours, and roots itself in material goods and – as, in Komal Gandhar – in the voices of citizens and non-citizens alike, as a guttural plea.

Born in 1925 in Dhaka, East Bengal (now Bangladesh), Ghatak and his family were among the millions forced to flee the state either because of the catastrophic 1943 famine – created and exacerbated by the wartime colonial policies of the British Raj – or because of Partition, which left millions of Bangadeshi and Pakistani either dead or displaced. Ghatak left for Calcutta, where he was an active member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association – a communist collective that was (briefly) the cultural focal point of postwar Bengal – and for which he directed and acted in plays. Unlike Satyajit Ray, whose (undeniably beautiful) early narratives are immaculate constructions centred around the experience of childhood, and the backdrop of a home, Ghatak’s works reflect the fraught tumults of a nation at odds with itself.

Ritwik Ghavak, E-Flat, 1961, film still. Courtesy: Film at Lincoln Center

In his 1963 essay, ‘Film and I’, he makes a telling claim: ‘Truly serious and considerate artists bring the pressure of their entire intellect upon it.’ This rising ‘pressure’ is the very texture of a Ghatak film; close-ups splice visages unevenly, jump cuts stutter back-and-forth and diegetic and non-diegetic sounds overlap and blur, making the loneliest scene of recollection feel impinged and affected by its dissonant surroundings: a whip-crack echoes from a prior scene, or the lilt of a violin prefigures a scene to come. Ghatak uses characters less to advance plot than to dwell on their immense emotional states. The self-sacrificing Neeta (Supria Chaudhury) in Meghe Dhaka Tara bellows into the valley below: ‘I want to live!’ As she insists on life, the camera gyrates rapidly amid a dense wood; landscape and character fuse together as Neeta’s appeal creates a booming, cinematic echo chamber. Ghatak ‘places rationality within a melodramatic genre’, Geeta Kapur writes in her essay, ‘Revelation and Doubt: Sant Tukaram and Devi’ (1993), ‘and examines the status of doubt there, in that fraught schema, where tragedy is made to give itself over in favour of praxis’.

Ghatak’s first feature, Nagarik (The Citizen, 1952, released 1977), was completed a year before Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, but thought to be lost and only released after Ghatak’s death. It follows a hopeful young man trying to find work in a populous, unforgiving Calcutta, and whose refusal to give up finds him estranged from his own family, as they fall together into squalor. Ajantrik (crudely re-titled The Pathetic Fallacy, but literally translated as ‘not-working-instrument’, 1958), is a comedy about the relationship between a car, a ramshackle Chevrolet named ‘Jagaddal’ and its hungover driver, Bimal. Possibly Ghatak’s response to the Soviet ‘tractor film’ – following Eisenstein’s Old and New (1929) and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), and predating Chris Burden’s Big Wrench (1980) – Ajantrik depicts an agrarian culture unable to reconcile modern life’s reliance on new technologies – the apparatus of film included – as progress.

Ritwik Ghavak, The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960, film still. Courtesy: Janus Films

Ghatak stopped making films for a brief period in the 1960s, when he relocated to Pune and was Vice Principal of the Film and Television Institute of India. He taught Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, who were beacons of India’s so-called ‘Parallel Cinema’ movement in the 1970s. Afterwards, he made several documentaries against war and in support of the liberation of Bangladesh. Ghatak only left India once in his lifetime. In 1971, he returned to East Bengal to make his masterful Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titas, 1973), a film commissioned by the government of Bangladesh as part of an effort to rebuild its national identity following its break from Pakistan. The film is a portrait of a fishing town, where three storylines interweave over the course of a generation to depict the mundane joys and anguishes of a struggling village; the Titas itself, by the end of the film, dries up. Ghatak went to India to shoot his last will and testament, the hauntingly personal Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Reason, Debate and a Tale, 1977), in which Ghatak plays an alcoholic intellectual widower (a thinly veiled version of himself) who leaves the city for the Bengali countryside and meets with several versions of himself along the way. His swansong is extraordinary, at once a brutal indictment of India’s intellectual climate in the ’50s as well as a seething self-critique of the confusion and the hypocrisy of artists whose commitment to their work, Ghatak laments, is only ever a façade.

Ritwik Ghavak, The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960, film still. Courtesy: Janus Films

These films are not cathartic. They speak to the enduring violence that’s caused by forced exile and to the global crises and conflicts – neoliberal economic reform, armed insurgency, civil war, an ongoing refugee crisis, the global war on terror, the global water crisis, authoritarian challenges to democracy – that extend well beyond the subcontinent. These films rattle with and against their subjects, pulping atrocity to find the agonized pith within. Ghatak’s singular filmic vision depicts the implacable, everyday groping toward hope, if not a home, that can and will encumber a life lived in exile.

‘Poetry and Partition: The Films of Ritwik Ghatak’ will be presented at Lincoln Center, New York, USA, from 1–6 November 2019.

Shiv Kotecha is a contributing editor of frieze. He is the author of The Switch (Wonder, 2018) and  EXTRIGUE (Make Now, 2015), and his criticism appears in 4Columns, Aperture, art-agenda, MUBI’s Notebook and BOMB.