Bengali Features

The Incessant Transformations In The Cinema Of Ritwik Ghatak

This article is in celebration of my teacher’s 95th birth anniversary, which falls today on November 4th, 2020.

The earth acquiesces to us, but does not cede. We survive within its fecundity and yet find ourselves homeless. Our journey is an unceasing loss of one home after another and, often, we believe that the measure of ourselves is that loss. Ritwik Ghatak might have lived his life burning, burning within the realm of this curse, but his films seek the measure of being human in a different realm.

His cinema, first and foremost, is a derangement. If one definition of the image might be that it gathers a multiplicity together in a predetermined relationship to suggest something of significance, then an image in a Ritwik Ghatak film is an anomalous gathering of elements that question the very methods, schemes, presumptions we use to insinuate relationships and make meaning.

There’s a vast and superlative critical tradition surrounding the cinema of Ritwik Ghatak. Much of it reads the Ghatak image symbolically, immediately transforming, for instance, water, swivel of head, a tree, an airfield, into an element of some cultural narrative. But, still, thankfully not much of it pretends to be exhaustive.

Watching this resplendent sequence from Subarnarekha (filmed in 1962 but released in 1965), with its protagonist, Sita, singing Mora Dukhua, I’m aware of the time-scarred and weather-warped, dark stretch of the tarmac, speckled with luminous pools of water. The smears of water as luminous as the sky. And between the earth and sky, the brisly foliage of a small forest. The landscape holds the atmosphere of a rainfall that has not too long ago abated.

“Whom should I sing of my pain?” Sita calls. Does the landscape answer to her? Does the landscape become a somber reflection of her pain? Not at all. There is something else coming into being here.

Ghatak’s use of the wide-angle lens compresses together a large space, creating a vast panorama that my normal gaze simply would never be able to see. There is an impossible reality that now lies before me. I might not be consciously aware of this, but I do perceive that my gaze on the landscape is strangely outspread. My gaze has been transformed.

And when the camera gently pans a few seconds later, I feel my body lift and hover along as though pulled along by the movement of the camera. It’s as though the wide-angle elongation of my gaze has affected and altered my body’s experience of space as well.

The impossible landscape constructed in the film by Ghatak, as it transforms my gaze, also lifts me out of the dark distance from where I’ve been watching and draws me into the midst of itself.

And only now do we arrive in the presence of the protagonist of the film, Sita.

The pan ceases into a forceful perspective stretched out to the horizon, and in the mid-ground, just a little off-centre in the landscape, this seated figure in white, as luminous as the sky and the pools of water circling her. And, then, slowly, the camera tracks towards the figure.

This movement again streams an enormous spread of landscape towards me. Again, my normal gaze could never hold this extensive panorama. Being pulled by the camera’s track into this streaming enormous spread of landscape gives me a sense as though not only my gaze, but my body is being drawn into the presence of this figure.

Her face, implacable, is turned to the earth. A grey smudge like the rain-cloud above her.

What seems to be happening here is the gathering of the landscape to the figure of Sita. The lines within the landscape, the luminosity, the movement of the camera come together around the vertical thrust of her figure. But, despite the strong perspective, one’s vision does not easily traverse into the distance. The composition holds various smears of water, their shape, luminosity that resonate with Sita, creating a powerful tension in which vision is held back from sliding away into the distance. I hover in this tension, where each element echoes and dynamizes the other.

By creating a forceful, impossible landscape that has agitated and transformed my gaze, altered my body’s experience of space, my vision of Sita is literally enchanted.

The figure of Sita in her white sari seems to have emerged from the landscape. She’s not simply there because the location happens to be close to her home in the film. Ghatak brings us to her there because he wants us to see that she, as everything else in his films, is more than an element, a motif, a character caught in a destined tale.

Light, tree, sky water, character are not simply there. Each makes the other vibrant, alive and imbues them with density, with identity, even as they’re steadily becoming something else. Ghatak is, I believe, constantly here, as well as in all his cinema, insisting that we see his characters in the process of becoming more than characters, more than what the characters are destined for within a film, more than what the character might believe he or she is. Always more.

A character is not to be identified simply in the context of the unfolding story, but has agency in every moment of the unfolding, is mutating, growing, changing in relation to every element in the unfolding.

Another way of saying what I mean is that it’s not just that an element or character is defined by the tale, but that the tale becomes more than it believes it is in how each element, moment-to-moment, moves the tale. The tale mutates as the characters and other elements do.

I’m talking of my experience while watching this sequence and how it’s transforming me. My gaze has been widened, elongated, allowing me to focus on the figure as well as, simultaneously, see the smudges of water, the earth and sky stretched out to eternity.

Ghatak’s wide-angle composition, the movement, its rhythm brings innumerable, impossible perspectives simultaneously to my attention. My natural vision would have focused on the face, the figure, and what is around would have been indistinct. Ghatak’s composition not only transforms the landscape, but, in doing so, transforms my vision as well as my body’s relationship with space.

This strange panorama of discordant perspectives brings us into a creative nature. Not just ‘there’, ‘real’, but transmuting, a new reality coming into being before our eyes.

And transforming us.

In the very next shot, the luminousness of the sky jumps closer to my gaze. The dark earth is much less now and the figure’s luminous sari almost the same tone as the sky. The figure’s face is turned away from me. Just her torso straightens and her head rises ever so slightly to the sky.

It’s a first, tiny movement in the landscape, and it effectively alters what we read as depth. The image is flat, depth is an illusion. Depth is not familiarly stretched out beyond us, but it, too, as everything else reveals itself as an inexhaustible, mutable reality.

And something within me soars in accompaniment with that slight rise of the head into the sky.

And, then, a cut to her face: several shades darker than the sky, several shades brighter than the earth. The face swivels gently away and the illusion of depth is restored. The lens used for this shot is not as wide as earlier.

In the very next shot, wide-angle again, the earth surges from below to cover 3/4ths of the composition. The stretched, dark foreground has numerous track-like marks running in various directions into the distance. The illusion of depth is further strengthened by the small, still figure of Sita in the centre of the composition.

The preceding three shots, and the three following, emphasize the mutable play of image and reality within this sequence. They transform me.

My attempt here is not to insist that the cultural interpretations surrounding Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema need to be ignored in favour of scrupulous watching. But it’s evident that there is so much we could simply not see by seeking to quickly place our experience into predetermining narratives. I do believe that Ritwikda’s cinema forcefully attempts to show us – not simply what it evokes, suggests, means and conjures, but how limiting that could be by overlooking our moment-by-moment living experience of his films. 

Anup Singh is a graduate in Film Direction from the Film and TV Institute of India (FTII), Pune. His first feature film, Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of a River) is a homage to the life and cinema of Ritwik Ghatak. His second film is the critically acclaimed Qissa and his most recent film, The Song of Scorpions, is to be released in India early next year. 

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