For him, Hollywood might not have existed at all. – Ray
He was a heart-broken man. First the Bengal famine of 1943, then the World War 2 and finally the partition of Bengal in 1947 as India got independence, this man was at the wrong end of all these catastrophic events. A homeless man, he was compelled to come to Calcutta. He could never accept the partition of India and found a voice against social injustice in Independent People’s Theater Association, IPTA, and Communist Party of India, CPI, after moving to Calcutta in 1948. He started writing, directing and acting in his own plays such as Jwala (1951) and Dalil (1952). He also wrote several plays and translated Bertolt Brecht and Gogol in Bangla. But he was forced to leave IPTA and CPI in 1954 after a maligning campaign. He lost his voice again.
In the meanwhile, an interesting thing was happening to him. He and other aspiring filmmakers of Bengal, including Mrinal Sen, used to meet and discuss films and filmmaking at a teashop in Calcutta called Paradise Café. During these meetings, Ghatak also led the members to organize a trade union of underpaid studio workers and the technicians in Calcutta. During that phase only, he got involved with a very important film in Bengal’s cinematic History. It was Nemai Ghosh’s Chinnamul (1950) and Ghatak worked as an assistant director and actor. This was his first full-time involvement with cinema.
He was a heart-broken man. Francois Truffaut’s The four Hundred Blows (1959) had a similar story to his Bari Theke Paliye (1958). Truffaut’s film made him one of the most famous of The French New Wave and for Ritwik Ghatak, obscurity was the fate. Nagarik, the first film he made in 1953, released after his death in 1977. Pather Panchali came in 1955. Ray himself has said that, “had Nagarik been released before his Pather Panchali, Nagarik would have been accepted as the first film of an alternative form of Bengali cinema.” He was watched by students and intelligentsia but was unknown to the masses.
This cinematic journey which started in 1950 continued till he died in 1974. During these 24 years, he made only 8 feature films. Lack of money was not the cause, it was the symptom, and the real disease was his starkly realistic story line that pointedly explored the aftermath of the partition of India on Bengali society. These films were a sustained critique of the emerging petite-Bourgeoisie in Bengal and represent decidedly unique viewpoint on Post-Independence Bengal.
I am giving you the impression that he never tasted commercial success and only made commercially flop critically acclaimed art films. That is not right. His first success came through his first commercial film Ajantrik. It’s amazing to know that it was a fusion of comedy-drama and science -fiction in which for the first time an inanimate object, a car, was used as a character in the story many years before Disney decided to make Herbie films. The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema describes Ajantrik as a new investigation into film form, expanding the refugee experience into a universalized leitmotiv of cultural dismemberment and exile evoking an epic tradition drawing on tribal, folk and classical forms (Buddhist sculpture, Baul music, the khayal).
The year was 1958. And this year was perhaps the only lucky year in his lifetime. The same year he achieved his greatest commercial success as a scriptwriter for Bimal Roy’s Madhumati. Madhumati was a path breaking story based on reincarnation. This concept of reincarnation later became very popular in Indian as well as American films and has been used repeatedly. Ghatak was nominated for the Filmfare Best Story Award, his first nomination.(during those days Filmfare was a very Prestigious Award)
Though the list of his films is very short, his contribution to Cinema has huge importance worldwide. Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (1973), one of his last films, is one of the earliest to be told on the Hyperlink format, 2 years earlier than Robert Altman’s Nashville. Hyperlink format features multiple characters in a collection of connected stories.
But, he was a heart-broken man. Whatever may be the theme of his films his lead characters were always (almost) the uprooted and disposed of, homeless families, disoriented refugees, economically broken in exile etc. That is perhaps he was obsessed with the catastrophes that he had witnessed, the partition, communal riots, man-made famine and the world war. He also had to spend some time in a mental hospital after separating with his wife. He died at the age of just 50 due to extreme alcoholism and consequent diseases.
A writer, director, actor, novelist, short stories writer, and producer but attached to none. He categorically said that if he finds another medium with its reach more than cinema he would happily switch to that medium. Cinema was not an art form for him. It was a means to the end of serving people. It was merely a medium for him to express his anger to the sorrows and sufferings of his people.
In response to a question about his inspirations for his works he replied:
“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 [in my films].”
I have not touched “MEGHEY DHAKA TARA” here because that film is very close to me and I consider it one of the world’s best films made till today. That film deserves a separate write up of its own.