Full Moon Fever

Sublime Reflections

Jinxed legacy of Ritwik Ghatak’s films

Partha Chatterjee*, Frontline, Volume 20 – Issue 24 :: Oct. 06-19, 2007

Ritwik Ghatak’s films, among the best in cinema history, need a saviour to reclaim them so as to preserve their enduring value.

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Ritwik Ghatak. He expressed highly complex ideas with ease.

AS a film-maker, Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976) has passed into legend. But the threat of oblivion looms over a large part of his legacy. His eight feature films and a clutch of documentaries lie in utter neglect in the tiny government-allotted flat that houses the Ritwik Ghatak Memorial Trust in the congested Chetla market in Kolkata.

The Ghatak family of Surama, 78, widow of the master, and son, Ritaban, nearing 44, are permanent residents, while daughters Samhita and Suchismita are frequent visitors along with their children. The flat resembles a ship’s cabin À la the Marx brothers. Cans of film lie on the veranda completely at the mercy of the elements. Kolkata, it must be remembered, has a trying monsoon every year.

In contrast, the legacy of Ghatak’s great contemporary Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) is assured of survival. Most of his films have been conserved, thanks to the vigorous efforts of Ray aficionado Dilip Basu, an academic based in Santa Cruz, California. He has lobbied various well-heeled individuals and institutions for funds to preserve the negatives and soundtracks of many of Ray’s films, along with other paraphernalia associated with the artist. Besides, the Satyajit Ray Society in Kolkata also works to perpetuate his memory. Ritwik Ghatak has had no such luck.

There is a body to look after Ghatak’s oeuvre. The Ritwik Ghatak Memorial Trust, formed not many years after his death and soon after Ritaban came of age, was vibrant and active from the late 1980s for a decade. Efforts were made to buy back the rights of Komal Gandhar (1961) and Meghe Dhaka Tara (1959), two of his finest and, in a sense, emblematic films, from a Kolkata film distributor, Mansatta, who had bought them from an indigent, alcoholic Ghatak in dire need of funds. Pressure was brought to bear on the distributor who was sitting on the two masterpieces. He had paid only a few hundred rupees each for the distribution rights.

Pramod Lahiri, aristocrat, bon vivant, reluctant businessman – his family owned manganese mines in Chiri Miri, Bihar – and a childhood friend of Ghatak’s, financed two films: the superb Aajantrik (1957), which bombed at the box office, and Bari Theke Paliye (1958), a (not quite) children’s film that had its moments. Since neither of the productions made any money, Lahiri, with a heavy heart, had to stop backing his friend.

Ghatak’s career post-Subarnarekha (completed in 1962, released in 1965) was a continuous trial. The war of liberation in East Pakistan, which led to the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, provided the director with the opportunity to direct and complete Titash Ekti Nadir Naam between 1972 and 1974 despite a near-fatal attack of phthisis. The producer of the film, Habibur Rehman Khan, lost his enthusiasm for the project, probably because of the delay in its completion and hence release. Its reception at the box office in Bangladesh and later on in Kolkata was tepid. Ghatak’s last film, Jukti, Takko Aar Gappo (it took four years to complete from 1971), was released in 1977, after his death.

After Ritaban teamed up with Aruna Vasudev, founder-editor of Cinemaya and currently chairperson of Ossian, two fresh prints were struck from the restored negatives of Titash…. The results, to put it mildly, were mixed. Apart from two reels that looked luminous, the rest of the footage looked decidedly muddier than what was in the 1975 print, which this writer saw in the company of the director during a retrospective of his films organised by Sanjib “babu” Chatterjee and his friends at Sapru House, New Delhi. The prints of Nagarik, his first film, made in 1952, had not been discovered then.

The dupe negative of Titash… was made with a German grant in a German laboratory. Why was such a technically mediocre print produced? Was it because the original, or mother negative of the film, had decayed in Bangladesh? Ritaban, who went to Dhaka in 1989 to search for the mother negative, discovered to his astonishment that seven reels were missing and so a dupe negative was prepared from a master positive struck from a print re-edited by the master in 1974.

Ghatak’s legacy seems to be jinxed like no one else’s. Whenever he was asked about Nagarik, about which Ray had very nice things to say, he came up with the same answer: “The negative was a nitrate-based type. It has lain untouched so long in the lab that it must be damaged beyond repair by now.”

Rediscovery of Nagarik

The rediscovery of this film makes for an interesting story. In the summer of 1976, about six months after Ghatak’s death, this writer, on a hunch, went to see Mahendra Gupt, co-producer of Meghe Dhaka Tara and Komal Gandhar and producer of Trishna (based on Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte) and Shilpi, both directed by Asit Sen, at his office on Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi. Mahendra Gupt was then running a company called Motor and General Finance. That morning, in the presence of former banker and cultural historian Akhilesh Mittal, he threw a teaser in response to the question, “Where can one find the footage and soundtrack of Nagarik?”

“Why don’t you try Mr. Khemka at the Bengal Lab in Tollygunge?” he suggested.

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One swung into action, wrote to Mriganka Shekhar Ray, indefatigable Film Society man and a genuine film-lover. His friend Mohammad Jamir, an ardent admirer of Ghatak’s work, paid in cash to clear the arrears of the deceased with the laboratory and rescued the film 24 years after its making.

But Ghatak’s words proved prophetic. The search for Nagarik had begun too late. Most of the nitrate-based negative had either turned to water in the cans or become so sticky that it would not come unstuck without irreparably damaging the emulsion. The same was true of the sound negative.

The thing was indeed damaged beyond repair. A dupe negative was made from a damaged print, from which was struck a fresh print. But this made it valuable only to archivists and scholars, not commercial distributors. Thus, a pioneering film was only rescued in a damaged form for posterity. Its merit could only be gauged by the most dedicated of cineastes.

But even in its mutilated form, there are elements in Nagarik to substantiate Ray’s positive claims on its behalf. One could still feel the surge of emotion after a (very) private screening at the cavernous New Empire cinema in Chowringhee, Kolkata, attended by four people, Mahendra Kumar, Ghatak’s talented protégé; Surama, his widow; his older daughter, Samhita; and this writer. It was clear even then that what was in hand, though of considerable merit, would not pass muster at a commercial screening. Thus, Ghatak’s earliest work is a casualty of sheer neglect.

Preserving films is an expensive business. It is a specialised job. Ironically, it costs a lot more to restore old black-and-white (B/W) films because few laboratories anywhere in the world are equipped for the job. Getting raw material – film stock and chemicals – is always difficult; precious little is manufactured for production or archival purposes.

Twenty-five years ago, the Metro Kalver Corporation of America came out with an expensive process to restore old B/W footage. Its main strength lies in “filling up” scratches and pinholes in the damaged material, presumably matching the tonal quality of the original as closely as possible.

Ghatak’s films are among the best in the history of cinema. At least five of his eight films can be classified as being of enduring value. Aajantrik, Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar, Subarnarekha and Titash… will stand the test of time, God and technology willing. There are many interesting moments in Nagarik, Bari Theke Paliye and Jukti, Takko Aar Gappo, the last a scarcely concealed autobiography.

Among his shorts and documentaries, Rendezvous (ghost-directed for Rajendra Nath Shukla; it was his diploma film at the Film and Television Institute, Pune, where Ghatak was vice-principal in 1965); Chhau Dance of Purulia; Oraon, a preparatory work for Aajantrik, shot in 1955 in Chhota Nagpur, Bihar; and Bihar Ke Kucch Darshaniya Sthaan deserve to be seen frequently.

The task of assessing Ghatak’s contribution to cinema is at once simple and complex. He did, at his best, have the ability to express highly complex, even existential ideas with ease purely through cinematic means. His best films are strewn with such moments. The scene in Aajantrik of the restored 1926 jalopy going uphill and then suddenly coming back at the camera is one. It is followed by a scene of the same car with a lovely Adivasi woman in it being pushed over a bridge while a train comes rushing out from under.

There are those prophetic scenes in Subarnarekha of the children Abhi and Rekha playing on a deserted airstrip pretending they are flying when suddenly, seamlessly, the point of view changes to that of an aircraft taking off, as seen from the pilot’s cabin. There is also the scene of little Sita walking across the lonely airstrip when she suddenly runs into a bahuroopi dressed as Mahakaal, the scourge of time, and is frightened.

Ghatak’s contribution, in short, was to bring cinema as close to music as possible in expressing the inexpressible.

The preservation of our cinematic heritage cannot be left solely to the government. The National Film Archives of India (NFAI), a state institution, has done great service in preserving the cinematic heritage of India. But it is cash strapped. Grants from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry are simply not enough for the NFAI to function effectively. Other corporate institutions and corporate bodies have to come forward with money and material if the impossible is to become possible.

The current mantra is digitisation. One can work miracles, apparently, to preserve image and sound through the video-audio process. But the high-end equipment essential for the preservation of films is extremely expensive. In any case, before even thinking of digitisation, one must have a high-quality negative and/or positive images and soundtrack, or separate images in negative and sound in optical negative or magnetic modes.

This is not a one-time cost. Funds for conservation must be available year after year. Given the dire paucity of money for the preservation and encouragement of even the so-called high arts such as music and dance, what chance does cinema, considered an ubiquitous, plebeian form of entertainment, stand?

Ghatak belongs right up there with the greats, such as John Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alain Resnais, Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard, Satyajit Ray, Kenji Mizoguchi and others. Unlike them, however, his films are in constant danger of attrition and oblivion by time, weather, neglect and the attentions of the wrong sort of people.

Being the darling of the film studies set is a decidedly mixed blessing. For one thing, it is unlikely to serve his memory or his work in any constructive way. Being seen on video by minuscule groups of people with their own agendas is no substitute for public viewing on as wide a scale as possible.

Despite several retrospectives in the last 25 years, including a hugely successful one in New York in 1996, Ghatak remains a fringe figure. It is long past the time when his work became accessible to a large, international audience. Given the dire condition of his work, only a well-organised set-up such as, for instance, the Criterion Collection could make this possible, by treating its investment as a viable business proposition. It must be remembered that Criterion brought to connoisseurs the world over a wide variety of memorable films on DVD. Ghatak’s films, in order to exist in a worthy state for future generations, need such a saviour.

*Partha Chatterjee is an internationally renowned Subaltern Studies and Postcolonial scholar. He is the current director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and a Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University in New York City. He studied political science at the University of Calcutta and the University of Rochester. He is currently working on a series of historical-anthropological studies entitled “Empire Against Terror”. His books include: The Nation and its Fragments, The Current History of West Bengal, The Politics of the Governed, A Princely Impostor, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? Email: pc281@columbia.edu

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October 11, 2007 - Posted by | Film, Partha Chatterjee, Ritwik Ghatak

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