- Two Articles by Ritwik Ghatak
Ritwik Ghatak (1925–1976) was born in Dhaka, now in Bangladesh (referred to as East Bengal in the essays here), and moved to West Bengal around the time of India’s independence and the Partition (1947). He started off as a writer of short stories and became seriously involved in the new theater spawned by the leftist cultural movement, which around 1944 had taken the form of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). The IPTA mobilized an unprecedented range of artists and writers from various fields, leaving its impact on almost every aspect of cultural practice around the middle of the twentieth century, including the Bombay cinema of the 1950s and 1960s.
Ghatak’s involvement in film began in 1949 as an assistant director and screenwriter. He would soon adopt filmmaking as his profession, [End Page 11] even though he continued to write, direct, and act in plays. His first film, Nagarik (The Citizen, 1953) never saw the light of day in his lifetime. After a stint in Bombay as a screenwriter for Filmistan Studios, he returned to Bengal to make his second feature, Ajantrik (The Unmechanical, 1958), which firmly established him as a foremost director, alongside Satyajit Ray. The period between 1958 and 1962 was his most productive, when he made Bari Theke Paliye (Running away from Home, 1959), and the three Bengal Partition films—Meghe Dhaka Tara (Cloud-Capped Star, 1960), Komal Gandhar (The Gandhar Sublime, 1961), and Subarnarekha (The Golden Line, 1962). Meghe Dhaka Tara was the only popular success that Ghatak ever saw in his life. The other films not only were commercial failures but also met with critical censure, often from his comrades in the leftist circle, for obscurity, lack of coherence, and—more damaging—sentimentalism. A long period of stillborn projects, unfinished films, and delayed releases followed, which contributed to the alcoholism and nervous disorders that dogged Ghatak for the rest of his life.
During 1964 and 1965 Ghatak taught in the new state film school in Pune, earned a reputation as a legendary teacher, and inspired a group of young filmmakers who would become prominent practitioners of the Indian new wave in the 1970s (Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, and John Abraham, among them). He managed to make two more feature films (Titas Ekti Nadir Nam [A River Called Titas, 1973] and Jukti Takko ar Gappo [Arguments and a Story, 1974]) before his death at the age of fifty.
Ghatak’s work remained largely unrecognized until a critical revival started in the 1980s. The new critics undertook a reappraisal, among other things, of the complex role of melodrama and narrative experimentation in his films as well as the role of historical imagination and Indian aesthetic traditions in his method. In the absence of a hospitable critical environment, Ghatak wrote some extraordinary commentaries on his own cinema. A definitive anthology of his English writings was belatedly published in 2000 and a complete Bengali collection (from which I have chosen the two pieces here) in 2005.1 The essays and interviews, crucial for an understanding of his work, mainly appeared in film society magazines, the present texts being no exception.
Both of the essays were written in 1963. The third Partition film, Subarnarekha, had been recently completed. After the abject rejection of Komal Gandhar by both audiences and critics, Ghatak was facing a challenge to even find a release for what is often considered his most mature work. Written in days of deep despondency, Ghatak, the self-professed Marxist, tried to explain his method in these essays to whoever was ready to consider the question of artistic practice outside the narrow confines of official leftist principles. In the first essay, he draws on Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God, published three years earlier, to explain his principle of using archetypal forms.2 As such, he joins a line of twentieth-century artists and critics who came under the influence of C. G. Jung. The interest in the collective unconscious was to stay with Ghatak, a source of puzzlement to his colleagues. But more than a belief in a system, it was a useful tool for him to formulate...