Revisiting Ritwik Kumar: Parthapratim Ghosh
“I & my Pen are same”. This line used to be synonymous with Ritwik Kumar Ghatak during his life time. Its the same line, we hear from Nilkantho Bagchi, the central character of Kamaleswar Mukherjee’s latest cinema, “Meghe Dhaka tara “( the cloud capped star), which is a cinematic tribute to Ghatak . This single line appears to have given flesh to the whole concept of kamaleswar’s film, inspired by the Mind (not life) & works of a maestro (Ritwik Kumar) & evolved the way for the director in perceiving both its content & form. Kamaleswar deliberately borrowed the name of his tributary from the Ghatak’s one of the major films to give it a new significance to the central figure of his film.
“I & my Pen are same”- when an artist claims it with conviction, it’s understood that he speaks of his core, which is filtered from day to day pitfalls of inconsistencies & fluctuations. It’s the core self & belief of Ghatak which surfaced in all Ghatak’s films equally, but was evidenced most directly in the maestro’s last cinematic work – “Jukti takko & gappo” (Reason, Debate & a story), in spite of its flawed & erratic forms. Here, Ghatak himself played the role of his protagonist, Nilkantho Bagchi. Today, we are aware, that, in his last film, Ghatak wanted to perform himself. He penned the character of Nilkantho Bagchi & poured in him – all his beliefs, confusions, concerns & passions for the disturbed time, which Ghatak have been passing through his entire creative life.
Most interestingly, Kamaleswar used Nilkantho Bagchi as the central figure of his cinema & not Ghatak himself. This very important decision and approach, we tend to believe, determined the whole attitude & form of “Meghe Dhaka tara”. What we get out of it becomes more interesting & engrossing. Ghatak, who was arguably, one of the greatest & original stalwarts of Indian cinema & also a unique figure of Bengal’s cultural history, had an explosive & extremely emotive mind. This Mind manifested in all his works equally-in his stories, Plays & Cinema. Kamaleswar wanted to capture Ghatak’s Mind, through his creations & his important penned characters. The director was interested to capture a “psychograph” of Ghatak & not to make it a conventional Biopic.
While, the conception was unique, Kamaleswar had to invent it through a very imaginative form & visuals. We see the entire cinema to unfold through Dr Mookherjee’s Eyes, through his close interaction with NIlkantho, while treating him in a mental asylum in 1964. Significantly, it’s the same year, when first union front ministry was formed in Bengal, only to see its collapse very soon. Ironically, it correlates to the growing cynicism of Ghatak in communist environment of Bengal. To the viewers , unfolding of the film happens not in linear progression , but in the form of visual collage , overlapping each with another & travelling back & forth spanning between the turbulent ‘40s to the mid ‘70s. This back & forth journey happens both in time & space. The collage often leads to an abstraction , reflecting not the reality of the external world , but the “reality “ of Nilkatho’s mental space , his thought process & imagination . Many a times, the collage includes glimpses & reproductions from Ritwik Kumar’s memorable cinematic works like “Ajantrik (pathetic fallacy), to “jukti takko aar gappo” (Reason, Debate & a story).
Intermittently, kamaleswar takes us to Nilkatha’s troubled relation with Durga, his wife. We need to remember that Durga is a character also picked from Ghatalk’s “Reason, Debate & a story”. For Ritwik, Durga was a Cinematic parallel of Suroma Ghatak, the director’s wife in real life. Frequently it takes the shape of a magic reality, in the ensembles of theatrical Stage, excerpts of the epochal Theatre- “Nabanno” (The fresh Crops) and of dance choreography. But importantly , all the collages , in its different forms , coalesce & mingle into a single holistic experience , which takes the viewers to a journey in to the perennially creative , alert & disturbed Mind of an Emotive Artist .
While dealing with a creative Mind, which was socio-politically alert, it was a necessity for the Director to bring in to his collage, the important socio–political environment both of Bengal & the important historical landmarks of the world at thye same time, which shaped Ghatak’s persona. It was the infamous 1943 famine of Bengal, when Ritwik kumar had to migrate with his parents from Dhaka to Kolkata. This phenomenon & the subsequent partition of Bengal in 1947, created a lasting trauma in Ghatak’s Mind, which surfaced in his Cinema as a recurring motif. The film draws references to Indian Peoples theatre Association (IPTA), naxalite movements, Tebhaga Movement of Bengal, Vietnam war (1955), Gagarin’s landing on Moon etc. It also brings a bunch of characters, which are parallels to the cultural colleagues of Ghatak. They echoed the persona like Mrinal Sen , Bijan Bhattacharya, Mohit chattopadhyay , Anil chatterjee, supriya Devi & Hrishikesh Mukherjee too. Along with a lot of characters, who were inspired by real life colleagues of Ghatak, there were important fictitious characters too, which helped Nilakantha often to be engaged in debates & polemics. The debates were indicating Ghatak’s questions on communistic orthodoxy & highlighting his gradual distancing from Communist party of India.
In 1951, Ghatak was commissioned by the Provincial Draft Preparatory Committee of IPTA to draft a document reflecting political and cultural ideology of IPTA in West Bengal. As a result, in 1954, Ghatak drafted a thesis named The Cultural Front. Because of many of the views Ghatak articulates in this document, and due to a “smear” campaign initiated against him by certain members of the CPI and documented in the book –“On The Cultural Front”, he was forced to leave IPTA in 1954. He was removed from the membership rolls of the Communist Party in 1955.
To highlight this distancing of Ghatak’s real life, in a stunning sequence, we see a book, quite symbolically being burnt & the name of the Book was- “How to be a Good communist”.
The cinema opens with a metaphoric sequence, reproduced from Ghatak’s last film, where we had seen Nilkantho – dejected & sitting in an ensemble of a theatrical Stage & burning fences (symbolic of partition & anguish), a door way & a Rickshaw waiting at a distance. Like a recollection from Ghatak’s last film, Durga comes to Nilkantho with their son. In a cold voice, she conveys –“separation is a necessity”. We listen to an equally telling sound of Chanting & drums, equating the sequence to the departure of Goddess Durga. The entire artefact of the sequence , the symbolic ensemble, supports this very word spelt from her mouth- “separation”. It’s the separation, which had been a tragic destiny of Nilkantho & Ghatak. Both Nilkantho & Ghatak were passionate about Bengal, about its ethnic culture & people, their family & stubbornly committed to peoples Art. But, tragically, both of them were gradually divorced & separated from all of them. Like Ghatak, the journey of Nilkantho culminated in complete isolation & finally in to death. Kamaleswar etched this journey of isolation, growing alcoholism, yet austerity of Niltantho with telling & haunting images.
To balance the inventive visuals, Debojyoti Mishara had done commendable & telling Musical score. He took his resources from traditional folks, from Abbasuddin and from the iconic people’s songs of IPTA. He has taken his resource also from Beethoven. Quite imaginatively, he assimilated all his resources to match the demand and fluidity of visuals & to highlight the period & mood. A striking example can be drawn from an important moment, where Nilkantho was under a shock therapy. Without staying on the moment for long, immediately the visual shifts to a parallel collage of equally shocking moments then happening in Bengal. The mass killing, people’s uprising & their dramatic effect on Nilkantho’s mind. Debojyoti supported this visual by an imaginative mixing of solil Chowdhury’s famous song –“Dheu uthche, kara tutche, alo futche, pran jagche” (Rise the waves, break the prisons, Blooms the Light & life evolves..) With that of Beethoven’s 5th symphony. An informed connoisseur may be aware that Beethoven was a secret admirer of Napoleon’s heroics & composed 3rd symphony with him in mind. He named it as “Eroica”(heroics). When he composed 5th symphony, Napoleon had a victory in Vienna. Beethoven had a penchant for dramatic scoring & his drama transcends in to a spirit of joy & tribute in 5th symphony. Cinematically, the effect is remarkable. From a visual of immediate shock, it transcends in to a drama, then shifts to a joy of awakening & tribute. It strengthens once again our belief in the Power of Cinema & its plasticity.
In heydays of his creative life, Ghatak was labelled as anarchist by his colleagues of IPTA. An apparent anarchism & impulsive madness surfaced in all Ghatak’s cinematic works, often heading towards excess & overt expressionism. It was evidenced in often indulged theatrical & stylised acting, sudden outburst of emotions & in his selection of locales – locales of larger than life expanse. Importantly, the same was evidenced in his selection of lenses too. Ghatak, in making his films, used to depend more on “improvisation”. It was quite opposed to the very restrained, methodical sophistication & balanced naturalism of Ray. Ray believed in the philosophy of keeping his artist sublime & hidden behind his Art. On the other hand, Ghatak, as a self proclaimed & conscious believer of – “I & my Pen are same”, was always keen on projecting himself in all his artistic pursuits. Here is a dichotomy. Anarchism in artistic expression is very close to “Dada ism” in painting. The Dadaists wanted to fly away from a conscious, disciplined & logical way of painting or writing. Philosophically, a Dadaist used to keep the artist in a passive role, in a back seat. Uncertainty, absurdity & incoherent evolution were given prominence instead. Interestingly, Ramkinkar Beige, the iconic sculptor /painter of Bengal, used to follow a method in his sculptures & painting which was close to Dadaists in spirit. He used to initiate his sculpting without any initial & preconceived certainty of forms. He used to “throw “ the cements from distance to the basic structure of his sculpture & it used to take a shape & density of the sculpture gradually in its own way & with uncertainty. In making principles of their artefact & incoherent madness , Ghatak & Beige were close relatives. Ironically, Ghatak initiated a documentary On Ramkinkar in the last phase of his life, but passed away in 1976, leaving it unfinished. Ghatak’s dichotomy surfaced in his cinema. It was a dichotomy between an urge of presenting himself consciously in his cinema & an emotive urge of following an anarchist way of uncertainty in making of his Cinema..
A fellow colleague of IPTA , reminds Nilkantho that “Anarchism” should have an inherent discipline. Interestingly & quite effectively, Kamaleswar evolved his visuals to give a feel of “incoherence” & “anarchism”. It renders a psychedelic uncertainty to its viewers always & the effect resonates with Nilkantho being at the centre of his cinema. But , while we take a holistic view of the film & the experience, the inherent discipline of the director is understood.
The form & content, which the director conceived , would have been flawed, had it not been equally supported by adept collaboration of all its faculties. It was a Collaboration of acting, of stylised cinematography (Soumik Holder) , of editing, mixing & of Montage (Rabiranjan Moitra).
The cinematography and editing, together in harmony, flesh out the dominant mood of the film’s subject & its Mind. The lighting scheme & cinematography , predominantly in Black & white , while offers at times a naturalised archival tone, instead of being glossy & picturesque , on the other hand , the same overlaps mostly with stylised choreograph , with hard contrast of light & shades. The editing pattern , predominantly of “cuts” & “mixing”, instead of “fade in-fade outs”, offers a feel of psychedelic, a delirium, a continuum of space – time but often fluctuating between sanity and insanity . The effect , together as it gives , resembles the point of view of the central subject of the cinema, which travels like a collage in motion, like a “consciousness “ in flow & it travels like a memory through time, events, incidents . In parallel, it travels through an emotive thought process & vision of its protagonist. There is a degree of stylisation in both Cinematography & editing , but most importantly , there was hardly any trace of efforts to glamorize the visuals or to glorify the spectacle.
Swaswato Chatterjee, who portrayed Nilkantho, appears initially as a discomfort to our eyes, for us, who have a living memory of both Ghatak & his portrayal of Nilkantho. But, this initial discomfort vanishes very soon & Swaswato affirms himself in Nilkantho . He does it quite instinctively & brilliantly. In adept use of his Eyes, to portray the iconic eyes of Ghatak as Nilkantho, in spontaneous portrayal of his idiosyncrasies, his histrionics, Swaswato touches another pinnacle of his acting career. The histrionics of Swaswato is powerfully balanced by restrained & graceful performance of Ananya chatterjee, who portrays Durga, Nilkatha’s wife. All others also performed with matching élan & orchestration.
While there are so many virtues & excellence of this cinema, which, perhaps has enough potential to be recognised as a path breaking expressionism of Cinema , there are rooms for reservation. One reservation may be about the films length & its undue repetition of some images . It could have been more economic & restrained . The other is about the musical scoring of the last sequence. While the visual was so powerful, so imaginative & telling, the musical score should have been more sublime & less literal. Instrument alone was enough for it . Instead , the year filling chorus picked from an Iconic people’s song of salil chowdhury was used to underline the sequence . The result was a disturbing excess . It was too obvious & literary, enough to spoil the sublime grace of the finale.
By gradual separation, Nilkantho reached a point of total dejection, uprooted from everything which used to be so endearing to him. Like Ghatak in real life , Nilkantho also succumbed to irreparable “alcoholism”. But Tagore , who used to loom large in Ghatak’s mind as an anchor always , was still whispering for him – “losing faith in humanity is a sin”. This simple belief survived in the form of unvanquished love in Ghatak & also in his “penned “ parallel –Nilkatha , till end of both their lives.
Kamaleswar too ends his cinema with a positive note of belief & love, but with a different significance & transcendence. The last sequence most tellingly mingles Nilkantho with Ghatak. The “real” Ghatak meets the hands of his cinematic alter ego . In a surrealist tone , this meeting happens through emergence of “Bangobala”, a character picked from Ghatak’s Last cinema. In Ghatak’s last Cinema, “bangobala” was a naive village folk , portrayed by sanoli Mitra . For kamaleswar, “bangobala” was reproduced in the form of “phoolmoni”, a rape victim, who was also being treated in the same mental asylum, where Nilkantha had been admitted. It was a resurrection of Bangobala , as an iconic & enduring symbol of naive & unpolluted Bengal, who can remain unvanquished even after rape.. For kamaleswar , it was necessary to bring back Bangobala in the last sequence , arguably to make an understatement . Quite in a surrealist overtone, Bangobala appears in the end of a premier show of Nilkathas’ last cinema. We see an ailing Nilkantha, suddenly rejuvenated by seeing Bangobala. Nilkantha holds her hands & both of them walk & fade away amongst the feisty landscapes of Bengal. The meeting transcends to an eternity. To celebrate the grand Meet , for the first time, the visuals transcends from the archival Black & white, in to an archetypal colour of Bengal . The borderless, unpolluted & un-partitioned abundance of Bengal, a dream, which Ghatak was craving & dying for. Ironically, in viewer’s mind, Kamlaeswar ‘S tribute to Ritwik kumar immediately becomes contemporary. It burns in anguish & relates to Bengal of today.
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