JAGO HUA SAVERA / THE DAY SHALL DAWN (India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, 1959, Dir. A. J. Kardar) – The Cosmopolitan Intersections of South Asian Neorealism

7

“This is the path of the spirit paved with thorns and stones. This is man’s shadow. This is night. But morning will come…” – Khalil Gibran

Gibran’s poetic words point to a cycle of endurance, a battle to survive. This quote from Gibran is juxtaposed over the image of fishing boats at night, navigating the dark waters so to eek out a living, to sustain a village in which fishing is the lifeblood. The recently unearthed Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn, 1959) seems to be yet another reason why South Asian cinema’s intersections with neorealism remain somewhat irresolute. Most conversations regarding Indian neorealism tend to centre on two films – Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). Both of these films, directed by Bengali filmmakers, show a debt to Italian neorealism and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). Although Ghatak’s work could be tentatively argued in terms of a neorealist aesthetic, his style was more eclectic, hybridised and fragmented. Arguably, Nagarik (1952) is possibly the film with the most salient neorealist dimensions of Ghatak’s work, following in the burst of realism initiated by the IPTA in the late 1940s.

If we bring A. J. Kardar’s Jago Hua Savera into this group of Indian neorealist films, it is important to note that most of these films came from the East of India, many from Bengal. Jago Hua Savera was a co-production between Pakistan and India, and what also makes it unusual are the contributions of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz for script, dialogue and lyrics (unfortunately none of the songs have subtitles) and the cinematography by esteemed DOP Walter Lassally. In fact, Jago Hua Savera was one of Lassally’s first credits as a DOP as a full-length feature, and evidences the fresh realist style that he had developed as part of The British Free Cinema movement with Lindsay Anderson, Karl Reisz and later new wave cinema of the 60s with Tony Richardson. I am  very intrigued by how Lassally got involved with the project. It is worth noting the sound recordist John Fletcher was also part of Free Cinema, having worked on experimental shorts like Nice Time (1957) with directors Alain Tanner and Claude Goretta. Moreover, the editor, Bill Bouvet, was also British. In this respect, the international make up of the crew certainly demonstrates a cross-cultural and cosmopolitan collaboration that was perhaps unusual for the time in India-Pakistan.

The film is simply about the lives of fishermen in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The opening title reads:

‘Filmed on location at Saitnol, on the banks of the river Meghna – 30 miles south, as the crow flies, from Dacca, in East Pakistan’.

Mian (Zurain) is a fisherman with a growing family, as the titles tell us. His wife, Fatima (Shamsun Nihar), is physically impaired. Mian’s close friend is Kasim (Anees), an orphan who is in love with Mala (Tripti Mitra), the sister in law of Mian, and who comes to stay and help after Fatima gives birth. Kasim is impetuous but loyal to Mian. A principal character is Ganju (Latif) who is obsessed with the dream to own a boat, a threadbare goal that seems to characterise all of the fishermen including Mian. Ganju is a symbol of destitution. When Ganju’s boat arrives, he is too ill to enjoy the fruits of his labour and later dies. This is what awaits the fisherman in Saitnol; a painful ending to a miserable existence, which is dictated by the terms of Lal Mian, a slimy moneylender (Kazi Khaliq) who owns the fishing rights to the territory. Lal Mian also has his eye on Mala and hopes that he can convince Mian to let him marry her.

In one sequence, when the fishing rights of Saitnol are auctioned, Lal Mian outbids everyone and retains control. While the fishermen want to see an end to Lal Mian’s rule, they do not have the economic resources to outbid him. After Lal Mian retains the fishing rights, he has a monopoly over the village, and goes about charging extra from the fishermen. Kardar uses a record book of anonymous thumbprints as a symbol of bondage and enslavement that stretches back generations. What Kardar captures so effortlessly is the minuet of the fishing village, charging his narrative with pseudo-poetic neorealist imagery – the boats swaying on the river, the disparate joys of a local mela. Such affection is punctuated by moments of anguish, destitution and fortitude like when Mian attempts to buy a fishing boat but only to realise he does not have enough money or a dying Ganju caressing his newly built boat which he will never sail. Indeed, melodrama often seems to be the element that complicates the neorealist tendencies of films like Do Bigha Zamin but Kardar manages to steer clear off such trapping, perhaps until the final moments as Ganju’s boat is taken away, a rare instance of sentimentality creeping into the film.

However, Jago Hua Savera, made in 1959, seems to have been the culmination of the neorealist moment in South Asian cinema, intersecting along a cross-border creative exchange. Moreover, the international cast and crew, drawing on artists from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Europe, also situate the film in the realms of international art cinema that was emerging more fully in the late 1950s. Ghatak would return to a similar milieu in his opus Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titas, 1973), exploring the lives of fisherman in Bangladesh and perhaps is indebted to Kardar’s film, notably the stark compositions of landscapes. The pared down, observational approach Kardar takes to the fishing village makes it at times feel as if we are watching a documentary, an ethnographic study but one that is enthralling nonetheless. If Ghatak’s film seems indebted to Kardar then we can also reason Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), a classic Italian neorealist work that documents the tribulations of fisherman in a remote Sicilian village, was an influence on both of these films, and returns to the question of exchange that occurred between South Asian filmmakers and Italian neorealism in this period.

Kardar’s brother was Abdur Rashid Kardar, a famous and influential filmmaker and producer who started in the silent era as a producer and then later directed mainstream films like Shahjahan (1946), Dillagi (1949) and Dulari (1949). There is an excellent article by writer and curator Ali Nobil Ahmad published in The Guardian (2016) which drills down into the production history of the film. 

 

TIKLI AND LAXMI BOMB (Dir. Aditya Kripalani, 2017, India) – Sex and the City

tikli and laxmi bomb

The hectic roadside at night is a connective urban tributary in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a brazen, atypical and bleak observation of sex workers in Mumbai. Given the rise of female centred narrative cinema and the strong female protagonist, a cycle of films including Lipstick under my Burkha, Pink, Piku, Anarkali of Aarah, NH-10, Margarita with a Straw and Tumhari Sulu point to a shifting acknowledgment of the growing power of the female audience at the Indian box office. Many of these films take up a centre ground, mixing idioms from popular Hindi cinema with indie aesthetics. Although Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is a stylised work, based on director Aditya Kripalani’s third novel, the richness of the inner lives of the characters including the tangential bit players maps a sprawling tale of despair that recalls Nair’s powerful Salaam BombayTikli and Laxmi Bomb has already attracted critical acclaim and is likely to do well on the festival circuit but the urgent themes it deals with suggests this is a film that deserves a wider international audience, not necessarily a specialist one.

Both of the leads Vibhawari Deshpande (Laxmi) and Chitrangada Chakraborty (Tikli) are superlative, exuding a raw, unfiltered energy that is both darkly humorous and endearingly human. Mostly shot at night and on location, and which gives the film a luminous aesthetic sparkle, director Aditya Kripalani contests the conventional sordid milieu often associated with the world of the sex worker, whereby the gender struggle over space becomes an extended metaphor for the reclaiming of a feminist solidarity. The periodic structure of the narrative lets Kripalani move freely across the lives of the characters, depicting the unceasing threat of rape and violence the sex worker faces and from which they have little protection given the fraudulent system is aligned against them from all vestiges of power including the police. The extended homage to the painful contradictions of the city of Mumbai is a subtext that Kripalani mines thoughtfully in themes of anonymity and the displacement of the migratory worker. This recalls Salaam Bombay, and more recent works like Dhobi Ghat and Peepli Live, while the visibility of the sex worker gives these two intertwining themes a strikingly gendered edge.

But sadly Tikli and Laxmi’s revolution is short lived, terminated with a terrifying retribution, and which sees realignment in the social order of things. Just like Chillum is replaced at the end of Salaam Bombay, extenuating the expendable nature of such socially and economically vulnerable people, Kripalani grapples with a similar kind of political symbolism, thereby reiterating poverty, hunger and inequality that feeds such a cruel, blighted system is cyclical and impossible to transpose.

DEUX JOURS, UNE NUIT / TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (The Dardennes, 2014) – Try not to breathe

two days one night

Two Days, One Night continues an abiding interest in female driven narratives which has marked many of the films directed by The Dardennes. Could we call Two Days, One Night the final part in a trilogy of films, started in 2008 with The Silence of Lorna and also including The Kid with a Bike, that depict women in crisis? It might be detrimental to suggest such a pre-determined logic to the trajectory of The Dardenne’s career since the term trilogy is often associated with the mainstream blockbuster. One could only argue for such a trilogy based on what the Dardennes do next so we will have to wait and see if such an arbitrary categorisation could be made in the future. Two Days, One Night is a film about breathing and knowing how to breathe when faced with the most dreaded of anxieties – the ever present threat of unemployment.

If the Dardennes style of cinema could be labelled as naturalistic then their ideological agenda certainly recalls neorealist cinema especially Italian neorealism from the 1940s. The spectre of Antonio from Bicycle Thieves haunts the cinematic landscapes of realist cinema, resurfacing this time in Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who is made to relive similar anxieties, that of unemployment, poverty and personal failure. More than De Sica the Dardennes focus on the behaviour of Sandra in terms of her bodily reactions edging closer to a kind of corporeal cinema with the camera pausing at every opportunity to detail Sandra’s nausea. Her sickness is a direct manifestation of the current recession; the end of long term job permanency has left many in a state of unease, living in fear of being unemployed or worse redundant. All of this is channelled through Sandra’s fragile state, teetering on the brink, shutting herself away, sleeping, hiding, retreating into medication to numb the senses. Just as Antonio has to depend on Maria and Bruno so that he could deal with the anxiety of personal failure, Sandra is supported both emotionally and physically by Manu, her husband.

This is a political work just like many of the best neorealist films but it is political without being political. Politics emerge metonymically, through human behaviour and interaction which becomes integral to the way we respond to Sandra. The politics are in the way characters talk to one another, pause to reflect on decisions, carry boxes of pizza out of a car, and simply in the most overlooked of cinematic gestures/motifs – walking. Like Bicycle Thieves and many other Dardennes films this is a film about walking, but not just about showing Sandra walking, but to show her walking endlessly becomes a profoundly human action, that gradually becomes imbued with a dignity. Just in the way De Sica and Zavattini made Antonio realise his own self worth and the poverty of his fellow class by having him undergo an odyssey of sorts Sandra undergoes a similar ritual. By visiting her colleagues Sandra sees a new truth about her own position within a wider nexus of economic and social bankruptcy. It’s the same for Antonio in Bicycle Thieves – on many occasions he is faced with a poverty worse than his own.

Sandra’s journey is a personal one from the outset but it becomes a fable about the politicisation of an individual since by the end of the film Sandra realises what is at stake is more precarious, fragile and sacred than her own predicament – it is at this point do we see the film at its most political, its most transparent and its most moving. In truth the Dardennes raise questions concerning community, solidarity, exploitation and power, which are also some of the defining ideological themes of realist cinema and of course the eponymous melodrama.

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

ghatak

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.

60244009

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

Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 15.08.12

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