Riwik Ghatak constructs detailed visual and aural commentaries of Bengal in the socially and politically tumultuous period from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. Here seen in his last, semi-autobiographical film, Jukti Takko Ar Gappo / Arguments and a Story (1974).

Ghatak’s theme: the 1947 partition of India and its profound after-effects

Pakistan was composed of two geographically separate (over 1,250 miles apart) and culturally, linguistically different parts: West Pakistan—now known as simply Pakistan—and East Pakistan—now known as Bangladesh. Note location of Calcutta.

Bengal was physically rent apart—by the 1947 Partition, engendered by the departing British colonizers, and by the Bangladeshi War of Independence in 1971. Here, a map of the 1947 Partition of Bengal.

The final scene of Nemai Gosh’s Chinnamul, a saga about Bengali farmers forced to move to Calcutta because of Partition. Ghatak’s first film acting role was in this landmark of Bengali cinematic realism.

“In Komal Gandhar [E-Flat], I had to face the problem of operating at different levels. I wanted to draw simultaneously on Anasuya’s [the heroine’s] divided mind, the divided leadership of the People’s Theatre movement of Bengal [members pictured above in the film], and the pain of divided Bengal...."

...“On the soundtrack [of Komal Gandhar], I brought together words and tunes that are more than a century old .... When going to her husband’s place, Shakuntala [heroine as Shakuntala pictured above] had to tear herself away from her ashram, her very familiar world, the land where she had lived from the day of her birth. The heroine of the film is the Shakuntala of Bengal, while the hero reflects on the burning discontent of today’s youth. -- Ritwik Ghatak, Chitrabikshan, 1975

In Komal Gandhar, the hero and heroine look to their homeland, the former East Bengal.

Images from Meghe Dhaka Tara / A Cloud Covered Star

The heroine Nita appears for the first time, both in and of the Bengali landscape.

Nita listens to her unemployed brother Shankar sing. Her small income as a teacher provides her family’s only financial support.

Nita’s mother is a destructive force. She is worried that Nita will marry and leave the family penniless.

Nita’s mother and father argue about her future.

"Tell your father you owe us for two months,” the grocer complains to Nita.


“Woman” and “homeland”
in Ritwik Ghatak’s films:

Constructing post-Independence
Bengali cultural identity

by Erin O'Donnell          

The Bengali filmmaker, Ritwik Ghatak, was born in Dhaka in 1925, and lived in East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) throughout his adolescence.[1] [open notes in new window] The Bengal Famine of 1943-44, World War II and finally, the Partition of 1947 compelled Ghatak to move to Calcutta[2] where he became actively involved in the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA) and the Communist Party of India (CPI).[3] Formed in 1943, IPTA was the first organized national theater movement in India that developed and performed plays addressing social injustice and British imperialism. Ghatak began working with West Bengal’s IPTA wing in Calcutta in 1948, writing, directing and acting in his own plays, such as Jwala (“Flame,” 1951) and Dalil (“Document,” 1952). He acted in other plays, such as revivals of Bijan Bhattacharya’s Nabanna (“New Harvest,” 1944) and Dinabandhu Mitra’s Neeldarpan (“Indigo Mirror,” 1860), and adaptations of Gogol’s The Government Inspector and Gorky’s The Lower Depths. [4]

In 1951, Ghatak was commissioned by the Provincial Draft Preparatory Committee of IPTA to draft a document that would articulate the political and cultural ideology of IPTA in West Bengal. In his 1954 thesis On The Cultural Front, Ghatak outlined a cultural future (in ideological and organizational terms) for West Bengal’s IPTA in particular and the CPI in general.[5] In 1996, I edited this document. It had been stored in the Communist Party office in Calcutta until that year, when it was given to the Ritwik Memorial Trust, which has been systematically restoring Ghatak’s films and republishing his writings and screenplays over the last two decades.

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 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. His dismissal letter is reprinted in On The Cultural Front. However, Ghatak has claimed that he willingly left IPTA and that he was never a CPI “card-carrying” member. As early as 1944 with the initial staging of Nabanna, the Bengal IPTA members disagreed about the organization’s political and cultural trajectory, which echoed dissension in the CPI at large.[6]

Besides working with IPTA in the 1950s, Ghatak became active in filmmaking. Beginning in 1948, Ghatak and other aspiring Bengali filmmakers, like Mrinal Sen, began to meet to discuss films and filmmaking at a teashop in Calcutta called Paradise Cafe.[7] Ghatak led members of the group to organize a trade union for the underpaid studio workers and technicians in Calcutta.[8] One of Ghatak’s first intensive involvements with cinema was as an actor in Nemai Ghosh’s 1950 Bengali film, Chinnamul (“The Uprooted”). This film is pivotal in the development of Bengali cinematic realism and relates the story of a group of farmers from East Bengal who are forced to migrate to Calcutta because of Partition. Supported by IPTA, Chinnamul used Calcutta’s Sealdah railway station as a location and actual refugees as characters and extras. That station had political importance as a site where thousands of refugees entered the city during and after Partition.

In 1952, a catalytic cinematic event for all of the emerging Bengali filmmakers, including Ghatak, Ray and Sen, occurred when the first International Film Festival was held in four Indian cities, including Calcutta. At this festival, Indian audiences first viewed Italian neo-realist films like De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” and Japanese films such as Kurosawa’s “Rashomon.” Also in 1952, Ghatak produced and directed his first feature film entitled, Nagarik (“The Citizen”). He completed eight feature films and ten documentaries before his death in 1976. [9]          

In his films, Ghatak constructs detailed visual and aural commentaries of Bengal (located in northeast India) in the socially and politically tumultuous period from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. Twice during his lifetime Bengal was physically rent apart—in 1947 by the Partition engendered by the departing British colonizers and in 1971 by the Bangladeshi War of Independence.[10] In his work, Ghatak critically addresses and questions—from the personal to the national level—the identity of post-Independence Bengal. The formation of East Pakistan in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971 motivated Ghatak to seek through his films the cultural identity of Bengal in the midst of these new political divisions and physical boundaries.

Ghatak was an important actor in and commentator upon Bengali culture. His films represent an influential and decidedly unique viewpoint of post-Independence Bengal. Unique, because in his films he pointedly explored the fallout of the 1947 Partition of India on Bengali society, and influential, because his films set a standard for newly-emerging “alternative” or “parallel” cinema directors — in contrast to those directors who opted for the hegemonic “Bollywood” or Bombay style(s) of Indian cinema.[11] The majority of Ghatak’s films are narratives that focus on the post-Independence Bengali family and community, with a sustained critique of the emerging petite-bourgeoisie in Bengal, specifically in the urban environment of Calcutta. In this context, Ghatak utilizes a melodramatic style and mode novel to Indian cinema. His melodrama combines popular and classical idioms of performance from Bengal and India that are merged with Stanislavskian acting and Brechtian theatrical techniques.

In this paper, I will examine the relations between three interconnected elements in Ghatak’s film narratives:

  • women
  • landscape (exterior and interior)
  • sound and music.

In his films, Ghatak consistently layers these three components to convey both utopian and dystopian visions of “Homeland” in an independent Bengal. He employs Bengali folk music and frames Bengali landscapes to inform, both aurally and visually, his representations of Bengali women as symbolic images of the joy, sorrow and nostalgia that he associates with the birth of the Indian state. I will analyze scenes from two of Ghatak’s films, Meghe Dhaka Tara (A Cloud-Covered Star, 1960), and Subarnarekha (The Golden Line, 1962; also the name of a river in what is now Bangladesh) to illustrate this critical relationship between women, landscape, and sound and music which is fundamental to his construction of a “resistant” narrative of the new Indian nation.[12] First, some brief background information about the 1947 Partition of India and Ghatak’s melodramatic style is necessary in order to contextualize Ghatak’s representations of “Woman” and “Homeland” and begin to understand how these representations are linked together in his films Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha.

1947: Partition of India

In August 1947, after over a year of tortuous negotiations in the midst of communal (religious) riots and killings throughout India, leaders and representatives of the departing British colonial government, the predominantly Hindu Indian Congress Party and the Muslim League decided to divide India into the Indian Union, with a Hindu majority, and Pakistan, with a Muslim majority. Furthermore, Pakistan was composed of two geographically separate (more than 1,250 miles apart) and culturally, linguistically different parts: West Pakistan (now known as simply Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh). [See map.] Consequently, Bengal was also geographically and culturally divided into two parts: East Bengal became Pakistani East Bengal or East Pakistan and West Bengal became Indian West Bengal. [See map.]

An estimated ten million people, primarily Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, were forced over the next months to abandon the homes that they had lived in for generations and to migrate. Muslims fled to West and East Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to India. Families were divided, friends and neighbors were left behind, and an immense mass confusion developed as to where to go and what to expect when they got there. All of these factors created tremendous tension which led to the religious hatred, riots and murders that ushered in India’s independence from Britain and the birth of Pakistan. Ghatak viewed the division of his native Bengal as mishandled and ill-conceived. Government officials, he believed, gave barely a thought to the devastating impact that such a division would (and did) have on millions of people. Ghatak spent his entire artistic life wrestling with the consequences of Partition: particularly the insecurity and anxiety engendered by the homelessness of the refugees of Bengal.[13] In his films, he tries to convey how Partition struck at the roots of Bengali culture. He seeks to express the nostalgia and yearning that many Bengalis’ have for their pre-Partition way of life.[14]

Ghatak was outspoken concerning India’s Independence and Partition. In response to an interviewer’s question regarding what personal truth had inspired his films, stories and plays, Ghatak replied:

“Being a Bengali from East Bengal, I have seen the untold miseries inflicted on my people in the name of independence—which is a fake and a sham. I have reacted violently towards this and I have tried to portray different aspects of this [in my films].”[15]

In another interview, Ghatak discussed the common thread of union in his films, Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (The Gandhar Sublime, 1961; in the Indian classical musical system, an E-flat or flatted third), and Subarnarekha (1962). He stated:

“Against my intention the films Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar, and Subarnarekha formed my trilogy. When I started Meghe Dhaka Tara, I never spoke of political unification. Even now I don’t think of it because history will not alter and I won’t venture to do this impossible task. The cultural segregation caused by politics and economics was a thing to which I never reconciled myself as I always thought in terms of cultural integration. This very theme of cultural integration forms the theme in all three films.”[16]

In his films, Ghatak often situates his preoccupation with the union of East Pakistan and West Bengal within the heart of Bengali society: the family. And through the post-Independence Bengali “family,” Ghatak expresses the radical transformations that occurred within Bengali culture. Ghatak’s “families” are often not the traditional extended Bengali family, but “alternative,” “surrogate” families, like the theatrical troupe in Komal Gandhar or the wandering group of misfits in Jukti Takko Ar Gappo (Arguments and a Story, 1974), who are displaced, urban, lower middle class refugees searching for a home. By utilizing a melodramatic style comprised of Bengali, Indian, European and Russian elements, Ghatak visually and aurally articulates a new Bengali homeland.

Continued: Ghatak and Indian melodrama

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