November 2016, arsenal cinema

Ritwik Ghatak

MEGHE DHAKA TARA, 1960

Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976) is the unknown great among the independent Indian directors of the 20th century, even though his slim oeuvre includes some of the most significant films ever made in Indian cinema. Ghatak was born into a family of civil servants in Dhaka in what would later become Bangladesh, with the harrowing experience of the partition of Bengal in 1947 following Indian independence and the huge population movements and dislocations that followed leaving a significant mark on his young adult life – a trauma he never managed to shake off and which made its way into every last nook and cranny of his art. He settled in Calcutta, where he joined the Communist Party, wrote numerous short stories and novels, translated Brecht into Bengali, and composed texts on cinema. As a member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), which attempted to connect folk theatre traditions with a revolutionary consciousness, he wrote and directed plays and also acted in them. Political differences lead him to leave the IPTA and look to cinema for new possibilities of expression, where he also hoped for larger audiences. Excessive alcohol consumption and self-destructive tendencies repeatedly formed an obstacle to his work, with many of his films remaining incomplete.

The way in which his world was torn apart by the partition of his home region is at the heart of his films, which show great artistry as they continually revolve around the open wound of deeply felt dislocation. Full of passion and intensity, his films connect melodrama and popular forms with political accusation and turns the Bengali population's experience of having to flee their homes into a feeling of foreignness of a universal nature. Ghatak's original cinematic language draws on sound and music as an independent means of expression, while his characters’ inner turmoil can be found in his images. At the same time, his films are deeply anchored in Bengali culture, with traditional Bengali songs (including those by the polymath, poet, and composer Rabindranath Tagore, who left his mark on the culture of Bengal like no other) often forming their linchpin. Despite the despair that emanates from Ghatak's films, they still always contain the hope that a new beginning may yet be able to develop from each ending. Seriously ill from alcoholism and tuberculosis, Ritwik Ghatak died at only 50 years of age. Although he was held in high regard by his directorial colleagues and students, he only received wider recognition after his death.

Of his eight-film oeuvre, we are showing the six films that are available in good 35mm prints.

JUKTI, TAKKO AAR GAPPO (Reason, Debate and a Story, India 1974, 8.11., with an introduction by Dorothee Wenner & 14.11.) In Ritwik Ghatak's final feature, he directs himself as a disillusioned, alcoholic intellectual. Ghatak: "The story begins with an alcoholic (me), whose family is just leaving him. When they’re gone, a young girl arrives in a torn sari, a symbol for Bangladesh. The man, the girl, and a younger man wander through Bengal, through its industrial zones, through its small cities, its wooded regions, and through Calcutta, until they come across several Naxalites in a forest. Towards the end, a confrontation ensues between the Naxalites and the run-down, alcoholic intellectual, in whom they for at least a brief moment recognize a kindred sprit, a non-conformist." One final impassioned shout by Ghatak, in which all his life's themes come together, until he pours his final bottle over the lens of the camera.

AJANTRIK (Mechanical Man, India 1958, 9. & 18.11.) Bimal is a taxi driver in a small provincial town. He feels a close connection to his car Jagaddal, a rickety vehicle which has seen better days but is nonetheless the focus of his entire love and loyalty. Over the course of his journeys through the country, Bimal doesn’t just get to know a wide range of different people, but also becomes a witness of economic change and upheaval in the existing social order. The same is happening in the world of the indigenous Oraon, to whose rituals he feels a profound connection due to his animist worldview. Although it doesn't directly deal with the partition of Bengal, AJANTRIK still speaks to Ghatak's core themes: a person's alienation from his surroundings. Bimal's love for his car, a being that he sees as having a soul, makes him an object of scorn and an outsider.

MEGHE DHAKA TARA (The Cloud-Capped Star, India 1960, 10. & 19.11.) The story of an uprooted east Bengali family forced to flee their homeland who now live in a suburb of Calcutta, an account of their dreams and their brutally destroyed hopes. It is the eldest daughter Nita who is at the centre of the film, as she supports the entire family in hope of a better future, with her willingness to sacrifice herself for them being exploited by each of its members. Worn down by the battle for survival and the loss of their former status, the parents succumb to bitterness, while Nita’s siblings only follow their own interests. When Nita collapses due to illness and exhaustion, she's brought to the mountains, where her desperate cries for life fall on deaf ears. Regarded by Ritwik Ghatak as his best film, MEGHE DHAKA TARA connects the individual misery of exile with images of mythical mother figures. It’s not just the family that’s in shreds, but the whole of society.

KOMAL GANDHAR (E-Flat, India 1961, 11. & 20.11.) Ghatak’s cinematic exploration of his time in the Indian People’s Theatre Association revolves around a group of young people engaged in a wandering theatre troop who have total faith in the political effectiveness of art. Split into two competing groups that still attempt to cooperate, KOMAL GANDHAR reflects the experience of division suffered by the Bengali population. The signs of decay continue in the group’s personal relationships, as rivalries, jealousy, and petty arguments are given free reign. The motif of division and separation can also be found in the film’s cinematic language, while the Bengali songs stand for shared identity and the hope of coming together. One of the few films by Ghatak to grant its protagonists a happy ending.

SUBARNAREKHA (Subarnarekha, India 1962, 12. & 21.11.) A family drama that spans decades, characterized by the partition of Bengali and a sense of rootlessness. Ishwar lives with his little sister Sita in a refugee settlement. After he finds work in a factory, he leaves the settlement behind and starts raising a young orphan boy called Abhiram alongside Sita. As adults, Sita and Abhiram marry against Ishwar's will, who had hoped that Sita would find a husband of better standing. The family's violent estrangement leads to catastrophe. The only glimmer of hope is Sita and Abhiram's son, who stands on the banks of the titular river at the end of the film and looks into the future.

TITASH EKTI NADIR NAAM (A River Called Titash, Bangladesh 1973, 13. & 23.11.) was shot by Ghatak in the newly created state of Bangladesh, which led him to head both back into 1930s and to the banks of the Titash river. Two women and a man are brought together by fate: one woman falls pregnant after being abducted by river bandits, whereupon her husband goes mad. The other woman looks after their orphaned child after their death, who she also ends up losing in the end. The traditional way of life of the inhabitants of the river delta is also in the process of disappearing: the river slowly dries up, the local people leave the village, the newly arrived farmers turn the river bed into rice fields. A work of cinematic mourning about loss, with the river as a metaphor for change and a symbol of the partition of Bengal, carried by the rhythm and rituals of life in a fishing village. (al)

arsenal cinema: Magical History Tour
 – The Wild Ones

07:30 pm Cinema 2


L'eau froide

L'eau froide Cold Water Olivier Assayas F 1994
With Virginie Ledoyen 35 mm OV/EnS 92 min

arsenal cinema: Ritwik Ghatak

08:00 pm Cinema 1


Meghe dhaka tara

Meghe dhaka taraThe Cloud-Capped Star India 1960
35 mm OV/GeS 126 min