Ritwik Ghatak, Non-Conformist

On Film / The Daily — Oct 31, 2019
Rosy Samad in Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (1973)

The 1950s saw the emergence of a group of primarily Bengali filmmakers whose work, rooted in social realism and shot through with the trauma of the partition of India in 1947, rejected the conventions of mainstream Indian cinema. The vaguely defined movement would become known as parallel cinema, and its one true international star director is, of course, Satyajit Ray. Ritwik Ghatak, on the other hand, is “the unknown great among the independent Indian directors of the twentieth century,” as the Arsenal put it on the occasion of retrospective in Berlin in 2016. Starting tomorrow, Film at Lincoln Center in New York will present new restorations of seven of the eight features Ghatak made in his short lifetime. In 1976, having struggled with illness, alcoholism, and—despite Ray championing his work—neglect, Ghatak died at the age of fifty.

Ghatak’s films are “nervier, more radically modern than Ray’s,” writes Adrian Martin in the essay accompanying our release of A River Called Titas (1973). “He gave his work a palpable texture of constant shock, and part of the reason for this was personal.” Like millions of Bengali families, Ghatak’s was uprooted by famine in 1943 and the violence that broke out when the province was divided in 1947. In Calcutta (now Kolkata), Ghatak joined the Communist Party and the progressive Indian People’s Theater Association, wrote poetry, short stories, novels, and plays, and translated Bertolt Brecht. “Like Brecht,” writes Adrian Martin, “Ghatak was keen to promote both emotional involvement and analytical distance on the spectator’s part, in a seesawing, dialectical movement. Cinema seemed the ideal form for his vision.” As a filmmaker, Ghatak “was at once a sharply rational man and a completely, uncontrollably emotional one, and the dimension of melodrama that pushes toward constant hysteria offered him a way to fully enact, on-screen, over and over, his own traumatic experience of Bengali history.” In a primer for the Hindu, Srikanth Srinivasan likens Ghatak’s use of melodrama to that of Kenji Mizoguchi and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Ghatak’s second feature, The Pathetic Fallacy (1958), is a road movie in which a provincial taxi driver, alienated by the social upheaval all around him, finds that his closest friend is his old Chevrolet. “Arguably one of the most idiosyncratic art films to have emerged from the 1950s,” writes Omar Ahmed, The Pathetic Fallacy “utilizes a remarkably layered sound design and unsentimental narrative approach to produce a poignant and funny depiction of the awkward relationship between man and machine.” In what many consider to be his lightest work, The Runaway (1959), a ten-year-old boy escapes from his small village—and his father’s cruelty—to the big city. Ghatak followed up with what Bedatri Datta Choudhury, writing for Screen Slate, has called his “artfully melodramatic magnum opus,” The Cloud-Capped Star (1960).

The story centers on Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), a young woman whose hopes and dreams are dashed over and again as she sacrifices her future for the sake of her refugee family. As Ira Bhaskar points out here in the Current, “Ghatak is powerfully critiquing a Bengali culture that venerates the Goddess but is so cruel to its women.” Reviewing The Cloud-Capped Star for Slant, Derek Smith observes that, as he delves into “the inner worlds of characters living on the fringes of society and enduring myriad injustices, the Bengali filmmaker taps into something at once strange and stirring through his singular, melodramatic fusion of offbeat humor, off-kilter framing, and editing rhythms, as well as though an experimental use of sound and music that’s alternately beautiful and jarring in its disorienting effects.”


With E-Flat (1961), Ghatak looked back to his work with the Indian People’s Theater Association and the political rivalries that tore the group apart. While Lincoln Center notes that “the demise of the group forever alienated Ghatak from the Bengali intellectual establishment,” the Arsenal points out that E-Flat is “one of the few films by Ghatak to grant its protagonists a happy ending.” Subarnarekha (1965) completes the Partition Trilogy begun with The Cloud-Capped Star and E-Flat. In 2010, Kevin B. Lee found that the decade-spanning family drama “feels perpetually jostled, mirroring its characters sense of displacement and desperation to resettle themselves both physically and emotionally.”

A River Called Titas, one of the first features to be made in Bangladesh following the country’s war for independence, tracks a series of tragedies that befall Basanti (Rosy Samad) after she marries a fisherman. “What makes this epic movie so memorable is Ghatak’s poetic feeling for landscapes and the ordinary villagers whose lives play out against its cyclical, natural rhythms,” wrote Michael Smith in 2014. Ghatak’s final film, Reason, Debate and a Tale (1977), was shot in 1974 but went unreleased until after his death. “The story begins with an alcoholic (me), whose family is just leaving him,” he wrote. “When they’re gone, a young girl arrives in a torn sari, a symbol for Bangladesh. The man, the girl, and a younger man wander through Bengal, through its industrial zones, through its small cities, its wooded regions, and through Calcutta, until they come across several Naxalites in a forest. Towards the end, a confrontation ensues between the Naxalites and the run-down, alcoholic intellectual, in whom they for at least a brief moment recognize a kindred sprit, a non-conformist.”

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