Thursday, August 7, 2008

Remembering Ritwik Ghatak: 32 years after his death

Ritwik Ghatak was once diagnosed as a patient suffering from duel personality. This was the time when he was frequently been admitted to hospitals as a result of his relentless drinking and eccentric lifestyle. An utterly shattered man, he passed away on 6 February 1976 at the age of 51. His admirers recall that he looked thirty years older than his actual age. They also speak about his strange nature to ‘allow mean and vicious people to hurt him repeatedly’ and ‘to hurt those who loved him the most and tried to help him’. In his swansong film Jukti Takko Aar Gappo made in 1974, Ritwik in a honest way tried to portrait himself through the protagonist Neelkantha Bagchi, the name suggesting the Hindu god Shiva, who according to Hindu legend had acquired the name ‘neelkantha’ or ‘blue throat’ after swallowed all the poisons of the world during the churning of the ocean. Similar to Ritwik, Neelkantha was also a middle class leftist intellectual but unorthodox, battered and isolated by the mainstream left and the society in general. His demeanor alienated him from his family and friends but by the sparkling insights, high optimism for life and honesty to the core, Neelkantha in many ways resembles Ritwik.

Coming from an educated Bengali feudal family, Ritwik was the product of the generation of forties. The era, marked by events like the World War, the 1943 Bengal famine ensuing to a death toll of nearly five million people, Independence and partition of India. It was also the age of the rising trend of communism. Like many educated youth of his time, Ritwik soon connected himself with the ideology of Marxism. He became associated with IPTA (Indian People's Theater Association), the cultural wing of Communist Party of India (CPI). IPTA had played a seminal roll in the cultural scene of India by churning out fresh concepts on artistic and cultural standards. Whole flocks of artists and performers who will later dominate the Indian cultural milieu developed their artistic credo through IPTA. Ritwik was no exception. 

“You are always a partisan, for or against.”

His engagement with IPTA was not only as a playwright, actor and director but also as a cultural theorist. In 1954, he drafted his thesis ‘On the Cultural Front’ outlining the cultural agenda of IPTA and the Communist Party in general articulating its ideological, political and organizational programme. Ritwik’s views were not taken well by the party leadership and he was labeled as a ‘Trotskyite’. His separation from the communist party and IPTA in 1955 was a consequence of this dispute. Ritwik later documented his observations on IPTA in his film Komal Gandhar. However, one of his fellow traveller, the folk singer and composer Hemanga Biswas later wrote in his reminiscence that,

"Ritwik made an error in understanding the people’s theater movement because – he did not get into it through any people’s movement. His misconception was reflected in the film Komal Gandhar where conflict between leaders, cell meeting and so on became his main concern, whereas the main point, the people’s movement, was left touched."

Ritwik in the later days has always admitted that he was never hesitant about his commitment for the oppressed masses and was always an ‘engaged’ artist. He believed that, ‘showing extreme antipathy against the evils and deeply caring the finer elements of the society is the responsibility of every artists of all ages’. In his later life he tried to amalgamate Marxism with the ideas of the psychoanalyst, CG Jung because he felt that there is no inherent contradiction between Marx and Jung. On the contrary, one is compensating the other.

After his departure from IPTA, his eagerness to reach out to the people brought him into film making. He considered cinema as the most dynamic and powerful medium of communicating and influencing people. However, in a 1973 interview he had characteristically remarked, “If tomorrow or ten years later, a new medium arrives which is more powerful than cinema, I will kick out cinema and embrace the new medium.” It is understandable that Ritwik was too much concerned to reach out to the people, as he believed that “people are the last word of all form of arts”. His first directorial debut was the unfinished film Bedeni. In 1952 at the age of 27, he directed Nagarik, a film depicting the stark reality of a middle class refugee family’s struggle for existence and hope. Mostly IPTA people were involved in making the film in a cooperative venture with a shoestring budget. The film never released in his lifetime. After Nagarik until his death, Ritwik completed seven more feature films and ten documentaries. With the exception of the 1960 release Meghe Dhaka Tara all his other films were commercial disasters.

The majority of Ritwik’s films are narratives, focused on the post-Independence, post-partition Bengali life. He had deeply sensed the pain of the partition catastrophe and leaving aside Ajantrik, and Titash Ekti Nadir Nam, most of his cinema tried to accentuate this scar. The partition of India affected ten million people who were forced to leave their ancestral homeland and migrate to unknown places. Families were divided; relatives, friends and neighbors were left behind. Insecurity, anxiety and extreme suffering of the displaced people led to religious hatred, distrust and a break down of basic human values. The traumatic consequence of partition which he had considered as the most tragic incidence of the nation’s history had left a profound effect on his creative thinking. He tried to express through his films how the partition has struck the very roots of Bengali society and culture. In his own words: “Being a Bengali from East Bengal, I have seen the untold miseries inflicted on my people in the name of independence—which is a fake and a sham. I have reacted violently towards this and I have tried to portray different aspects of this.”

All through his creative life, Ritwik remained nostalgic and highly emotional about his pre partition days. But his romantic longing for the conceptual ‘motherland’ was devastated when he went to film Titas Ekti Nadir Naam in Bangladesh (East Bengal was transformed into East Pakistan after partition and later in 1971 liberated as the independent nation Bangladesh). He realized that the Bengal of his dream, the two Bengals together were “thirty years out of date”. He was madly excited about rediscovering his lost roots, to embrace his beloved ‘motherland’ but shocked to find that:

"My childhood and my early youth were spent in East Bengal. The memories of those days, the nostalgia maddened me and drew me towards Titash, to make a film on it...when I was making the film, it occurred to me that nothing of the past survives today, nothing can survive. History is ruthless. No, it is all lost. Nothing remains."

Ritwik’s niece Mahasweta Devi, in an essay had criticized this outlook. She considered that Ritwik lacked a sense of history. According to her, in his entire life Ritwik had an infantile stubbornness to disprove the reality around him and had a natural characteristic of endless romanticism. His childhood was spent in a sheltered atmosphere of a feudal landlord family and therefore he had never experienced the anguish of the toiling and oppressed around him. Even in the days of his childhood, the condition of the nation and its people were not so glittery, as he had perceived it to be. Anarchy, starkness and uprooted conditions did not spark off immediately after independence or the partition. In the contrary, according to Mahasweta, the disaster was the obvious historical development in the way the nation was going through. If Ritwik was capable of sensibly reading history and not living in his nostalgic world he would have realized this truth long before.

Commercial failure, lack of proper recognition and always short of money was slowly destroying the man. Ritwik’s descend to alcoholism began after Komal Gandhar was withdrawn from the theaters only a week after its release. The film was allegedly thwarted by his former comrades who could not stomach a renegade’s version of the IPTA movement! His most demanding film Subarnarekha was released in 1962 and was running in packed houses but without any explanation the film was abruptly withdrawn from the theaters by the distributor. Shocked and frustrated, Ritwik soon became irreversibly alcoholic, starting with branded liquor and ultimately settling down with the country version of it. In a Jukti Takko Aar Gappo scene, the protagonist Neelkantha Bagchi was offered a glass of imported liquor by the commercially successful writer Satyajit Bose  the phonetic resemblance of the name clearly indicating a contemporary “former” communist writer. Neelkantha refused the glass and bantered, “All my body hair will fall if I drink it”. Ritwik’s utter economic needs compelled him to join the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune as Vice Principal in 1965. He spent eighteen months there and established himself as an excellent teacher but his outspokenness and uncompromising nature was totally inapt for an administrative governmental post. Soon he resigned and returned to Kolkata leaving behind his notable students Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Sayeed Mirza. 

Even in his worst physical, mental and economic conditions Ritwik continued to dream of being a people’s artist and was astonishingly optimistic with full of new ideas. The way he completed his last two films, struggling with the grave health conditions is simply unbelievable. After a continuous seventeen days outdoor shoot for Titash Ekti Nadir Nam he ultimately collapsed by a near-fatal attack of phthisis and was evacuated by a helicopter straight into a hospital where he had to spend several months under treatment. While filming and acting in the main role of Jukti Takko Aar Gappo, he was vomiting blood in regular intervals. All these examples are the evidence of his commitment and sincerity towards his work. It is appropriate to recall the observation of the eminent poet and journalist Samar Sen on Ritwik:

"Quite a few artists are lingering around by virtue of progressiveness. Ritwik, keeping in mind many of his weaknesses, was in no way a spurious progressive."

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