At a critical moment toward the end of The Cloud-Capped Star, the father of the central character, Neeta, disconsolately asks his East Bengali family, now refugees in South Kolkata, “Can you repair my broken heart and mind?” These words sound the central note of the film: the irreparable despair and psychological unhinging that the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent into the nations of India and Pakistan brought about in the people who experienced it, with its violence, deaths, and dislocations along with the official silence around these consequences. In their drive toward nation building, the governments of the new countries did not want to address the traumatic impact of the Partition. Writers, poets, painters, and a few filmmakers did respond in the aftermath to the shattering of lives, cultures, and communities, but the work that was produced could not mitigate the larger silence. It is in this context that Ritwik Ghatak’s work is significant: he was responding to the destruction of the cultural unity of his beloved homeland, Bengal, whose political, economic, and psychological problems he attributed to the Partition. The Cloud-Capped Star (1960) is the second film of what I call Ghatak’s Partition Quartet, which also includes Nagarik (1952), E-Flat (1961), and Subarnarekha (completed in 1962). These four films address directly the lifeworlds of Bengali refugees, but the Partition was the defining experience of Ghatak’s life, and he evokes it in a variety of ways throughout his fictional cinema.
Ghatak stands alongside Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen as an art filmmaker who was committed to depicting the realities of contemporary Bengali and Indian life. Unlike Ray and Sen, however, Ghatak also drew on Indian mythology and melodramatic traditions from the country’s theater and cinema, as well as the Jungian concept of the archetype. The modernist montage aesthetics of Sergei Eisenstein and the work of the great Bengali poet, author, artist, and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore were other important sources of inspiration for him. And yet, for all these influences, the resonant, overtonal, allusive form that Ghatak developed was uniquely his, and one in which myth mediates history and the everyday. Unlike the realism of Ray and Sen, it is expressionism that shapes Ghatak’s articulation of emotion, even as the musicality of melodrama structures his narratives and plumbs the depths of individual, social, and cultural experience.
The Cloud-Capped Star was Ghatak’s fourth completed feature, and it is the one he is best known for, as well as the only one that enjoyed commercial success. Its critical history is checkered, as is typical of responses to the filmmaker, who was initially rejected as being too melodramatic and later upheld as an undiscovered master of world cinema. Ghatak considered Eisenstein to be his guru, and that influence is evident in this film’s mise-en-scène—particularly in its placement of actors and objects in the frame and its frequent use of low angles, high-contrast expressionist lighting, and fluid camera movements. Ghatak also regularly invoked Eisenstein in his contrapuntal use of sound. In his typically dense and complex soundtrack for The Cloud-Capped Star, he amplifies diegetic and nondiegetic sounds to foreground his characters’ emotional states. And Ghatak uses different forms of Indian music—classical, folk, popular—to further articulate the film’s soundscape, to express the characters’ interiority, and to evoke the mythological roots of their cultural worldview. This layering is indicative of the director’s distinctive way of spanning the worlds of the everyday-social and the mythic-cultural.
“While the bare bones of the film’s narrative could be the story of any refugee family struggling to resettle under harsh circumstances, it is Ghatak’s cinematic vision that makes this film unique.”
“Neeta’s cry for life resonates through the innards of a culture that denies women fullness of being.”
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