That Hidden Star
by Aritra Dey
TLR Rating: 9 Reels.
Ritwik Ghatak – The Man. Ritwik Ghatak – The Artist. To know one, you have to know the other. Artists, over the time, have often embedded their selves in their profound works which have lit up the history of mankind, but seldom did someone come whose entire set of creations were the manifestations of his voice, struggling to break free and make the world listen. Ritwik Ghatak was born on 4th November, 1925 in Dhaka, then a district of the unified Bengal. The historically cruel partition of Bengal in 1947 saw his family relocate to Kolkata and Ritwik Ghatak, the artist, rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the pain and hardships. Hurt by the misery of the countless immigrants who had to leave their homeland and seek asylum in the crowded Kolkata, he protested against the division but all his shouts and demands felon deaf ears. He was a gifted writer but chose the medium of films as it would help to transmit his feelings over a larger span of audience in a shorter time. After a foray in theatre where he commanded immense respect for his philosophy and knowledge of the craft, Ghatak made ‘Nagarik – The Citizen’ in 1952 which ushered the rise of the Bengali New Wave in cinema. While his contemporaries, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, often used veils and analogies to cloak the crux of their stories, Ritwik Ghatak was unapologetically direct in venting out his feelings. The naked truth and hart-hitting concepts were far beyond his time and the man spent his entire life in the shadows, listening to the echoes of his own voice. Even today, people fail to grasp his films, and with the intellect of the masses being numbed further due to the resurgence of cheap, commercial cinema, it is highly unlikely, he will be truly appreciated anytime soon.
‘Meghe Dhaka Tara –The Cloud Capped Star’ in 1960 differs from Ghatak’s gharana to a great extent and lay the foundation for the much lauded ‘Calcutta Depression Trilogy’. Before 1960, Ritwik Ghatak wasn’t exactly known for using overtones and melodrama to convey the message. In this film, using the plight of the refugees from East Bengal as a decisive backdrop, he told the excruciatingly painful tale of a woman, Neeta, who despite being financially independent couldn’t live life on her own terms. The nature of the story, adapted from Shaktipada Rajguru’s novel of the same name, compelled Ghatak to use the melodramatic overtones to highlight the suffering of a woman at the hands of her family and friends and echoed her agony to reach the ears of the audience. While the present world screams for feminism, Ritwik Ghatak had lent his support to the cause many years back. Neeta became the symbol of feminism, of an independent woman and her misery highlighted the ignorance of the society who sucked on her happiness like leeches.
Family is supposed to be one’s ultimate source of strength but Neeta’s kin, albeit from poverty and want, proved to be the lynchpin behind her constant deprivation of happiness and love. Despite slaving throughout the day for tuitions and her own studies, she faced constant ridicule from her mother for not paying attention to the household chores. Her father’s failing health forced her to quit college and seek a job, and became the sole bread-winner for the family. Her savings were often spent tending to the whims of her siblings who depended on her for their yearnings. Her intellectual lover, physics student Sanat, too milked off her money for daily needs. Neeta was the epitome of self-sacrifice and her life proved the old saying ‘the more you sow, the more you shall reap’ blatantly wrong. Neeta did everything out of the pureness of her heart and unending love for her kin. The constant jibes from her mother seemed like roses when her sister and Sanat decided to get married as the later was unable to wait much longer for Neeta. The open treachery was deftly aided by the mother, who was afraid to marry off Neeta, as it would stop the flow of money in their family. Here, Ritwik Ghatak showed the naked version of humanity when faced with hunger and poverty. The steps one’s family can take to ensure their selfish motives born out of want, was shown in a stark fashion and it’s of no wonder that people weren’t able to digest the bitter truth.
In contrast to the antagonism, Neeta’s intellectual senile father and her aspiring singer elder brother, Shankar, were the pillars of emotional support in her life. But their social status, age and inability to earn money, rendered their voice useless. Shankar, in fact, was heavily berated by the rest of the family, as he chose to sing and wander rather than earn money for the family. He had a heart of gold and left the house as a protest when the family happily accepted the alliance between Gita and Sanat. Neeta’s father too sensed her elder daughter’s smoldering grief and tried to pacify her as best as he could. He was the genteel Bengali, highly educated and cultured, his intellect being classified as senility by those who couldn’t understand him. In the end it was Shankar who ensured Neeta’s final days were spent in the comfort of the hills and was left in despair when she died in her arms.
The tragic story was substantiated by Ritwik Ghatak’s masterful direction. The entire film is littered with moments of magic, which exemplify the director’s genius. From the opening shot himself, Ritwik had chosen to show Neeta as an incarnation of the Goddess Durga. His selection to focus on the enormous banyan tree instead of Neeta who was emerging from behind it, served as a metaphor to the mystic origins of the mother Goddess. Ritwik shot Neeta up close quite often, in the dimly lit thatched hut. The sunlight sifting through the fine holes in the bamboo walls created a natural bokeh and this added to her aura. The variant plays of light and shadow on her face eked out the suffering on her face enough for the audience to empathize deeply. The incarnation theme gained even more impetus when Neeta, after a bout of tuberculosis stepped out in the rain, looking up at the raging storm. It was as if the immersion was near; her stay in the mortal world was coming to a closure, and nature was celebrating her long-awaited return to heaven.
His sense of music and judicious use of sound effects is laudable indeed. The sharp whiplashes frequented in the latter half of the movie seemed like a painful sting in the heart of the audience. It was as if Ritwik Ghatak wanted his audience to feel every burn in Neeta’s soul in her torturous life. The Rabindrasangeet ‘Je raate mor duuar guli’ had never been so melancholic, as Shankar and Neeta sang in their dim tumbledown shack, Neeta feeling every single word, relating the lyrics to the pathos of her own life. The scene was powerful, hard and emotionally jarring.
Neeta’s intellectual father added a surrealistic element to the film. He was a man who lived in his own world of Keats and Wordsworth with an unparalleled love for his eldest daughter, within whom he saw the perfect incarnation of The Woman. Ghatak’s shots of him blurting out, ‘I accuse’ when Neeta’s tuberculosis was revealed to the family is an example of his surrealism. Later during the storm, he visited his sick daughter’s chamber, and the shot of his bespectacled face illuminated by the white thunder was almost Shakespearean in nature, quite akin to the mad Prospero in ‘Tempest’ and Caesar’s apparition in ‘Julius Caesar’.
The final scene is perhaps one of the most recognized moments in Bengali cinema. Neeta’s final words, ‘Dada ami bachte chai – Brother, I want to live’, echoing throughout the beautiful mountainside was tragically poetic. She shouted out her agony, which she had kept dormant in herself throughout for the betterment of the others, and while doing so, let go of the soul which desperately craved to escape the clutches of the sadistic life. She loved the hills and her brother, Shankar. To have breathed her last in his arms surrounded by the green mountains served as a tiny moment of joy in her catastrophe riddled mortal life. The final shot showed Shankar in his native village, watching a smiling young woman walking in the cobbled road to meet her family’s needs. Her slippers broke and Shankar saw his sister once again. He couldn’t watch the entire scene unfold however, the pain was too unbearable and he hid his face in his hands.
The career of Supriya Devi took off after ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ and the veteran actress had always vocally credited the maverick for shaping her entire life. She was effortless in bringing out Neeta’s personality and her portrayal is considered to be one of the examples for young actresses to emulate. Anil Chatterjee had always been lost under the overwhelming shadows of Soumitra Chatterjee and Uttam Kumar in the Bengali film industry, but Shankar is one of the roles which prove how talented he actually was. It would be a blasphemy not to mention the immaculate performance veteran theatre personality Bijan Bhattacharjee gave as the father. He brought in years of experience and played a pivotal role in shaping up the film.
‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ will always be remembered as the film which brought Ritwik Ghatak in front of the whole world for a brief glimpse of his genius. The legendary director lives on today, in the hearts of his ardent followers. It is a pity that the world never appreciated his genius while he lived. It is a personal loss for those who haven’t yet watched or understood Ghatak’s films. He is the ultimate maverick of movies, the enfant terrible of cinema.
The author is a software engineer at Infosys and a passionate film and football buff, with a special interest in deciphering the literature behind the movies.