Of memories and realities

Print edition : November 05, 2010

Fifty years after its making, Ritwik Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara retains its capacity to move viewers from different backgrounds.

NOT many films are remembered for their artistry 50 years after they are made; what may have been seen as having the greatest importance and possessing all the vital ingredients for a major film may prove to be a chimera 50 years on. Happily, that is not the case with Ritwik Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara ( The Cloud-capped Star), made in Bengali and released in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on April 14, 1960. The film retains its power, vitality and capacity to move deeply viewers from different cultures and backgrounds. In this respect, it qualifies as one of the authentic masterpieces of cinema.

Ghatak's best films, in their emotional intensity, resemble the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa's early masterpieces, such as Straw Dog, Rashomon, Ikiru and The Idiot (the last one based on the Russian novelist Fyodor Dosteyevsky's classic).

Meghe Dhaka Tara was Ghatak's fourth film and his first box-office success. Of his three previous films, only Ajantrik, released in 1957, showed a powerful creative imagination and a compassion to match. Unfortunately, it was a resounding commercial flop because the audience was not ready to accept the story of an eccentric moffusil taxi driver and his overwhelming love for his jalopy, a 1926 Chevrolet. Meghe Dhaka Tara was a timely intervention in Ghatak's life because it restored his self-belief. Its success can be attributed to his penetrating treatment of a familiar story, that of a lower-middle-class girl, Nita, working herself literally to death, to first support and then establish an ungrateful family. It was a familiar story in Calcutta still reeling under the blow of the partition of India and the influx of more than a million refugees from East Bengal, then East Pakistan, which, after its liberation from the control of West Pakistan in 1971, became Bangladesh. These unfortunates had lost their all in coming to a new city in an unfamiliar country. The director, being a refugee himself, was able to understand the tragedy of these people betrayed by history.

Neo-realism made as deep an impression on Ghatak's mind as it did on Satyajit Ray's; both benefitted in their respective ways from watching Vittorio De Sica's two Italian masterpieces, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, but Ghatak while paying lip service to naturalism had already moved off towards a kind of stylised storytelling, not without its charm and combustive power. This trait in his film narration first became apparent in Ajantrik. However, by the time he made Meghe Dhaka Tara, his mastery over the form was astonishing. Shaktipada Rajguru's tear-jerking story was lifted to heights of nobility and grandeur. The writer in later years claimed, on more than one occasion, major credit for the script, a claim not substantiated either by his literary output or his other forays into scriptwriting. It was Ghatak's grasp of cinematic plasticity and his ability to create well-rounded characters in a few deft strokes and place them amidst the tumult of history that gave the film its depth and abiding beauty.

Nita was played by a young Supriya Choudhury, destined for glamorous stardom in Bengali films, and directed with uncanny sensitivity by Ghatak; she came up with a lambent performance and carried the film, although she was supported by stalwarts such as Bijon Bhattacharya and Gita Dey, who played her father and mother respectively. Anil Chatterjee, a rising star, played her classical vocalist brother, Shankar, with flair. The direction of the actors even the weaker ones, such as Gita Ghatak, who plays the vampish younger sister, Dwiju Bhawal (Nita's younger brother) and Sanat (Nita's fianc who marries her younger sister), is skilled. Ghatak had after all made his mark directing plays such as Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths, both in Bengali, for the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). He had always worked with actors responsive to his blend of naturalism and theatrical stylisation. In all his films, particularly this one, his directorial instinct with actors worked with great precision.

Music of a special kind

The choice of the IPTA veteran Jyotirindranath Maitra as composer was an inspired one. Maitra knew Western-style orchestration very well and had an extensive knowledge of Bengali, Indian and world folk music. He had also learned khayal singing in Hindustani music for a decade; in addition he was an underrated but fine Bengali poet. Ghatak had earlier worked very well with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, whose raga Bilaskhani todi on the sarod created the right epiphanies in Ajantrik, and then with the gifted Salil Choudhury on Bari Theke Paliye. But Meghe Dhaka Tara needed music of a special kind, one that included the worlds of Hindustani Classical, Rabindra Sangeet, a particular kind of Bengali folk, and Western choral music that drew inspiration from Negro spirituals.

A STILL FROM "Meghe Dhaka Tara".-

Maitra's music became an extension of the director's vision: It further articulated the poignant visuals and created an elegiac mood that stayed with viewers long after they had left the theatre. The five pieces of music that have survived the test of time are the chorus in the background, patterned after Paul Robeson vocals, when Nita goes to work and then later for her check-up; the Rabindra Sangeet Je raate more duar gooli bhanglo jhaure; A.T. Kannan's rendering of the ragas Hansadhwani and Laagi lagan; and Jamuna Barua's heartrending rendering of Uma, an incarnation of the goddess Durga. Unforgettable is the Baul song Majhi tor naam jani naa. There has been a grand revival of Meghe Dhaka Tara abroad, and the British Film Institute has come out with an excellent DVD, but it is surprising that no attempt has been made to release its music, which is haunting to say the least.

Rabindrik tradition

There is no denying the director's sensitivity to the sufferings of the characters in the film and his empathy with them. However, it is from the enlightened middle-class point of view that he presents his film. Ghatak, like Satyajit Ray, came from an educated zamindari background. Ray lost his gifted father, Sukumar, in infancy and the family fortunes went to seed. He and his mother had a pretty thin time economically despite loving relatives. He joined the middle classes in his twenties after he took up a job in the 1940s with D.J. Keymer, a leading British advertising agency in India. Ghatak, in contrast, left his comfortable bourgeois existence to work as a cashier in a mill in Kanpur. Until Partition, he always had a financial safety net because the family still retained its lands in East Bengal and his gentleman-scholar father, Sudhir Chandra Ghatak, was a senior civil servant. Both Ray and Ghatak came out of the Rabindrik tradition that extolled the virtues of celebrating human life in tandem with nature.

RITWIK GHATAK THE film-maker at work.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Meghe Dhaka Tara retains a memory of a rural past while grappling with the brutal realities of city life, more than a decade after the bifurcation of the country. Nita and her family live in the semi-rural outskirts of Calcutta, and the Baul song picturised in this setting eloquently helps bring out Nita's aloneness, and that of her parents, each being a prisoner of circumstance. This deeply moving rendering of states of mind is from the standpoint of a highly cultured sensibility. To be sure, Ghatak's interpretation of reality lacked the raw power seen in the plays of Bertold Brecht, whom he worshipped, and in the films of the Italian master Francesco Rosi. For the record, the film lacks the bitterness, the humiliation and loss of carefully cultivated humane values that privation brings. According to Kajal Das, passionate cineaste and keen observer of human foibles: In the 1950s and early 1960s, mornings began in Private Road, Dum Dum [an impoverished refugee colony, a reclaimed swamp really, in the suburbs of Calcutta], with choice abuses and other expressions of anger and helplessness. [The well-known Bengali writer] Sunil Gangopadhyay spent his youth nearby, in Jogi Para.

Ghatak's great strength was his mastery over the plasticity of the cinematic medium. Few directors can reveal the passage of time in a film with his emotional resonance and receptivity both to the palpable changes and the ambiguities that nature brings in her wake. Meghe Dhaka Tara is a prime example of these qualities. The early scenes of the family going about its business, Nita out on her daily grind, Shankar practising his singing outdoors have a sense of ordinariness. Things and their appearances begin to change slowly, almost imperceptibly. The same location serves the purpose, among others, of revealing character: Nita's generous, bountiful nature is symbolised by the large, lush tree she passes under as she is waylaid by her aspiring singer brother asking for money for a shave. The same location also serves as a closure of relations between Nita and her suitor, Sanat, who marries her sister, Gita.

Fifty years after its making, Meghe Dhaka Tara continues to be a poignant reminder of how quiet, giving people are, and always will be, exploited every which way, even by those who claim to love them and have their welfare at heart. This observation cuts through class and ideology. Meghe Dhaka Tara remains Ghatak's most appreciated film.

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