Amar Lenin / My Lenin (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1970, India)

‘The river and fields reverberate with the sounds of the hammer and chisel’ go the lyrics for what appears to be a popular folk song venerating the cultural significance of Lenin on the psyche of Bengal’s socialist conceptualization. Ritwik Ghatak was expelled from The Communist Party of India in 1955 largely for questioning the absence of a co-ordinated cultural front, a critique he takes up diligently in his film Komal Gandhar. Ghatak’s ideological connection and commitments to socialism remained a constant source of tension in his work. Amar Lenin, long unavailable, was made in a final period after the completion of Subarnarekha (1965), the final part of his ground-breaking Partition trilogy. This late period saw Ghatak direct a number of short documentaries with many projects left incomplete. This was also a time taken up by his stint at the FTII. Made at the behest of the Government of West Bengal in the centenary year of Lenin, Amar Lenin was made during the first phase of Parallel Cinema and like many films released in the late 1960s, the impact of political uncertainty and revolution was felt in the immediacy of a street reportage style, all of which is clearly evident in Ghatak’s approach to the documentary mode. The opening shows a peasant farmer going to a play about Lenin performed at night; all of this is juxtaposed to a song that eulogises the socialist sentiments of Lenin. The next sequence uses a harvest song cut to women milling flour, celebrating the rural and village life as a utopian space of union and solidarity. Ghatak structures the documentary around a benign peasant farmer who goes to Calcutta to join in the celebrations of Lenin which includes the inauguration of a statue to Lenin, street processions and political speeches by Abdul Razzak Khan and Dharani Goswami. As the young farmer journeys through the city he observes a rally in the which the ‘Lenin Youth Festival’ has drawn people from all corners of India.

Amar Lenin was made at a time when political activism was at its peak in Calcutta particularly with the ways in which Naxalism had galvanised a younger generation including students to take up arms and join the call for a broader cultural and social revolution in doing away with a system indebted to the old colonial traditions. The presence of both Russian and Indian delegates at the inauguration ceremony also captures the ideological alignment and sympathies expressed by socialist parties in both countries, a rare moment of broader mobilization and consent that took place before the violent repression of the Naxalite movement in 1971, fracturing the Communist Party further still in West Bengal. When the peasant farmer returns to his village, he has been galvanised with new socialist ideas, which he implements at the grassroots level, mobilizing his brothers and sisters to challenge the feudal order and overturn the tyranny of the landlords through direct action. The taking up of arms and the peasant revolt that Ghatak stages and re-enacts is a direct political reference to the Naxalbari uprising of the time and is intercut with communist leaders in Calcutta delivering empty speeches, a juxtaposition that delineated the increasing divisions and factions within the Communist Party of India at the time, with Ghatak broadly sympathising with Charu Mazumdar’s Marxist-Leninist approach of militancy. Is it any wonder Ghatak’s Naxal leaning and resolutely poetic documentary was banned in India.

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