PIKU (Dir. Shoojit Sircar, 2015, India)

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What would Satyajit Ray have made of Piku? There was a sundry of questions running through my head as I left the cinema. There is no doubt he would have agreed that the central female protagonist of Piku (Deepika Padukone) educes the classical Ray woman: progressive, perceptive and selfless. Some critics have commented that Piku’s unconventional characterization is not representative of Indian cinema. I’m not certainly swayed by this argument. A lineage of salient female characters can be traced to Ray and Ghatak, and also Bengali film culture. Just a desultory glance at Ray’s work is palpable enough. One only has to consider films such as Kanchenjungha, Charulata, Devi and Mahangar to recognise that Piku (yet another Ray reference to his 1980 short Pikoo’s Day) is already familiar to us a Bengali archetype. Instructively, our first introduction of Piku is framed indoors by the posterized image of Ray. Measured postmodern juxtaposition outlines the communal authorial intents of writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar framing Piku as not only an admirer of Ray (which middle class Bengali isn’t?) but also a hybrid of traditional Bengali femininity and contemporaneous designs. In some respects Piku could easily be classed as a Bengali film, as could Vicky Donor, Chaturvedi and Sircar’s first collaboration, which relatedly explored the comical gradations of contemporary middle class Bengali culture.

The comedy is arguably one of the trickiest film genres to master in any cinema. Some of the best comedies, the ones that have endured, are marked by the lightest of touches. Piku like Vicky Donor mixes comedy and melodrama, exploring relationships, this time between a father and daughter, but applying an observational approach to humour. All of this boils down to the tasty scriptwriting talents of Juhi Chaturvedi, exhibiting a definite ear for sharp, witty dialogue that never feels forced while the plot less narrative adds a welcomed fickleness. Another genre element is at play, the road movie, using the journey to Kolkata (more Ray; Nayak anyone? –although the journey is from Kolkata to Delhi in Ray’s film), exploring themes to do with ancestral origins, identity and disconnect between parents and children. If Piku is the one suffering from familial crises then her father Bashkor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan proving yet again he can almost play any type of role with grace and consistency) is a Bhadralok, a snotty, valetudinarian Bengali patriarch with a hilarious bout of constipation servilely dependent on Piku’s daughterly obedience.

It’s too soon to say if this will be remembered as one of Amitabh’s last great roles in the twilight of a singular career but it is certainly one of his most lively in years. Irrfan Khan as Rana, a wayward owner of a taxi service which he has inherited, works as the perfect antidote, striking up a relationship with Piku, affectionately emerging as the realist, an outsider who ever so often imparts a verismo that pries open the guarded mentality of both Piku and Bashkor. Irrfan Khan is a rare actor indeed; no one has been able to shift across independent and mainstream Indian cinema with such ease and success over the years. Along the way Irrfan Khan has notched up many impressive performances. He is surely one of the few actors that most directors are scrambling to work with given his consistency as an actor. Yet this film belongs to Deepika Padukone who is cast against type, delivering her finest performance to date as the vulnerable yet feisty Piku. It is a subtly modest performance, almost de-sexualizing her stardom so that the girl next-door idea notion is acutely visible yet balanced by a wit and intellect that strives for something altogether more Bengali.

Propitiously for a film dealing centrally with death (and shit) both writer and director manage to avoid the trap of mawkishness, aspiring for something sharper in an ending that is a mastery of understatement. This is a film unassumingly about people and the choices they have to make executed with an unashamed simplicity so often lacking in contemporary Indian cinema. Yet have any mainstream UK film critics mentioned this film in their recommendations of the week? No. Why should they? It’s just another film from Bollywood after all and thus deserves to be dismissed at the expense of monolithic American and European cinema.

Sunrise / Arunoday (Dir. Partho Sen-Gupta, 2014, France/India)

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Director Partho Sen-Gupta talks about the oneirophrenic space, a space that is both hallucinatory and metaphysical, realised in his latest film Sunrise with an audio-visual clarity, hauntingly rendering grief as eternal. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that used rain with such cinematic dexterity, enveloping the screen as not only an elemental motif, but also articulating apocryphal convulsions, pointing to a depravity with which no one can contest. The rain, a conjectural metonym, nearly swallows up Inspector Joshi (Adil Hussain in one of his darkest roles) who spends his nights obsessively searching for his missing daughter (kidnapped ten years ago) in the sordid back alleys of a merciless Mumbai. Synchronously, the rain, iconographic of film noir vernacular, is deployed with a Freudian intensity, crafting a discombobulated ambiance, reminiscent of Claire Denis, in which it is impossible to see where reality begins and delusion ends. As the film progresses, Sen-Gupta bravely relinquishes a cinematic orthodoxy which can suffocate a film, so that a visual schizophrenia becomes a signature, fragmenting time and space, disrupting classical notions of sound and editing, imagining a terrifying nightmare shared between Joshi, his wife and the spectral figure whom he is hunting.

While neo noir is a genre with which Sunrise has an aesthetic affinity, it is also an anti-genre film in many respects, contesting expectations, pushing the fragmented gaze of the spectator out beyond the frames. The kidnapping and trafficking of children into prostitution forms the wider social framework but this issue is never politicised and remains connected to the story so that the humanist aspects are intact. Futility, despondency and fatalism are concurrent in Joshi’s futile search, resonating noir idioms, while the oblique ethereal figure that Joshi sees in expressionistic form functions as a metaphor for depravity, a projection of nightmarish recesses inscribed with the angsts of the city. However, it is trauma, grief and loss that defeat Joshi, classic horror tropes, leading to a psychosomatic displacement juxtaposed to a troubling nostalgic introspection. It ends with Joshi in a kind of metaphysical limbo; a slave to his memories. Overall, it’s a dark and unsettling film that confounds expectations and goes into an altogether more unconventional direction which is pleasing to see.

I think this is director Partho Sen-Gupta’s second full-length feature. He debuted in 2004 with Hava Aney Dey (Let the Wind Blow) that I have yet to see. Sunrise is deservedly receiving critical acclaim and has appeared at many prestigious film festivals including most recently Tribeca. I hope it gets a UK release and one can foresee Partho Sen-Gupta developing into a very promising director indeed.

KOMAL GANDHAR aka E-Flat / Soft Note on a Sharp Scale (1961, Dir. Ritwik Ghatak)

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Komal Gandhar is the film Ghatak made after Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star, 1960) in what was the most unremitting productive phase in his career. It is also an ignored work. This stems from the film’s inclusion in Ghatak’s partition/exile trilogy and in which much of the critical dialogue has balanced on Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha (The Golden Thread, 1965). The film’s unacknowledged position in Ghatak’s oeuvre is largely unjustified. Whereas Megha Dhaka Tara’s emotional dynamics of a displaced Bengali family was borne out of a personal trauma, similar thematic interests resurface in Komal Gandhar but the major narrative focus is centred on a political engagement with key creative ideas, namely theatre, which shaped the ideological mind-set of Ghatak as a young man.

Rajadhyaksha & Willemen (1999) argue this was a film that got Ghatak into a lot of trouble as his criticisms of the theatre group in the film was in fact a thinly veiled attack of the IPTA and its inability to function decisively and coherently as an organisation. Ghatak had left the IPTA in 1955, a few years after joining, citing political differences, namely his Trotskyite views. The ideological split, along Marxist lines, in the IPTA, is reflected in the story of rival theatre groups in Komal Gandhar, and eventually the difficulty with reaching a consensus and working together is characterised in the film’s ending which sees a rupture that is nonetheless sanguine. All of this is framed against the unsettled romance of theatre artists Ansuya (Supriya Choudhury) and Bhrigu (Abanish Banerjee) who grow closer to one another over the course of the narrative. It becomes clear their affections are conjoined by a historical connection; they are both refugees living in a kind of traumatic exile expressive of Ghatak also.

This is arguably one of Ghatak’s most musical of films. Although the songs used do not last very long they are deployed experimentally, disrupting yet enunciating the sense of radical tryst that characterises the theatre group. Like Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ghatak uses the visual metonymy of the train and railroad tracks to express partition as irreparable. Another similarity Komal Gandhar shares with Meghe Dhaka Tara is the cast and crew, with many working across both projects. In many ways, Ghatak was assembling a formidable team of regular collaborators but unlike his contemporaries such as Ray who worried less when it came to finance, Ghatak would go on to complete only three more feature films.

NAGARIK / THE CITIZEN (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1952, India) ‘Film-making is not an esoteric thing to me…’

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The film is about an unemployed youth named Ramu, who comes from a middle-class family that has been turned refugee overnight by the Partition, but which nevertheless refuses to abandon its petty- bourgeois aspirations. Ramu gets saddled with the responsibilities of running the household, tending to his aged parents, getting his younger brother an education, his sister a husband: The film chronicles the slow destruction of this family as its resilence is beaten out by its hopeless situation. As the host of hurdles grows, the family is forced to sell its house, overcome its inhibitions and move to a working-class neighbourhood. 

– Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Ritwik Ghatak: A Return to the Epic, 1982, Screen Unit

Nagarik was the film that many believed had been lost. Ritwik Ghatak’s 1952 directorial debut was never released until the film was rediscovered in a very poor state and finally released in 1977:

Nagarik too, though completed was made under almost impossible conditions with crippling shortages of stock, equipment and finance. The evidence for this is plain to see in the film itself — prints existing today have been salvaged from an almost decayed negative that was found on a laboratory shelf.  

– Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Ritwik Ghatak: A Return to the Epic, 1982, Screen Unit

Nagarik has been available on DVD for a few years now, the same goes for most of Ghatak’s films. Getting access to such films is less of a question today. The major concern is the urgent need for preserving, restoring and re-releasing the films to a wider audience. Both Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star, 1960) and Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titas, 1973) were first made available in the UK by the BFI. Since then Titash Ekti Nadir Naam has undergone a radical restoration by the World Cinema Foundation and was released on Blu-ray in 2013, the first Ghatak film to be given such a specialist release via Criterion, and has also played at various film festivals in a new print. As far as I know Masters of Cinema, a specialist DVD label, also have plans to release Titash Ekti Nadir Naam later next year here in the UK.

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Ghatak also left behind many films which he never managed to finish, many of which have never been screened or perhaps have also been lost. Channel Four ran a short season of Ritwik Ghatak films a while back and screened the little seen Komal Gandhar (E- Flat, 1961), a controversial critique of the IPTA and in Ghatak’s opinion ‘his most intellectual work’, which was broadcast in a very good transfer. Even if many of the prints to these films are in a poor condition, they still deserve a proper home video release. The DVD releases of Subarnarekha (1962), Meghe Dhaka Tara, Ajantrik (The Unmechanical, 1958) and Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Reason, Debate and a Story, 1974) testify that the prints appear to be in a relatively good condition and so would not require the radical restoration demanded from a film like Nagarik. This would be an obvious first step in terms of preserving the legacy of Ghatak and protecting Indian film heritage for future generations. Furthermore, Ghatak also made many documentaries, with many never having seen the light of day. Or yet again they may have just been lost? The discovery of these films would also help to expand the scholarly work completed on Ghatak. The existence of the Ritwik Memorial Trust has been mentioned before to me but I’m not entirely sure what role, if any, it is currently playing in regards to restoring Ghatak’s films. I would not be surprised if the World Cinema Foundation and Criterion in the future restore and release more of Ghatak’s films.

Watching Nagarik for the first time was a revelation and yet did not at all feel like a debut film since Ghatak’s mastery of framing, staging and particularly his creativity with sound were already very much in place. Another point to note is that Nagarik was made a few years before Ray’s seminal Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955). Malini Bhattacharya is especially interested in this point:

Nagarik was made in 1952, and thus precedes even Pather Panchali. Yet, ever since its release, the film has generated a lot of discussion among filmgoers — discussion which, in its turn, might be the prelude to a better understanding of Nagarik and a correct historical assessment of its importance. One cannot rule out the possibility that, if released at an appropriate time, this film would have broken new ground in the history of Indian films. 

– Malini Bhattacharya, Nagarik Ritwik Ghatak’s First Film, Social Scientist

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Rajadhyaksha argues Nagarik should be positioned in the genre of what seems as ‘IPTA-realism‘. This was a cycle of realist films, appearing in the mid 1940s, that dealt specifically with social issues in both a pre and post partition India. Many of the same actors, writers and directors worked across many IPTA productions. Ritwik Ghatak was a full fledged member of the ITPA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) for many years and worked on many of the theatre productions which toured across India. Later, Ghatak became more disillusioned with the IPTA and questioned the Marxist ideological values, with much of this criticism finding its way into Komal Gandhar (1961). Nagarik like much of the IPTA output was reacting to much wider social and political contexts, notably the way feudalism was openly questioned and opposed by the lower classes in the rural heartlands of India:

The Telengana insurrection of 1946-51 had at its height brought about visions of the Independence movement itself being carried forward into full scale revolution. Following this vision, the work that emerged from the IPTA was mostly part of a definite programme for mass-mobilisation. 

– Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Ritwik Ghatak: A Return to the Epic, 1982, Screen Unit

Telengana would go on to inspire the political consciousness of a generation of Indian filmmakers often associated with parallel cinema like Shyam Benegal. In fact, the impact of Telengana would reappear in the peasant uprising of Naxalbari in 1962. It was not only political dissent that Nagarik seemed to look forward to but the film’s depiction of the relationship between brother Ramu and his sister Sita prefigured much of the family situation in Meghe Dhaka Tara. Sita’s silent agony which is largely internalised and her position as all but an outsider in the family is clearly evident in Neeta’s character in Meghe Dhaka Tara who arguably takes up a much more central role in the narrative. In many ways to fully appreciate the complex mix of characters and emotions in Meghe Dhaka Tara one has to have seen Nagarik to realise how closely they are affiliated. Perhaps the most striking difference is Nagarik’s overt political stance that it takes up at the ending, framing Ramu’s politicization in terms of a new Marxist sensibility:

And finally, the point of transformation—the acceptance of the inevitability of the class struggle. It is here that the single major intervention comes in of the filmmaker, the playing of the Internationale in the background as the family leaves the house. There is nothing to justify the optimisim with which the family faces the future, but there is a lightness in the air, a new confidence.

– Malini Bhattacharya, Nagarik Ritwik Ghatak’s First Film, Social Scientist

Currently YouTube has an upload of Nagarik (see below) complete with English subtitles. I have already downloaded the film for archive purposes. I would recommend the same if you want to hold on to Ghatak’s work as it may be a while (or never?) until his films are restored.

It is also worth mentioning that Ghatak also wrote extensively on cinema, mostly during his time while teaching at the Institute of Film and Television in Pune. Some of his writings were collected and published in a volume ‘Cinema and I’ in 1987 by the Ritwik Memorial Trust. This was the supposed to be the first in a series of publications of Ghatak’s works but I could not ascertain if further volumes were published. Unfortunately, ‘Cinema and I’ has been out of print for a while now but like his films, his writings have sadly also gone unappreciated.

Bibliography

Ritwik Ghatak: A Return to the Epic, Ashish Rajadhyaksha, 1982, Screen Unit: Bombay

Ghatak: Arguments/Stories (a dossier), Editors: Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Amrit Gangar, 1987, Screen Unit: Research Centre For Cinema Studies, Bombay