Director: Ritwik Ghatak
Production: Chitrakalpa; colour, 35mm; running time: 126 minutes.
Screenplay: Ritwik Ghatak, from the book by Shaktipada Rajguru; photography: Dinen Gupta; editor: Ramesh Joshi; music: Joyotirindra Moitra; sound: Satyen Chattopadhyay; art direction: Rabi Chattopadhyay.
Supriya Chowdhury (
); Anil Chatterjee (
); Bijon Bhattacharya (
); Gita Ghatak (
); Guita De (
); Dwijen Bhowal (
); Niranjan Roy (
); Gyanesh Mukherjee (
); Satindra Bhattacharya (
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Joseph, Josephine, editor, Ritwik Ghatak , Madras, 1990.
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Singh, M., Cinemaya (New Delhi), 1989.
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Stein, E., "Cinema as a Weapon: Ritwik Ghatak's Unknown Masterworks," in Village Voice (New York), vol. 41, 1 October 1996.
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Kemp, Philip, "Cloud-capped Star: Meghe dhaka tara ," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 7, no. 9, September 1997.
* * *
Meghe dhaka tara is a film about displacement and exile. It is about the displacement of peoples who have been uprooted in the wake of India's partition which followed her independence in 1947. It is also about the exile of the classical, creative and feminine principles which, despite their nurturing potentials, find themselves being ruthlessly edged out of the socio-cultural space.
Meghe dhaka tara is a seminal film in the history of Indian cinema for more reasons than one. First and foremost, it looks at the cultural and political formations which the topographic break in the life of the peoples of India seems to put into a major crisis. The partition of India remains one of the most traumatic divisions of peoples in recent history. In also resulted in unprecedented diaspora. In the film the crisis, however starkly lived, is viewed against the evocative simultaneity of mythic presence. Even the bare documentative inserts of buildings, offices, pavements and roads seem to invoke a poetic conscience. It is not, as has been stated by many Indian commentators, a film that "returns to the epic." On the contrary, it is a work that definitively opens up a new cinema of the "grand poetic conscience." The epical references are not opened up for historical enlightenment but to deepen the very grain of existence that has become increasingly vulnerable. The film, therefore, addresses the question of nationality mainly within the modes of memory and melodic excess and disavows a direct referentiality and, hence, a rhetoric of identity. In a way, it marks the beginning of Ghatak's remarkable contribution to the rich Indian melodramatic tradition. He pushes melody into the space of memory; movement-gesture into the space of myth. It is also a film that pushes the debate about nationality beyond the realm of ideological certainties. Unlike a conventional epic, it dissolves facial iconicities into sound which works through a dialectic or relay between melody and dissonance. The dissonance and distortion flow from the state of imbalance into which the image has found a fleeting sense of home almost like the uprooted refugee. Almost the entire film is shot with a 16mm lens. The film again and again arrives at haunting close-ups till they finally appear as the masks of light beyond the reality of socio-political space.
Meghe dhaka tara is woven around the life of a refugee family in a resettlement colony in Calcutta. Uprooted from the other Bengal during the partition, the family is pushed to the margins of middle class existence and is barely able to keep itself together. More specifically, the narrative unfolds through Nita—the eldest daughter and the sole breadwinner of the family. The basic narrative structure of the film is laid out in terms of eight movements in which Nita is
There are no more options left for Nita except that she be carried to the bills (the childhood romance having now given way to the desperation to somehow survive). As if in a ritual return to nature— the cultural gamut of life having slipped out of her hands almost fully. The reference, here, is to the goddess of Durga's immersion in the holy river after she has sojourned at her father's place for a fortnight. Nita's father and elder brother, Shankar, who have been closest to her, repeat the ritual in all its melodic/melodramatic excess and, consequently, associations of memory. This is the point in the film where, the physical spaces having completely recoiled from the terminally ill Nita, the cinema intercedes to receive her within the virtual space of the film frame, her lover having deserted her; her own young sister having usurped her place in the failed relationship; her younger brother having left the house to stay in the factory's dorm because of better food; her elder brother having left the house to protest against the injustice done to Nita by the entire family. Nita's descent into despair is thus complete. Even as she prepares to merge with an indifferent nature, cinema moves in compassionately to save her.
The motif of exile is also extended to the classical-romantic order to which Nita's benign and nostalgic father belongs. He seems to revel in the joyous and dramatic shifts which characterized the 19th-century Bengal renaissance where the folk articulations seemed to hold as much sway as the poetry of Keats and Wordsworth. He lapses into insignificance not being able to negotiate new forms of sociopolitical aggression. Yet another exile that eventually carves a niche for himself within the new world is the initially marginalized elder brother, Shankar, who is aspiring to be a classical vocalist. However, he is the one who is able to negotiate the new world in successfully asserting the dignity of the classical-romantic mode of being. Nita's anguished cry professing her desire to live even as she is facing death is to be understood within the context of this assertion of dignity. It is not possible for the feminine, creative and classical-romantic principles to survive in any other, prosaic manner. The call is, as such, extendable to the people who have been so brutally split along two zones despite belonging to the same melodic memory-resonance.
Meghe dhaka tara forms part of a larger trilogy which Ghatak made around the theme of displacement and exile. It was followed by Komal gandhar ( E Flat , 1962) and Subarnarekha (named after the river Subarnarekha, 1964). The theme of partition and cultural split and the schism within the Indian Left and its cultural wing IPTA (the Indian People's Theatre Association) was at the core of all three films. It was taken up yet again with the traumatic birth of Bangladesh when Ghatak returned to the material energy of the Bengali culture to create Titash eki nadir naam ( Titash, the Name of a River , 1972).