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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 something of a cult figure in Bengal today, was so little understood and appreciated during his lifetime. Despite the fact that his films have received much critical acclaim today, the fact remains that they mostly ran to empty houses in Bengal during their time. Ghatak’s 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 division of a culture was something that haunted Ghatak forever. Joining the leftist Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA), he worked as a playwright, actor and director for several years. When IPTA split into factions, Ghatak turned to filmmaking.
Generally, Ghatak’s films revolve around two central themes: the experience of uprooting from the idyllic rural milieu of East Bengal and the cultural trauma of the partition of 1947. His first film, Nagarik (1952) told the oppressive story of a young man interwoven. , his futile search for work and the erosion of his optimism and idealism as his family sinks into abject poverty and his love affair also sours. Ghatak then accepted a position at 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 evergreen hit.
After this brief period 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” happens to be none other than Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), the first film in a trilogy, which explores the socio-economic implications of partition. The protagonist Nita (played by Supriya Chowdhury) is the breadwinner in a refugee family of five. Everyone exploits her and the tension proves too much. She succumbs to it
tuberculosis. In an unforgettable moment, the dying Nita exclaims “I want to live…” as the camera pans over the mountains, thus emphasizing the indifference and eternity of nature even as the echo reverberates over the shot.
Complexities notwithstanding, Meghe Dhaka Tara reaches out to the audience with its directness, its simplicity and its unique stylistic use of melodrama. Melodrama as a legitimate dramatic form continued to play an important role in rural Indian theater and folk dramatic forms. Ghatak goes back to these roots in his presentation of a famous struggle for survival, which has lost its dramatic force and pathos through repetition in real life.
In Meghe Dhaka Tara, day-to-day events turn into high drama: Nita’s tormented romance is intensified with the loud whiplash on the soundtrack; Shankar’s song of faith in a moment of despair reaches the peak of emotional surrender with Nita’s voice joining his and Nita’s urge to live, becoming a universal sound of affirmation that echoes in Nature, amid the distant peaks of the Himalayas.
The three main female characters in this film embody the traditional aspects of female strength. 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 looming source of her tragedy.
Besides, Ghatak here tries to dig deep into our roots and traditions and discover a universal dimension in them. And for the first time he says that he experimented with the techniques of overtones. In the film, Ghatak succeeds in achieving a grand totality through a complicated but harmonious blending of each part with the whole in the inner
substance of the film. Meghe Dhaka Tara transcends into a great work of art that enriches the visual images and transforms them into metamorphic meanings…
The music in the film blends perfectly with the visuals, neither disrupting the other, be it a remarkable orchestration of a hill motif with a female wail or a staccato cough with a booming song.
Here it would be relevant to mention that Ghatak weaves a parallel narrative that evokes the celebrated Bengali legends of Durga who is said to descend from her mountain retreat every autumn to visit her parents and that of Menaka. This double focus, summed up in the figure of Neeta, is rendered at the level of the even more complex
film language itself through elaborate, sometimes non-diegetic sound effects that work with or as commentary on the image (eg the refrain Ai go Uma kole loi, ie Come to my arms, Uma, my child, used throughout the final part of the film , especially on the face of the rain-soaked Neeta shortly before her departure 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. invoked in the Calcutta sequences).
“Meghe Dhaka Tara” was followed with Komal Gandhar (1961), about two competing touring theater companies in Bengal, and Subarnarekha (1965). The last is a strangely unsettling film that uses melodrama and coincidence rather than form
His next film, Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (1973), made for a young producer in Bangladesh, coincidentally focuses on the life and eventual disintegration of a fishing community on the Titash. However, this epic saga was completed after many problems at the shooting stage, including his collapse due to tuberculosis and was a commercial failure.
Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974), the most autobiographical and allegorical
of his films, were made just before his untimely death. Here he himself played the lead role of Nilkanta, an alcoholic intellectual. The film was talked about in critical circles for Ghatak’s astonishing use of the wide-angle lens to the strongest effect.
Unfortunately for Ghatak, his films were largely unsuccessful. Many unreleased for years, he abandoned almost as many projects as he completed. Eventually, the intensity of his passion, which gave his films their power and emotion, took its toll on him, as did tuberculosis and alcoholism. However, he left behind a limited but
subtly rich and intricate work that no serious scholar of Indian cinema can dare to ignore.
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