A River Called Titas

(Titas Ekti Nadir Naam, Ritwik Ghatak, Bengal, 1973)


River of No Return


A River Called Titas begins with a dedication to “the myriad of toilers of ever-lasting Bengal”. But is there anything ever-lasting in the cinema of the great Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976)? His films track the slow, painful deterioration of places, communities, personal relationships; his characters separate (less by choice than circumstance), wander, go mad. Even that mighty river of the Titas begins “behaving strangely”, as if in response to the general disintegration of all things; in haunting, indelible images, Ghatak shows us its increasingly visible, dried-up bed …


But, although Ghatak offers us the sad spectacle of the passing of a way of life – in this case, the fishing industry in the village of Gokannaghat on the banks of the Titas – he is not nostalgic or sentimental. His films are dedicated to dramatising and revealing the reality of incessant change, on both personal and social levels. Change registers as invariably tragic in his work, but also inevitable, unstoppable. Ghatak’s viewpoint was, in his time, unique; as the scholar Moinak Biswas has observed, Ghatak takes a long, hard look at the ravages wreaked by modernity (the many, complex alterations to the social fabric introduced throughout the 20th century) – but he does so precisely as a modernist, an artist who passionately believed in the salutary shock of newness, of perpetual innovation, and of political revolution.


By 1973, however, the socialist and communist ideas of social reform that nurtured Ghatak’s young adult sensibility had evolved into a complex, often paradoxical mixture of commitment – he always proclaimed his belief in a useful cinema that would, in some way, serve and help the dream of a better world – and disenchantment. This bittersweet mood, peculiar to his films, doubtless prompted his reflection that A River Called Titas amounted to the lesson that “history is ruthless” and that, of the world he recreated there, “it is all lost. Nothing remains”. A river of no return.


Ghatak’s life and his sensibility were marked by historic trauma; this trauma became the basis for, and the substance of, his work in all media: theatre (like Mrinal Sen, he worked with the Indian People’s Theatre Association in the 1950s), writing (his Stories appeared in English in 2002), film. He spent his adolescence in East Bengal, and witnessed throughout the 1940s a rolling series of momentous crises: the Bengal Famine of 1943-4, World War II, multiple riots, strikes, and rebellions, the Independence movement, and finally the Partition of August 1947. After the dissolution of the British Indian Empire, the Partition split India, on the basis of religion, into the Dominion of Pakistan and the Union of India; it involved the uprooting of millions of people, many of them dying in the process. Ghatak – as the opening titles of A River Called Titas plaintively inform us – was preoccupied by these masses of often forgotten, anonymous “little people” in Bengal’s turbulent history.


Partition: the word itself has come to symbolise Ghatak’s cinema, at all its levels. Has there ever been a filmmaker so intensely, single-mindedly focused on every conceivable variation of rupture, abandonment, fragmentation? And not only at the levels of the immediate plot, or the overarching socio-historical context; Ghatak also enacted the tearing sensation of rupture in his highly composed frames, in his radical use of music and sound, and above all in his rigorous, ultra-modern editing style. How often does a scene of high drama seem to end too soon in Ghatak – the picture, music and gesture suddenly terminated, rudely snatched away from our contemplation?


Indeed, what some people in decades past saw as signs of Ghatak’s directorial inexperience, or perhaps as the limitations of the technology at his disposal, now appears to 21st century eyes (and ears) as evidence of a film language every bit as sophisticated and restless as that of Jean-Luc Godard or Lynne Ramsay. Ghatak was a poet of rupture. By 1960 and his The Cloud-Capped Star, he had fully married what are often seen as two opposing tendencies in filmmaking: a mise en scène approach based on the placement and movement of figures within the composition of the static or mobile frame; and a montage method highlighting the graphic clash of one shot against the next. In fact, Ghatak brought the montage principles of Sergei Eisenstein – whom he revered above all other masters to emulate – into both phases of the filmmaking act: every frame staged a war, and every cut tore the scene apart further.


A River Called Titas is based on an autobiographical novel by Advaita Malla Barman published in 1956, five years after the writer’s death; his reputation derived from the fact that he had struggled up from the type of extreme poverty we see depicted in Ghatak’s film. The story is set in the early 1930s, and therefore is not literally a tale of the Partition years; however, it is a characteristic trait of Ghatak’s work that he projected the trauma of Partition, diffusing it throughout the entire history that he had seen and lived. In fact, on one level, the film was very close indeed to its contemporaneous reality: Bangladesh had at last achieved its independence from Pakistan (another partition of sorts) only two years prior, in 1971. However, to some of Ghatak’s colleagues from the 1950s onwards, he seemed overly fixated on this single moment of the historic Partition: as Biswas notes, he “went on extending that event into a metaphor for everything that was alienating and destructive in the experience of his community, and talked about the pervasive degeneration of his country sometimes solely in terms of it”. Yet Ghatak’s motivation is clearer to us now: on the one hand, he was fighting the enormous fog of denial surrounding the tragic upheavals triggered by Partition; on the other hand, he opposed the simplistic celebration of progress that drove the social modernity of India.


The plot of A River Called Titas is pure melodrama – a form that, in the Indian context, Ghatak proudly claimed as his “birthright”. As often happens in his films (such as another masterpiece, Subarnarekha aka The Golden Line, 1962), everything – all passions and problems – begin in the formative years of childhood and adolescence. We are introduced to a young girl, Basanti (played as an adult by Rosy Samad), pining to one day marry Kishore (Prabir Mitra) – who is always in the company of his friend, Subol. The two men travel along the river to another village, Ujajinager, where Kishore is promptly paired off with Rajar Jhi (Kabari Choudhury). In their one, fleeting night of marital intimacy, they will conceive a child – but Rajar will hardly see her husband’s face. Back on the river, disaster strikes this union: Rajar is kidnapped. She survives and washes up on a shore, but Kishore – who has lost his mind as a result of the incident – will never know it. Basanti, meanwhile is married off to Subol – who dies the very next day. And this takes us only 30 minutes into a 158 minute film!


Not all narrative events are shown on-screen; sometimes we learn of them only retroactively (as is the case with Bisanti’s marriage). Ghatak was fond of using great leaps forward, ellipses in time, to shape his stories. The powerful, over-arching rhymes – such as the words that young Basanti hears at the start of the film about the “last drop” of the Titas, “without which our soul cannot depart”, words that return to her in the final scene – are more crucial than plodding through every detail of the action. In fact, Ghatak’s stated aim was to heighten the devices of melodrama – the outrageous developments (such as Basanti and Rajar becoming friends, completely unaware of each other’s past), the agonising coincidences (Rajar falling for the mad Kishore, again unaware of who he really is, and hoping to replace his “lost soul mate”) – and bend them in the direction of Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre. Everything in melodrama that removed events from the conscious will and power of the characters – that delivered them over to the infernal cycles of chance or Fate – had a potentially political significance for Ghatak. He was interested in forces larger than the individual consciousness – forces that are, at the same time, only graspable through these human intermediaries, these long-suffering victims of history.


A poet of rupture, Ghatak gave his films a palpable texture of constant shock that is almost neurasthenically intense. He was (as everyone around him knew) an alcoholic virtually from the time of Ajantrik (1958), his second feature film; prone to bouts of deep depression and periods of institutionalisation, his death at age 50 came at the end of a long string of illnesses.  These facts are not incidental to his achieved work as a film artist; indeed, there is something in the temperamental disposition of an alcoholic that helps to explain why Ghatak’s surviving œuvre remains so remarkable to us today. Ghatak was at once a sharply rational man, and a completely, uncontrollably emotional one: the dimension of melodrama that pushes towards constant hysteria offered him a way to fully enact, on screen, over and over, the traumatic experience of Bengali history.


History almost claimed Ghatak as a victim in another sense, too. At the time of his death in 1976, his final and most experimental film, Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Reason, Debate and a Story, 1974), could not find a theatrical release – his wife, Surama, later regretted not imploring Indira Gandhi (a Ghatak fan) to intervene on behalf of this cinematic testament. And, while there were isolated pockets of critical discovery of his work around the world, especially from the 1980s onwards (as in, for example, the appreciations by Charles Tesson in France), his work as a whole, and the physical elements of its image and sound tracks, fell into a state of neglect. Thanks to the work of the Ritwik Memorial Trust (especially the tireless efforts of Ghatak’s son, Ritaban), the original but incomplete camera and sound negatives held by the National Film Archive of India, plus a complete positive print provided by the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv (Berlin), A River Called Titas was restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation at Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in May 2010. This digital restoration – which includes a recreation of the opening credits – produced a new 35mm internegative.


Access to important works from the past often prompts a revision of film history – especially national cinemas – that takes the form of a polemical backlash: if only we had known decades ago that Mikio Naruse is better than Yasujiro Ozu, Boris Barnet is better than Sergei Eisenstein, and Ritwik Ghatak is better than Satyajit Ray! In reality, there is no need for such stark (and frequently absurd) oppositions, and especially not the contest between Ghatak and Ray – who admired each other’s work – to filter our appreciation of Indian cinema. But a distinction between them can still be usefully drawn. Ray’s work was an art cinema largely distinct from popular Indian fare, defined by a humanism and realism that easily travelled the world in its day. Ghatak was out on a farther margin: the avant-garde of this art cinema (and, in this quest, he inspired the formation of a veritable Ghatakian school, including figures such as Kumar Shahani). Although he explored popular forms, Ghatak never achieved, in his lifetime, much more than a cult reputation among artists, intellectuals and students; and he received little recognition beyond his home country.


It has been a long and winding road for this œuvre to become available in an optimum form, and for Ghatak’s artistic stature to be acknowledged worldwide. Surama Ghatak, recently looking upon her former husband’s burgeoning fame, wondered whether he was a soothsayer who had divined his own, better future beyond the grave; how well this image suits the maker of A River Called Titas, in which (in a ghost-story touch) “after death, the mother becomes an enemy”, because she envies the living and wants to bring them to her level. Ritwik Ghatak was a troubled soul in his lifetime; now he is the spirit that haunts world cinema with his seismographic renderings of trauma.

© Adrian Martin August 2013

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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