Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ritwik Ghataks "Refugee-trilogy"

by Rüdiger Tomczak (translated from the texts in shomingeki No. 17. May, 2006)

to the memory of Townes van Zandt (1944- 1997). Without listening his wonderful songs I wouldn´t be able to write this text.


Some years ago a friend of mine, Shaheen Dill-Riaz, a filmmaker from Bangladesh recommanded me the films by Ritwik Ghatak. He called Ghatak "the soul of Bengal".When I saw his films first in 1996, I didn´t like his films very much. I felt too much irritateted by the overwhelming power of their emotions. Ghataks melodramas seemed strange to me in the oposite to the films by Ozu and Hou Hsiao Hsien which are more familiar to me. But my blocking against Gahatak was a very intellectual one of a self-build theoretical parameter how films should be.

One year later I saw again MEGHE DHAKA TARA. It was one of the worst times in my life. Through my grieve I was this time totally open and no theoretiical idea and no other barriere was between me and Ghatak.I t was one of the most emotional experience I ever made while watching a film in my life. Did I found the melodramatic during first watching to constructed, this time I felt an uncanny authenticity in the emotions, transformed into film like felt by himself. Emotions seem to have searched  for songs, gestures, faces and landscapes.When my interest in Ghatak once was awake, I learnt more about him. He was traumatized by the partition of his country into an indian and a pakistani he came originally from West Bengal, after the partition a part of Pakistan and today Bangladesh). A tragedy in the time of the euphoria for the new approached indian independence. For Ghatak the partition was the destruction of a cultural unit on which all the different religions were part of.

Ritwik Ghatak, born on November, 4, 1925 in Dhaka (which is today the capital of Bangladesh) could never cope with the partition of Bengal. Beside this another reason for his alcoholism in the 60s was the disastrous lack of success of his films KOMAL GANDHER and SUBARNAREKHA which formed together with MEGHE DHAKA TARA  his famous Refugee-trilogy (also known as the trilogy of partition). After SUBARNAREKHA, Ghata was ruined and accepted for a year a job as a film teacher at the wellknown film school in Pune. Like through his films he impressed as a teacher a whole genartion of filmmaker, like Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani who themselves became important filmmaker. After his work as a teacher followed  some never finished filmprojects and he was sent a couple of time into psychatric hospitals until he made 1973 and 1974 his last finished films. Another project remained unfinished caused by his early death on February 6, 1976.

Every great director created his own apparatus behind we can (or can not see the person who created it). Ghatak created such an appararatus made of images, signs and sounds.But his apparatus  - and especially in his Refugee-trilogy - seems sometimes overheating and it blasts around us. One can be fascinated by Ghataks films but there ramains something very direct which can´t be proven by any theory. This can be disturbing, irritating or in my case - it goes directly under the skin. Said Ghatak (quoting Tagore:" Before art can be beautiful it must be true."And Ritwik Ghataks film are true in their emotional "tour de force" or even in their "Uneveness" like Derek Malcolm called his films sometimes. One can feel that in his films even without the knowledge of Ghataks biography. Strange humour sometimes rapidly turns into tragic moments and sometimes an expression of a human face is extremely moving. The kind his films are built - and especially in its so called "Uneveness" can only be the work of someone who really has lived every single shot.

provisorily translation from shomingeki No. 17, May 2006
Please consider that I had to translate the songs from the German subtitles of the TV screening. The british and Indian DVDs almost lack the translation of the songs which are so important in this film.

MEGHE DHAKA TARA (The Cloud-Capped Star), 1961

There are films which have obviously the structure of a song. If John Fords WAGONMASTER seems to me like the cinematic pendant of an American folk-song, MEGHE DHAKA TARA (which itself includes a lot of songs) looks like a very long and sad song evoking in me the famous Vietnamese epic poem KIM VAN KIEU by Nguyen Du.

And this song begins and ends with a tired Bengali girl who stumbles and whose sandals are breaking. Before the film is going to tell its story it is presenting the universe from where it takes the inspiration and where the story has its roots. The nameless girl in sandals becomes Nita, the daughter of a family who lives in a colony near Kolkata installed by refugees from Eastbengal.

Shankar, the eldest brother is practising singing raga-like songs. The human voice is tuned like an instrument. In the background we see and hear a loud piping train passing by while Shankars gestures seem to cheer up his vocal practising. Like all great films MEGHE DHAKA TARA evokes the dream of a film which is composed like music. We are tuned now. The story of the tired Bengali girl who can´t afford to buy new sandals can begin.A Bengali family, father, mother two sons and two daughters: Shankar who doesn´t work because he want s to become a singer, Mantu who is more interested in money and football than in his family. Geeta the youngest daughter is absorbed by cheap romance novels. The father is a school teacher and the mother is full of bitterness caused by the family´s fate as a refugee´s family. Neeta, the eldest daughter is the "hidden star" (referring to the literally translation of the film title THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR) She is the personification of the Bengali girl with the worn out sandals. She is educated and earns money by lecturing children after their class and is used by the whole family. Even though she is almost engaged with the student Sanat she puts all her private happiness after the interests and needs of her family. We see her once under the open air almost at the same place where Shankar practise his singing. Suddenly we see an extreme zoom backwards while a noisy train passes by.

After the father was hit in an accident he passes out as the guar-ant for the income and it is now Nita who is responsible for everything.Shankar the brother who wants to become a singer tries always to get credit by the local shop. But his credit is refused with the remark that he, Shankar lives from the benefit of his family. Than begins the wonderful and mysterious scene with the suffi-song from the Ferryman. There are musicians who perform this song in this colony. The family is occupied with other things. If Shankar, Nita and the others are listening to this beautiful song I don´t know. We see some shots of the musicians who sing this song. They move their bodies in the rhythm of the song and there is a perfect harmony between their movements and music.Why this music moves me so much - I don´t knowAnd I don´t know if I ever heard such a song in a film.And even though this song is a distraction of the thing we call "plot of the film" these moments belong to the most intense memories I have in this film.:
I have wasted my days
And I have reached the other shore of the river.
As the hard times arrived
I don´t know your name, Boatman!
Whom shall I call?
Who is going to bring me to the other side?
The boat is here,but no boatman.
No person at the shore.
On the seat of Haurath Shah, the fakir Biram Shah is weeping.
Oh, boatman, I don´t know your name.
Whom shall I call.

A song like a small break which is loaded with emotions the more often I see this film.

Shankar calls a girl on the river because he things it is her sister. The girl shyly smiles. She is the Bengali girl whose name we don´t know with the worn out sandals of that the film is singing the song.

At a station Nita is sitting with her boyfriend Sanat. She tells him that she is now unable to marry him because she is now responsible for her family and that she is the only one with an income. Sanat becomes ultimate and tells her that he will ask her one last time in some days again. His face becomes hard after he expressed his ultimatum. Nita turns her head away from him directly toward the camera. This movement separates her finally  from Sanat.Nitas friend Sanat will later marry her younger sister.The father will become more and more depressed and confused and he mumbles and nobody is listening. Shankar, the brother is moving out because he can´t bear the fact that the whole family lives now on Nitas cost.

Still Nita goes on caring for her family. She buys blood for a transfusion, because her brother Mantu got seriously hit by an accident in the factory. Her strengths are nearly finished.Feverish and tubercles she walks through the streets.They let her alone in a room like an outcast because they are afraid she can infect them all. Another song about at the beginning of the second half, a duet between Nita and her brother Shankar (close to his departure from the family's house) is the cross pint where the films turns finally into an inevitable tragedy.They sing a song by Tagore:

At Night the storm has bumped our doors.
I couldn´t foresee,that you would enter.
All becomes dark.
The lamp light vanished.
 gripped the stars.
And didn´t know, why (...)

At first they sang together united by this song. Suddenly Nita is isolated by a close up as she is the loneliest creature on this world. The sounds of lashings (always appearing in this film as moments of disharmony on the soundtrack) are intruding into the singing. She looks above with a face drawn by pain and turns suddenly into crying. Her brother looks at her her in sudden terror. The emphasis of emotions will raise in the film and we will never forget the sounds of the lashings.At the end, Shankar returns as a famous singer. He takes care that Nita gets a place in a sanatorium. Before she dies he visits her once.She sits in the middle of the hills of she was longing for since her childhood. After Shankar tells her about the family and the child of her sister we witness the last strong emotional out burst of Nita. She cries that she always wanted to live. The cry is again mixed with the sound of lashings which is planted in the wide landscape and which finds its cinematic pendant in a long movement of the camera. I can´t remember ever that someone found for such a cry such a movement of the camera. Nita has passed away. Shankar sees the girl with the worn out sandals. She stumbles and the sandals go apart. She smiles shyly while Shankar can´t hold his tears.That is the last refrain of from the song of the tired Bengali girl with the worn out sandals, who was temporarily Nita. Nobody knows anymore her name.

I don´t know what in this film is "made" or "wanted" and what developed by intuition.I don´t know how to find a name for something which broke my heart in this film.Is the art of Ritwik Ghatak the one of a filmmaker who made films like composers construct music or a poet who writes poems (which are always as well songs)  - or is this film the result of his ability to have found for the enormous emotions of his films intuitively the form of his films?

There is an introduction by British Derek Malcolm on the BFI DVD of MEGHE DHAKA TARA with a hint which have moved me a lot.It is wellknown that Ghatak was loved and respected by his students in Pune. At the same time his students felt like have to "protect" him. Ghatak was already alcoholic and the projects he began after his trilogy failed last but not least for these reasons. That might be the key to his work.Despite his films are admirable they have also something defenceless or vulnerable - even naked. That splits me in the admiration for his films and the strange feeling of the need to protect them.

Once I had a very strange dream.I felt split between tow rivalling groups of  friends. There was the strange feeling that I didn´t belong neither to the one or the other. Suddenly I was in a lobby of a film theatre. Someone I knew but I can´t remember shouts that the "screening of a film by Ritwik Ghatak" will begin soon. I didn´t know where to go and felt only belonging to the film by Ghatak. Suddenly I was in tears and I was convinced that a film by Ghatak was now the only thing I can trust myself to. Especially this odd feeling of a strong emotion just caused by the mentioning of a film by Ghatak remains unforgettable in my mind.


provisorily translation from shomingeki No. 17, May 2006

The prints and most possible the negative of the second part of of the Refugee-trilogy is in an extremely bad condition. We see sometimes a static image while listening the soundtrack. In contrast to the other parts of the trilogy, the damages of the print/negative of Komal Ghandar seem irreparable.It is said that Komal Ghandar was Ghataks favourite work, the film by himself he liked most. Different than in MEGHE DHAKA TARA or SUBARNAREKHA KOMAL GHANDER deals with intellectuals and artists. I suppose Ghatak deals as well with his experience as an theatre activist.

Near the end of the film, a person defines his fascination and the mysteries of the theatre: "where rhythmic movements of persons build harmonic patterns like myriads of sheet music in an orchestral piece of music." Further he describes "theatre as a strong passion of the stage which accelerate,  slows or stops movement."Despite Ghatak worked for theatre long time before he made films this wonderful sentences describe the very special fascination of Ghataks films very well. KOMAL GHANDAR is like Ozus BAKUSHU a radical refusement of a linear film narration. Both films have in common that they offer several stories but the plot doesn´t choose and focus on a single one.With a few more imagination we can get an idea of the film without such dramatic damages on image and sound.  We might get the idea that Ghatak has foreclosed in his play with images and sound the late films by Jean Luc Godard.Made just after MEGHE DHAKA TARA and casted with a lot of actors/actresses from the previous film, KOMAL GHANDAR seems (despite it deals with theatre)almost  a kind of film in film. We see a lot of scenes which present people acting and directing. Sometimes a lot of songs are sung  in front of the camera (playback). But in other moments the songs which are sung are hard to locate. We don´t know always from where they come. Are the songs in MEGHE DHAKA TARA always precise tuned cross-points in the narration, in KOMAL GHANDAR they seem rather part of a collage. We see here sometimes people singing songs which come suddenly into their mind. They do that mostly for evoking memories of their home before the partition. But sometimes the music fragments appear randomly and are hard to locate.If MEGHE DHAKA TARA or SUBARNAREKHA are tragedies which move inevitable towards their sad finals, KOMAL GHANDAR is despite his reference to the partition relatively playful. It evokes in me at the same time the visual and sound montage from Godards NOUVELLE VAGUE or from the films by Jacques Tati.

Some scenes appear as fragmented tragedies which stand for themselves and they are not subordinated under the loose plot. The film includes even slapstick-like moments with sound and music effects.At the first sight KOMAL GHANDAR seems to be the less accessible film  by Ghatak. But the more often I see it the more it seems to me like a condensed dream with all its breaches and jumps  - exactly how dreams sometimes are especially if one ties to remember them.

Once we see a strange travelling shot which evokes a train moving on a rail and which stops on the shore of the river Padma. Here (it is told in words in other moments of the film) is the front between both parts of the separated Bengal. Says one person in the film. "Earlier the railway was the symbol of the connection between East and West Bengal but now it is the common term for the separation. It is very typical for this film that we remember seemingly sudden such moments. The perception of this film is an imagined montage of moments which we are picking up from this film. This imagined editing of single moments seem at first an intellectual challenge for the spectator but it can as well be a fascinating play.

Twice we see an uncommon camera movement from a fragmented view of Kolkata up to the clouded sky. Bengal is separated, but the sky is not. There is a strange longing evoked by this movement towards the sky. One almost want to become a bird which knows neither geographical nor political fronts. This is also an image for the weightlessness in which all the wonderful actors/actresses are absorbed by the Here and Now of their actions and for the film which moves from episode to episode. KOMAL GHANDAR is different to MEGHE DHAKA TARA and yet some moments refer to the other parts of the trilogy.The film is a mosaic of love stories, biographies of refugees, longings, landscapes, songs and sounds.One song from this film begins with the verse: My dearest friend whom shall I give myself as a gift.This gift, which is called KOMAK GHANDAR was long time refused by the public.Later during his work as a teacher at the filminstitut in Pune, Ghatak screened KOMAL GHANDER for his students. It is said they applauded spontaneously. In the young mostly south indian students who later gave new impulses to the indian cinema, Ghatak found "the friends whom he could give himself as a gift."IT might give us an idea why Ghatak considered his time in Pune as the happiest of his life.



by Rüdiger Tomczak on Saturday, 06 November 2010 at 14:48
SUBARNAREKHA (The River Subarnarekha(, 1962)

provisorily translated from shomingeki No. 17, May 2006

Ishwar:Why are you always singing such sad songs? For both of you there is only the sadness. When I found an article by Abhiram in the newspaper I was glad. But when I read it I couldn´t breathe. The people want to read, watch and listen beautiful things.Sita: I don´t think when I am singing.

What can I tell about this film?Shall I tell about three persons in a refugee colony?There is Ishwar and his much younger sister Sita and the small boy Abhiram who lost his mother caused by the confusions of a refugee tragedy. I could tell about the love between Sita and Abhiram who grew up like Sister and brother and who finally got married against the will of Sitas brother Ishwar.Abhiram and Sita will die, the one through an tragic accident the other through her own hand.Ishwar who is also responsible for this has live on.

I could also tell about Madhabi Mukherjee who acts as Sita and her performance moves me in a kind I don´t find words for.Subharnarekha is the river. I am the one who stands on the other side of the river unable to find the boatman who bring me to the other side.

How much I would prefer just admiring and praising this film as what it is, one of the finest film of Indian cinema.Ritwik Ghataks emotions are emotions of pain about the destruction of Bengal as a cultural unit. The forced partition of Bengal is the last victory of the British conquerors.Many years after Ghataks death it might be impossible to tap the full potential out of the formal richness of images and sounds from this film. But the form of this film its accuracy with an almost choreographical movement of its acteurs, the well pointed songs and the complexity of its soundtrack is one thing. Sometimes it is just  a gesture an expression of a human face which burns into our memory. This is a film in which every shot is not just invented - it is felt from the bottom of his heart. And if there ever was a filmmaker "who made films like we breathe" (Jean-Marie Straub on german documentary filmmaker Peter Nestler) than for my side it can be only Ritwik Ghatak.

Shall I speak about how worthless the thing called "film-knowledge" is or how useless it is to look through the artifices?Ghataks film seem to be artificial but my encounter with them is an encounter with the truth of human movements and their faces, which can express nearly everything I can imagine. Scenes, sequences are moving me directly like music.

Shall I speak about the songs, sung in this film?Actors/Actresses are moving their lips according to the playback technique - as much I know.But I have never seen in a film (except in the films by Jacques Demy) like here.There is a moment when Sita sings on the rivers shore surrounded by sharp edges an rocky landscape. Some years before she was separated from Abhiram (who was sent for education in another city) The children from yesterday have grown up into young adults. Ishwar the brother who has aged a lot now is looking for Sita to tell her about Abhirams arrival from the faraway city. He sees her singing at the river´s shore and keeps himself quite for listening her song. He comes hesitantly closer and stops to hear her song and before the narration of the film continues it also makes a break that we can see and hear Sita singing. Sita almost disappears in this landscape and than we see Ishwars face how he listens to her:
Sita sings:
See, the break of dawn is near.
The people awake,
the morning awakes,t
he birds awake,S
hyam why are you still sleeping.

We see Sitas profile slightly wrinkled. Her lips are moving and she is in full concentration on her song. Then an image of sharp edges of a rock which seems to threaten this beautiful young woman. Slowly Ishwar comes closer to his sister. A long circular camera movement presents the environment of Sita. We see her again in her profile. Then we see her face to face. She has finished her song and her hand plays with the sand. It is a real landscape, two human faces and a song which enchants the elements. And there was someone who made this visible in a couple of sequences as natural like breathing.Whenever I see this scene I can´t breath in pain when I think of Sitas end.

When Sita is supposed to get married with a stranger because of Abhirams lower caste (which can endanger her older brother´s carrier) she sings a complaint in the night:
Sita sings:

Whom shall I tell about my grieve?
Without Mohan I am so sad.
My life became meaningless.
The 10 cardinal points of heaven awake.
Mohan, why do you make me crying,you star of my life?

This is the last time she tells through a song about her feelings. Later she will move with Abhiran into a ghetto of Kolkata to escape the jealous brother (who once wished her death). Both will have a child, a boy. Sita is teaching him a song she knows from her childhood. And this song  - In the rice fields sun and shadow playing hide and seek," - is a leitmotiv in the narration.

Now Sitas face became careworn and tired. Her child is hungry and her sari worn out and dirty. Abhiram who wanted to become a writer accepted work as a bus driver. One night excited voices penetrate from outside into the shabby house of the young family. Sita learns from the crowd that Abhirams bus killed a child caused by a failure of its brakes. A crowd in rage burned the bus, she learns from the people. Abhiram died immediately. Sita sinks to the floor. Her sari rubs against the rough wooden frame of the door. This a terrible rapid sound I can´t forget. It is as upsetting like the lashing sounds in MEGHE DHAKA TARA. Sita is still alive but this terrible sound seems to have something destroyed in her which we can´t see.

How can I describe Sitas suicide at the end of the film?This scene is terrible and is shocking rather through things which are evoked than visible.This scene hurts both - the one who watches it and the one (Ghatak) who is responsible for. It is a typical paradoxon  in the films by Ritwik Ghatak. I could tell how this scene is made but it is hitting me with such a terrible force that no words about the cinematic quality come over my lips. Ishwar and a man he knows from their time in the refugee colony spend a night together in a bar and they drink a lot. Ishwars specs are broken through an accident. This alone are again very exhilarated moments. As soon as the camera follows Ishwars point of view the image blurs. The very drunken Ishwar is allured to a house, where "a daughter from a noble family" (who lives in poverty) performs and sings on a Tambour for strangers. From an earlier scene we already know that Sitas land lady suggested this "performances" to balance her dept.We see Nita whose face looks even more depressingly than in previous scenes. On a board we see the music instrument, dusty and shabby. Ishwar enters with sweat on his face. Sita recognises her brother whose face looks even more careworn than hers. He doesn't recognise her and is just able to see her shadow. We see the terror in her face while recognising her brother. Than again the sweating face of Ishwar and another cut. This time a close-up of a detail of Sitas eye. Her breathe becomes heavy. Her hand takes a heavy knife.There is nothing more we can see. The imagination takes over the things we can´t see. The board with this music instrument begins to shake and this is almost unbearable. We don´t see the bleeding Sita but our knowledge about can make one crazy. Again a close-up of Sitas lifeless face which resembles know a death mask. Ishwar sprinkled on his whole body with blood takes the knife from the floor stumbles out of the house and breaks down, cries loud and revolves himself on the floor as he was the loneliest creature of the world.I always forget that the music we hear from the background is by Nino Rota from a film by Frederico Fellini.In this moment of the film everything I know about cinema is like deleted. The only thing which exists for me is the encounter with Desperation.

At the end Ishwar leaves with the child from Abhiram and Sita. He lost his job as an administrator of a factory. His vision of a homeland, a place where he can live is lost. The child sings again the song of the rice fields where sun and shadow play hide and seek. Suddenly Ishwar smiles a bit forced but truly moved by the optimism of the child. They walk now through a deserted landscape of sharp edged rocks. Ishwar becomes slower, tired and exhausted. The child cheers him up because it doesn´t know that something like a home doesn´t exist."Victory to the people the New-born and the forever living" we read in the credits. That sounds like a desperate hope for the survival of the memory. Ghataks restlessness and disruption, his mental fragility are told and described. In SUBARNAREKHA and in the whole trilogy they are manifested. I can´t love the films by Ghatak without being confronted with the tragedy of his life. And that is getting more and more intense the more often I see this films. In every shot, in every song, in every detail of his films and especially his trilogy is the idea of an incredible talent and at the same time of a fragility. And this fragility of Ghatak is a big contrast to the enormous achievement of his films in the history of cinema like tragedy the partition of Bengal to the victory of Indias independence. It might be this almost unbearable contradiction which makes my heart bleeding for the films of Ritwik Ghataks Refugee-trilogy.