For over forty years now, cineastes in India have been divided into two, seemingly mutually exclusive, camps – Rayites and Ghatakis. The former will tell you Ritwik Ghatak didn't have the versatility of Satyajit Ray, while the latter will tell you with the toneless voice of someone in a trance, "Ray became irrelevant when I found Ghatak." A small club of film-lovers, held in distaste by both camps, will reason, "See, Ray is the better storyteller, and Ghatak is the better technician."
I've never found the motivation to compare two men of their calibre, who held each other in such respect. However, what strikes me most often about both is that their legacies have this in common – the films held to be their masterpieces are so much less subtle, poignant, and powerful than some of their lesser-known works.
The film most commonly associated with Satyajit Ray, both in India and outside, is Pather Panchali, the first part of the Apu Trilogy. And the one from Ritwik Ghatak's rather smaller repertoire of nine films that features in most 'Best of' lists is Meghe Dhaka Tara. As it happened, these were among the last films I saw of the works of Ray and Ghatak. And perhaps I was lucky in that. These two movies struck me as signature works, carrying the stamps of their makers, but most of my favourites from their stables had bombed at the box office.
My acquaintance with Satyajit Ray's work began with the Feluda film Shonar Kella. The music, composed by Ray himself, the beautiful drawings, the juxtaposition of exaggerated facial expressions against understated, natural acting, and the whimsical use of landscape in a detective story had a certain draw that made me feel I was onto something I had never come across before. But I realised the impact the film had on me only when I went to Sonar Quila in Rajasthan, five years after watching the movie. I could recall snatches of dialogue, and particular action sequences, as I walked through the village within the Golden Fortress.
The second Ray film I saw was Goopy Gyne, Bagha Byne (1968), the hilarious story of two castoffs whose encounter with the King of Ghosts leaves them with the gift of music, and the magical use of teleportation. This fable of two simpletons, a lazy king, an evil magician and a cruel ruler may easily be classified as comedy, but Ray's ability to blend genres is perhaps most apparent in the first edition of this to-be-trilogy (Ray would direct a sequel Hirak Rajar Deshe twelve years later and his son Sandip would direct Goopy Bagha Phire Elo, written by Satyajit Ray, in 1991). The mesmerising dance of ghosts to a tribal beat, complete with its ingenious representations of these haunting figures, delves into the realm of fantasy. The lyrics of the song Ek Je Chhilo Raja carry a depth that defies genre, and social commentary that transcends temporality.
So where was the Ray whose films people spoke of, sometimes in ecstasy and sometimes with shudders, as dark, as depressing even? Perhaps his expertise lay in instilling a sense of triumph even in the most desperate of situations. And that’s illustrated in Ray’s adaptation of Tarasankar Bannerji’s story Jalsaghar (The Music Room), into a film of the same name in 1958. He waited several months for the return of the actor he wanted to cast in the main role – Chhabi Biswas – from abroad, because Ray could envision only Biswas in the role of a landlord, Biswambhar Roy, who was clinging on to his lavish lifestyle and memories of his past glory, in an era that belonged to "self-made men", as his nouveau riche neighbour Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose) never tires of saying.
Unfolding almost as a parable for the loss of an old world, the story of the wilful landlord and his dangerous pride is told so sensitively that the viewer empathises with him to the extent of despising the neighbour, who isn't, come to think of it, that bad an egg. The contrast in their pedigree is brought out through a potent incident – as a famed kathak dancer finishes her performance in Roy's music room, Ganguly is about to throw money at her, when Roy stops him with his walking stick. Thundering that the host must be the first to bestow a gift on the performer, he gallantly hands the dancer a velvet pouch, which she receives with bowed head. Ganguly stands exposed as the mule in horse harness, and the viewer claps spontaneously.
And then, there's the second film of the Apu Trilogy, and the least successful of them all – Aparajito. In this story centred on a mother and son, Ray seemed at first to follow the norm – Sarbajaya makes sacrifices to put her son through school, skipping meals when he needs money and letting him go when he wins a scholarship. She longs to see him, and hints that a visit is overdue. Apu, enjoying the carefree life university affords him, balks at the idea of returning to the misery of their lonely little house in the village. But then Ray did what only Russian novelists had dared to do before him – he made the protagonist of his story come to terms with an ugly, almost sinister, impulse. At a time when the heroes of Hindi films would lay down their lives for the mothers who habitually lost them at fairs, Apu is overwhelmed by relief rather than sorrow when the woman who has given her all for him dies.
Several of his films examine emotions very few could have dared to portray on screen at the time – both Charulata and the ironically-titled Ghare Baire deal with extramarital relationships, and even more shockingly, the acceptance of infidelity by broadminded cuckolds. Mahanagar looks at an extramarital relationship of a different kind – that of a woman with her job. In this film, which incidentally introduced Jaya Bachchan (nee Bhaduri), Arati Mazumdar (Madhabi Mukherjee) is forced to go out and work to supplement her family's income. By no means a feminist, she tries to balance her wonder at an empowering income with concern for her husband’s ego. It's hard enough to choose between your husband and the first friend you've made by yourself. But what if your dreams for your child’s future could only be realised by emasculating your husband? And what if you're risking those dreams by standing up to your boss?
Ray was always far more popular and successful, especially overseas, than Ghatak. It could be that his cinema was that of humanism and human emotions, while Ritwik Ghatak's cinema was that of society. Ray seemed to leave his audience with questions, while Ghatak tended to push an agenda. Where Ray could have William Faulkner nodding in agreement to Jalsaghar, it's hard to imagine Ghatak preoccupied with a rich man's declining estate. His Jalsaghar would likely have made the landlord trample over a tiny plant sown lovingly by a servant's son, and then had lightning strike to highlight the horrified face of the servant, his raised eyebrows shooting towards his hairline in a frozen moment.
Strangely, though, a novice could easily be fooled into thinking a film by one had been made by the other. Their filmmaking shares a tendency to showcase society within the microcosm of a family, as well as the technique of doing this by pulling dramatically into long shots from close-up scenes. They use songs, whose tune and lyrics would enhance the symbolism in the story.
There are several points of divergence, through – Ghatak almost always had a narrator, whose words would be illustrated quite literally on screen, whereas Ray would let his music and actors do the talking. Ghatak played with angles, while Ray played with idiosyncrasies. Ghatak's camera could have us perched on a rooftop, while Ray’s would observe interlocutors addressing each other's images in a mirror. The soundtracks of Ray's films are fluid, and one may suddenly realise a sitar is playing and struggle to remember when the music started; Ghatak's soundtracks are disjointed, and one reaches for the speakers to make sure they’re working correctly, only to be assured by the hiss of the restored film that they're not at fault. And then, one realises the sudden jumps are geared towards a change in perspective required of us. That's particularly significant in the cinema of Ghatak, who was deeply influenced by Bertolt Brecht – he seems to offer the film to us to pass judgement, while Ray seems to tease our moods, seek our empathy.
I was introduced to Ritwik Ghatak’s filmmaking through Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Named Titash). Made in 1973, just three years before Ghatak's death, it was filmed when the director was already suffering from the tuberculosis that would eventually claim his life. Just out of my teens and barely familiar with the political context, leave alone social context, of East Bengal, I didn't quite grasp the import of the film on my first viewing, but it left me deeply disturbed.
Searching for reviews and analysis proved rather fruitless at the time. Later, I would learn that it was based on a book by Adwaita Mallabarman, one of the few people from the Malo fishing community who had gone outside to get an education. Mallabarman never left Calcutta once he arrived, but he returned through his novels to the lives of fishermen in his homeland, to the banks of the Titas river in Brahmanbaria, Bangladesh. I would also learn that, in Ghatak’s own words, he sought to highlight this motif: "Could the civilization be destroyed forever? No it isn't. It's transformed." I don’t see the film that way, though I probably should, given that Titas hasn’t yet dried up, forty years later.
It's a simple enough story, but its allegorical implications have been extended to several socio-political events, from the Bengal Partition to Independence to the exploitation of the Zamindari system. A young Malo fisherwoman, Basanti, is waiting to marry her childhood friend, Kishore. But a sudden turn of events on a fishing trip leads to his marrying Rajar, a woman from another village, and Basanti resigns herself to marriage with another man. Neither she nor Kishore is destined for nuptial bliss, and several deaths later, Basanti finds some purpose in bringing up Kishore's son Ananta. And yet, this happy compromise is unacceptable to her family, just as a larger compromise fails to appeal to the landlords, who prey on the river to extract their rents from the fishermen, till, as the narrator says, "it may not even have the last drop without which our soul cannot depart."
Ghatak's best known film Meghe Dhaka Tara is another illustration of a recurring theme in his work – that of a single woman who longs for male support, but finds herself in the role of provider instead. He repeats frames and incidents to symbolise the cyclical nature of life – the sheepish smile of a woman as her slipper tears and she shuffles along, unwilling to spend money on a new one; a complaint from a snarky wife at having to move to smaller house, as the optimistic man of the house promises it's a temporary arrangement, till he finds a job next month; a dry riverbed that is a nightmare in one scene and reality in another; a verdant field that is reality in one scene and a memory in another.
Nagarik (The Citizen), his first film, made in 1952, but released only after Ghatak's death, tackles the theme of exile that was so predominant in the work of the filmmaker, who himself left East Pakistan for India. But the exile he looks at in this film is a slow, downward spiral that a family is sent into after a series of mishaps. What one may at first attribute to unfortunate circumstances, later becomes a symptom of a universal malaise that will spare no one in a land rich in mineral resources, but governed by nepotism.
However, Ghatak was capable of intensely personal, quirky storytelling too, albeit within a particular landscape. His Ajantrik, which is translated as differently as The Unmechanical, The Mechanical Man and Pathetic Fallacy, is essentially the story of a man and his car. The small-town taxi driver Bimal treats his 1920s Chevrolet as a companion, even naming it Jagaddhal. With minimalistic dialogue, and experimental sound design, the film projects both the car and the driver as carriers of technology – the man and the machine progressing past a rural setting, leaving behind tribal dancers as they reflect on their own growth. Several critics have spoken of Bimal as the inspiration for Narasingh, the jaded, cynical taxi-driver played by Soumitra Chatterjee in Satyajit Ray's Abhijaan, who himself is seen by Western critics as a forerunner to Robert De Niro's character in Taxi Driver.
Ghatak's films are almost compulsively deemed allegorical, but the story of Subarnarekha carries no less personal tones than Ray's Nayak or Apur Sansar. Like Ray's Asani Sanket, it places people in extreme situations, partly caused by national catastrophe and partly by human instinct, and explores how they react. Subarnarekha was daring enough to bring in the idea of incest, way back in 1962. Of Ghatak's works, it is perhaps the one that most resembles Ray's bleaker films – a glimmer of hope filters through just when it appears that only misery looms ahead.
Both directors worked largely with a select group of actors. Some of these, like Utpal Dutt and Madhabi Mukherjee, worked with both Ghatak and Ray. And, over time, they seemed to mould these actors such that they would slip into whichever character they were required to play. When Charulata ends, the viewer can only imagine Charulata will continue to glide, then trudge, then hobble through the doorways of her home, humming, "Bankim, Bankim." It’s hard to associate her with the saleswoman from Mahanagar or the woman forced into prostitution in Subarnarekha. If two men could carefully separate so many characters within an actor, and separate so many layers within a story, shouldn't we, perhaps, search for these two men in their lesser known films?