My coming to films has nothing to do with making money. Rather, it is out of a need to express the pains and agonies of my suffering people.
Ritwik Ghatak, “My Coming Into Films”
Recovering this remembered landscape where the river and land form a continuous space of habitation is integral to rethinking the question of ownership along the swampy banks of Calcutta. Narratives, songs, paintings and storytelling are sites of claim-making that remain outside the proprietary gestures of mapping. They are sites to recover a varied range of spatial economies that maps and surveys render illegible.
Debjani Bhattacharyya, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta
A scene near the center of Ritwik Ghatak’s 1960 film Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star)cleaves open, momentarily, the harsh melodrama and reveals—like the meat of a crab whose shell has been pried from its belly—a slowly pulsing, opalescent core. A ballad with a brackish heart.
The low, dulcet intonations, already braided into the moments leading into this one, grow louder, become foregrounded. A band of four players in the center of a courtyard, a thatched roof and the moon’s glow blighting a dark, unrepentant sky. The camera closes in on the players, framing them in soft-lit low angles, and their faces—lowered eyelids and gently swaying heads—appear in repose. Lost in song.
I wasted all my good days Now, in bad times, I’ve come to the river’s edge
The river—a pulse.
I’ve come to the river’s edge Boatman, I don’t know your name Who shall I call out to?
As the singer peels away from the last syllable, his eyebrows rise, his eyes closed to the world of corrupted promises. We only see his beard, his teeth gleaming between stretched lips, his turban, the long strands of wooden beads draped along his neck. His eyebrows rise again as if drawn by a divine cord in the ether. He constructs a rhythm with the lyrics of the song, with the sound of the words, with his arching features, with the dotara in his hands and the players surrounding him. With the moon in the sky and his heart in his hands. This is the rhythm of longing inherent in bhatiyali, a style of Bengali folk song that roughly translates to “song of the river.”
The blurred shapes of the singer’s neighboring instrumentalists darken the foreground of the shot and when the camera cuts to the singer, his voice cracks as if the sky summoned a rainstorm. Trickling from this rupture: a quiet, more delicate melody. In bhatiyali, the river figures as a muse for both the lyrical content and the structure of the song. The tune is centerless, lilting and winding between the physical journey of the boatman and the metaphysical pathway of the soul.
This segment of scenes and gorgeous music glows in the heart of Meghe Dhaka Tara as if bioluminescent. In a film of explicit, theatrical opposition, this song of the wandering boatman is the singular moment of union.
Ritwik Ghatak was born on November 4th, 1925 in Dhaka—then located in the eastern part of the undivided state of Bengal. His coming of age in the ‘40s was scarred by two unspeakable catastrophes. In 1943, the British Crown’s wartime policies manufactured the Bengal famine and killed nearly three million people. Later, in 1946, the communal violence preceding the Partition of Bengal additionally displaced millions of Bengalis, including Ghatak’s own family.
In Calcutta, Ghatak joined Indian People’s Theater Association, the cultural wing of the Communist Party. Ghatak himself was born into the bhadralok (“gentlefolk”) caste—an elitist upper-caste of Bengalis who wield a disproportionate amount of control in politics and culture. The ultimately hollow values of bhadralok became the subject of much of Ghatak’s ire, and the unresolved rupture of Partition is the backdrop for his caustic oeuvre.
Meghe Dhaka Tara, released in 1960,marked the first film in Ghatak’s Partition trilogy—which also includes 1961’s Komal Gandhar (E-Flat) and Subarnarekha (The Golden Thread) from 1962. The film is Ghatak’s only commercial success both at home and internationally and unfolds the slow, sequential social and physical death of Nita, a young woman and sole breadwinner for her refugee family in Calcutta. Each member of Nita’s craven bhadralok family is a caricature of treachery in their own right, and, together, eats away at her marriage prospects, her future, and finally her health. The final moments of Meghe Dhaka Tara are unforgettable and have haunted me for years: Nita, dying of tuberculosis in a sanatorium, is visited by her brother Shankar. “Dada, ami bachte chai! [Brother, I want to live!]” she screams as the visual field bounces against the surrounding lush, forested hillside—her pleas against her own dehumanization reverberating against the indifference of nature.
Ghatak dealt in an indelicate, expressive experimentalism. It isn’t hard to understand why the French film critic Serge Daney calledMeghe Dhaka Tara “one of the five or six greatest melodramas in cinema history.” Towards incendiary ends, he drew on Brechtian theater and Eisensteinian techniques of montage and contrapuntal sound. He shunned realism in favor of the melodrama, and imbued his characters with archetypes based on contradictions in Hindu myths. He draped his cinematic worlds in soundscapes interspersed with chaos and tradition. At a pivotal point in the film, Ghatak snakes the nondiegetic crack of a whip to signify Nita’s downfall. Later, he dwells on the maudlin intimacy between Nita and Shankar when the characters sing to each other a song by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.
“In his heart and soul, Ritwik was a Bengali film director, a Bengali artist, much more of a Bengali than myself,” filmmaker Satyajit Ray once said about his friend and contemporary. While Ray became renowned as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, Ghatak died of alcoholism in 1976, when he was just 50 years old. Ghatak’s brief career nevertheless left a seismic imprint on Indian filmmakers; he taught Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, major players in the Indian Parallel Cinema movement. His untimely death followed the 1975 release of his last film Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Reason, Debate and a Story), in which he acted as a peripatetic artist, misusing alcohol, meandering towards his own death.
Ranen Roychoudhury, a musician known for his “other-worldly” disposition, grew up in Sylhet and was displaced to Calcutta after Partition in 1950. Like Ghatak, he was born into an upper-caste family and later became active in the Communist Party and Indian People’s Theater Association. When he migrated at 25, Roychoudhury brought with him the songs he had learned from itinerant baul singers, infusing his own emotions with the twinkling mysticism of the music.
In the center of Meghe Dhaka Tara, Roychoudhury appears as the folk singer whose slow sway and arching features evoke a quiet transcendance. His voice, too, emerges like a lotus between his own lips—a rarity for an Indian film, where the employment of playback singers is a common practice. His sweet, lilting cries peel back the cruelty of the melodrama, and present the beating heart of Ghatak’s humanism.
Moushumi Bhowmik, a musician and researcher, beautifully catalogs the relationship between Roychowdhury and Ghatak for The Traveling Archive, a digital library of field recordings on folk music in Bengal. Bhowmik translated Roychowdhury’s essay on Ghatak, in which he noted the special bond that they shared as artists who had witnessed the dissolution of their homeland. Of the first time they spoke, Roychowdhury wrote, “Ghatak kept [me] on hold and listened to song after song and with each song [I] sang, the impassioned director said, ‘I want this one, too.’”
I enjoy imagining this moment, rolling it over like a clay bead in my mind. I picture Roychowdhury in a thin cotton shirt on a cool day, the hairs on his arms standing up because of the temperature. I picture Ghatak, shrewd-looking and prone forward. I picture the skin on his neck becoming gooseflesh because of the enormity of his feeling. I picture these two men nurturing each other’s shared loss of homeland with the gifts of their artistry. The late afternoon light dappling their shadows against the wall of the film studio. A softening.
Calcutta is nestled in the largest delta in the world, made up of the combined river system of the Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna River. Environmental historian Debjani Bhattacharyya traces the history of fixing property in Calcutta’s mobile landscapes of marshes, bogs, alluvial deposits, and rivers. Her work is stunning, and destabilizes the bureaucratic, colonial logics of land which conceive of land as distinct from water. She writes:
Landmasses in bays and coastal areas have a different relation with water. The landmass flows, moves, and challenges the fixities of cartography, ownership and territorial sovereignty.
Bhattacharyya uplifts the vernacular, mythic, and folkloric imaginary into the project of understanding Bengali riverine relationships. Her analysis excavates a rich, fluvial vocabulary of watery world-making. The river is the intermediary between life and death, a space where sacredness balances a finger on the floating marketplaces of everyday life.
“River crossings in Bengali folk songs imagine habitations in the life beyond the earthly one,” Bhattacharyya writes. She parses the familiar metaphor of the boatman and winding river by reflecting on a song from rural Bengal that was popularized, she notes, in the late 20th century.
When I find Ranen Roychoudhury’s song in the center of Bhattacharyya’s book, a swollen knot forms in my throat. I can hear his voice flowing as if it was poured from a copper vessel; it is made of honey and blood and salt water. Bhatiyali songs are notably unlike classical devotional songs of praise and worship. They encompass the boatman’s total and complex relations with the land, describing toil and drudgery, and the treacherous storms and floods that permeate one’s journey. They are also laden with vibrant images of lotuses, fish, elephants, water lilies, and crocodiles—an archive of “nonpropertized” human relations with the land.
This is an emotional project for me. I am tracing the arc of a song that has haunted me from its first bubbling in the heart of Meghe Dhaka Tara. It leads me to the cicatrix of Partition that bonded two displaced artists, Ghatak and Roychowdhury. It drifts me along in the spirit of a lonely boatman down the rivers and marshes in Calcutta—a place that I’ve heard stories about since childhood, but never been to myself.
The pandemic brought to the fore that my relationship with my family of origin has moved past “not in contact” to “estranged.” Old films are my main point of access to connecting with the worlds of my parents and grandparents. The very few really good memories that I have with my parents are of watching movies. I remember the salty snacks we’d palm from a wooden bowl, curled up in front of a bootleg copy of a movie from the Indian store. As a family, however, we tended towards the patient realism of Satyajit Ray’s films—I remember my father once applauded his lack of “dirty stuff.” It wasn’t until college that I encountered Ritwik Ghatak’s work, and discovered his raw, frenetic vision. His corrosive anger.
I’ve been thinking about the multiverse of cycles, inheritances, and histories. What I call the multiverses of muck. The image—an interior unspooling—came to me as I walked in the park near my apartment and considered that each tree grew from its own root systems’ consumption of detritus. That for every tree, there were infinite possibilities of other trees, and infinite, but specific and varied, histories of digestion.
I was high, trying to escape the monotony of the pandemic, and perhaps also trying to contend with the unsettling opacity of my family history. Like Ghatak, I also come from a bhadralok family, and have unearthed our shared legacy of violence through their silences. Ghatak’s pained parody of casteist arrogance shines in Meghe Dhaka Tara like a knife. The relationships between Nita’s family are dramatically distilled to crass economics and even Nita’s lack of self-preservation seems to be evidence of Hinduism’s deep conservatism.
In December 2019, a West Bengal youth chapter of the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party used clips from Ritwik Ghatak’s Partition Trilogy on social media. This was a foolish attempt by the conservative party to appropriate the Leftist director’s films in support of the Citizenship Amendment Act, a bill that creates a pathway for citizenship explicitly for non-Muslim refugees. This bill, along with the National Registry of Citizens in the state of Assam, renders thousands of people, most of whom are poor Muslims, stateless.
Members of Ghatak’s family vehemently objected to the BJP’s use of his footage, claiming that it violated his fundamental politics. It’s a perverse twist in line with Ghatak’s own cinematic plotting that a fascist political party would use his footage in a propaganda video supporting their movement towards ethnic cleansing.
Even for his prescience, I wonder if Ghatak would be shocked at the cruelty of our world today, the fissures in social relations that have only widened. Perhaps he would see our reality as the inevitable culmination of fractures which never healed.
But the gleaming node of Ranen Roychoudhury’s voice blooming from the heart of Ghatak’s muck—it feels like an offering from another world that is actually wholly, historically rooted in our own. This offering grows from the depths of the delta and holds the toil of the itinerant boatman, the scent of the wetlands, the flora and fauna and moods of the seasons, which dictate the rhythm of life. This offering is a moment of pause and connection; it is the connection that the impassioned alcoholic director Ghatak felt with mystical, wayward Roychoudhury in the wake of the trauma of Partition. It holds the reality of the caste privilege that led to Ghatak’s ability to make this movie, though he saw very little commercial success in his life.
The song of the mournful boatman urges something in my heart. It evokes the multiple, itinerant histories of Bengal, which I am removed from, but belong with me. Which I am complicit in, and seek inspiration from. It urges me, importantly, to continue wandering towards those gleaming truths that light my way.