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.

NEEM ANNAPURNA / BITTER MORSEL (Dir. Buddhadev Dasgupta, 1979, India)

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Before Buddhadev Dasgupta became a filmmaker he was a university teacher, lecturing on economics. His association with the Calcutta Film Society in the 1960s led to Dasgupta recognising the function cinema could play as an agent of wider social agitation and potential change. Neem Annapurna was one of first films he directed. In fact, it is the only film I have seen of his to date, and the semi neorealist approach not only evokes the work of Satyajit Ray but also great Bengali auteurs like Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. The film sees a family come to the city of Calcutta from the village, a familiar enough narrative set up for a Hindi melodrama, with the dream of making a better life for themselves. However, they are confronted with stark realities of social and economic deprivation, leading to one of the bleakest depictions of poverty ever put on film. That’s no exaggeration. Shot in a raw documentary style and dispensing altogether with plot, Dasgupta is attentive to the psychological experiences of the family, articulating their suffering in an honestly, unsentimental style. The father spends his days travelling through the city looking for what work while at home his wife and two daughters wait on his arrival with the promise of food. Waiting becomes a focal point of the slender narrative situation, and Dasgupta trains his eye on the unbearable hunger that sluggishly devours the family, capturing their misery through key sequences of real horror such as the mother’s troubling decision to steal rice from someone in a worse situation. One could quite easily position Neem Annapurna alongside Indian neorealist films like Do Bigha Zamin and Pather Panchali.

CALCUTTA 71 (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1972, India) – ‘Calcutta was passing through a terrible time…’

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Conviction is a virtual necessity of any kind of political cinema especially the one that claims to magnify the ills and sickness of society. Out of the Bengali triumvirate including Ray and Ghatak, Mrinal Sen was by far the most radical, advocating a leftist Naxalite inspired ideology whilst borrowing liberally from European modernists like Godard and Brecht. Unlike the classicist style of Ray and Ghatak’s epic tradition, Sen’s response to the turmoil of contemporary Bengali politics in Calcutta during the 1970s was consolidated in the immediacy of revolutionary ideals and articulated through a distinctive ‘third cinema’ approach. Released in 1972, ‘Calcutta 71’, was the second film in Sen’s Calcutta trilogy and it is generally regarded by critics as one of the greatest achievements of the New Indian cinema movement. Another element separating Sen from both Ray and Ghatak was his anti illusionary mode – sustaining the aesthetics of realism were subordinate to the political content and most importantly, the dissemination of ideas. Like Godard and Eisenstein, Sen stripped away the classical form and traditions of cinema, revelling in a reflexive prism of Brecht inspired agitprop methods. Ray and Ghatak may have certainly laid the foundation for a new, personally engaged cinema but Mrinal Sen was instrumental in outlining a specific doctrine. Such a politically inspired cinematic doctrine was issued in the form of a manifesto by both Sen and Arun Kaul in 1968 arguing for ‘a state sponsored alternative to commercial cinema’.

In addition, Mrinal Sen’s breakthrough feature ‘Bhuvan Shome’, released in 1969, was also strategic in helping to urge the Indian government to offer greater financial support to those filmmakers struggling to be heard. Ghatak and Ray may have shared an identifiable humanism in the struggles faced by their characters yet such a sentiment was absent from the fiercely Marxist cinema of Sen who repeatedly resorted to the dissolution of the fourth wall. Of course, the danger with such strong willed political cinema is that it is typically weighed down by a polemicist tone. However, Sen avoids falling into this trap by offering us five episodes in the form of clear cut political allegories on one common theme, that of poverty. To underline how poverty shapes the psyche of Indian society and Bengali culture, Sen refuses to remain fixed in a contemporary context and shifts across a number of decades. The original running time of the film when it was first released in 1972 is 132 minutes. However, the version I watched was considerably shorter and the opening episode of a young radicalised Bengali revolutionary was also missing. The original brochure produced for the release of the film provides one of the best summaries of the complex set of political ideas that Sen explores:

Sen like Ghatak was involved with the Indian People Theatre Association and it is here that he discovered the work of Brecht, realising the possibilities of utilising art as a tool for the propagation of ideas and instigating wider change in society. Ray continues to be judged as an apolitical film maker when compared to both Sen and Ghatak. The problem with this kind of judgement is that any film maker who is placed alongside as Sen is likely to be accused of ideological abandonment. Obviously, the great weakness with a film like ‘Calcutta 71’ is the lack of emotional involvement. Parallel film maker Shyam Benegal argues that Sen’s later work is much more engaging and rounded when compared to his seventies films which he says left him cold. Of course, much of this criticism is related to the effects of Brechtian devices which are supposed to frustrate and agitate the spectator to think seriously about the ideas being explored. The film itself becomes more fragmented as we get nearer to the turbulent seventies and this reflected in the use of montage – Sen acknowledging the influence of Eisenstein. It is in the final episode in which Sen cuts between a group of middle class intellectuals and the young radical who is being chased by the establishment that the film most resembles the Godardian impulse of the late sixties.

1971 saw the release of both Sen and Ray’s first films in what would be parallel trilogies on the social and political crisis facing the middle classes of Calcutta in the seventies and much of the ideological debate was filtered through an emerging, disillusioned Bengali youth. Ray’s political anger may have remained in check for a long time but with ‘Pratidwandi’ (The Adversary) he silenced many of his critics by choosing to endorse Sen’s notion that it was the collective responsibility of cinema to respond, inform and agitate the audience. Personally, Ray’s ‘Calcutta trilogy’ is a far greater achievement than Sen’s three films and though ‘Seemabaddha’ (Company Limited, 71) is the weak link, it is ‘Jana Aranya’ (The Middleman, 75) that proves to be one of the strongest and most sophisticated Indian films of this era.

In an interview conducted by Udayan Gupta for the Jump Cut film journal, 1976, this is what Mrinal Sen had to say about why he felt compelled to make ‘Calcutta 71’:

MS: I made CALCUTTA-71 when Calcutta was passing through a terrible time. People were getting killed every day. The most militant faction of the Communist Party—the Naxalites—had rejected all forms of parliamentary politics. At the same time they had a host of differences with the other two Communist Party factions. These, in turn, led to many interparty clashes. Invariably all of the factions ignored the main issue of mobilizing forces against the vested interests—the establishment.

This was the time when I felt I should spell out the basic ills of the country, the fundamental diseases we are suffering from and the humiliations we have been subject to. This was the time to talk of poverty—the most vital reality of our country, the basic factor in the indignity of our people. I wanted to interpret the restlessness, the turbulence of the period that is 1971 and what it is due to. I wanted to have a genesis. The anger has not suddenly fallen out of anywhere. It must have a beginning and an end. I wanted to try to find this genesis and in the process redefine our history. And in my mind this is extremely political. I found a continuing link in the film—a young man of 20, uncorrupted. He has lived this age of 20 for the last 1000 years or more. He has been passing through death and squalor and poverty. And for the past 1000 years or more he has bridged despair and frustration. For him the history of India is a continuous history not of synthesis but of poverty and exploitation.

The natural and historically continuous co existence between poverty and exploitation was not the story of Calcutta in the 70s, it extended from a ‘third cinema’ perspective outlined by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. Thus, one can conclude that a film like ‘Calcutta 71’ shares a much greater affinity with the ‘Cinema Novo’ movement of the 60s whilst a highly politicised film maker like Mrinal Sen was closer to the work of Glauber Rocha who also believed that ‘third cinema’ was the way forward in terms of resisting all forms of hegemony whilst criticising the derisory gap between rich and poor, between the oppressor and the oppressed. Whilst Ray’s cinema was never as fatalistic or disillusioning as that of Ghatak or Mrinal Sen, the greatest achievement of ‘Calcutta 71’ remains in it’s uncompromising political content and how like many of Godard’s films of the late 60s and early 70s it has become somewhat of a very significant historical document and powerful record of the times.

KANCHENJUNGHA (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1962, India) – ‘Why accept a life of endless submission?’

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The title to Ray’s first film in colour shares its name with the third highest mountain in the world. It is perhaps the least seen of his films and the original negative has unfortunately been damaged beyond repair. However, in 2008, The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced the digital restoration of the film from the copy of the master negative which were recently discovered in the US and UK. Sandip Ray (Ray’s son) who is also a film maker has said that 95 percent of the black and white films directed by his father have been restored by the Academy. It is encouraging that film preservation does not solely limit itself to great American classics, extending its reach to film makers like Ray. Film preservation and restoration of this kind is also likely to allow scholars, academics and fans to reappraise the work of Ray, with a much more concerted aesthetic consideration. Andrew Robinson’s definitive work on Ray offers one of the best explanations for the film’s relative obscurity:

‘Kanchenjungha’s distribution abroad suffered from its difficulties at home. In the US Edward Harrison released it in 1966 to mixed reviews. In Europe it went unseen, bar one festival, because, it appears, its producers failed to make available a subtitled print. Those critics who did manage to see it with subtitles, felt it would have run well in Britain; it shares much of the appeal of the later Days and Nights in the Forest. That view was confirmed by the appreciative response to its British television premiere in 1988.’

Satyajit Ray – The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989, pg 136.

Indian cinema scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha notes that ‘the film is remarkable for its use of pastel colours’ but ‘existing prints do not always reproduce Ray and Mitra’s intended colour schemes’. Ray did not experiment with colour again until the early seventies when he directed ‘Ashani Sanket’ (Distant Thunder) in 1973. Similarly like Kurosawa, Ray’s minor films are just as fascinating and accomplished as the major films championed by the critics and academia.

A multi narrative family melodrama, the film was also significant for marking Ray’s first original screenplay and perhaps it is of little surprise that he chose to focus on the lives of an upper class Bengali family, dominated by the arrogant figure of a wealthy industrialist and staunchly conservative patriarch, Indranath Roy Choudhury. I would argue that this film firmly belongs in the company of Ray’s female melodramas including ‘Devi’, ‘Mahanagar’, and most strikingly ‘Charulata’ with which it shares a sympathetic feminist concern. However, Ray’s experimental use of an ensemble cast, several overlapping story lines and real time narrative signalled a shift away from the rural context of his previous films. The subtle and understated manner with which Ray deals with human relationships is complemented by the shifting weather patterns, providing a concern with how nature determines mood.

The narrative largely focuses on the self determination of Indranath’s daughter, Monisha. The family excursion to the hill station at Darjeeling is organised so that Monisha can meet a possible suitor (an engineer who has just returned from England) her father has chosen. It is an arranged marriage and one that the mother secretly disapproves because she does not want her daughter to face a similar life of unhappiness. The mother is played by Ray regular Karuna Bannerjee (Apu’s mother) and her relative silence (until the final moments of the film) articulates her submissive position within the family. However, this being a family melodrama, disruption emerges in the form of Ashoke, a young student who strikes up an unexpected friendship with Monisha. In addition to the emerging relationship between Monisha and Ashoke, Ray also interweaves the stories of the elder daughter, Anima and the spoilt son, Anil. Anil (played effortlessly by Ghatak regular Anil Chatterjee) is represented as the mischievous playboy who models himself on popular Indian film stars. Ray seems to critique the superficiality of the movie business with Anil’s boisterous and impulsive character. Whilst Anil’s character is arguably utilised for light comic relief and to probe the eccentricities of the family structure, Amina’s disintegrating relationship with her alcoholic husband provides an embittered contrast to the innocent relationship between Monisha and Ashoke.

‘The underlying psychology of the film derives in large part from the setting. In order to understand the effect of that on the characters we have to appreciate what Darjeeling means to Bengalis. In 1912 Sukumar Ray compared it to Bournemouth in a letter from Britain, mainly because of the steep roads they share, but the analogy could be taken just a little further: people visit both places to escape the big city, and they behave differently in them from the way they do at home. ‘Darjeeling is something very special for Bengalis,’ said Ray, ‘because you have the sea at one end of Bengal and the snow-peaks at the other. In that narrow waist of India you get the full range of landscapes.’

Satyajit Ray – The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989, Pg 137

Melodrama proves to be the perfect vehicle for Ray to probe the contradictions, despair and false hubris that dictates the lives of the upper class Bengali family. Unlike Ghatak who regularly used the family as a metaphor for partition, Ray’s study of family is more conventionally related to class, the representation of gender and especially tradition. What does stand out in terms of aesthetic considerations in regards to framing and composition when comparing the film to his earlier films is the illuminating and modern use of negative space – at times the empty silences, awkward glances and isolation of characters within the landscape reminded me of Antonioni and in particular ‘Red Desert’, (1964) which was also embraced for its expressionistic and inventive use of colour.

‘The father, Indranath Roy Chowdhury, played to perfection by Chhabi Biswas, is a bully of a type that no longer quite exists in Bengal with the passing of the generation that served the British Raj, but his general outline remains only too familiar. Ray shows very little sympathy with him – not because he assisted the Raj and made himself rich, but because he is a philistine who has suppressed his wife and regards his own daughter as a marketable commodity.’

Satyajit Ray – The Inner Eye, Andrew Robinson, 1989,Pg 138

It is Indranath who is finally viewed as the underlining cause of the unhappiness and anxiety experienced by mother and daughter. His sense of class superiority is attacked by Ashoke, a symbol of the Bengali middle class, when the downtrodden graduate bluntly rejects Indranath’s grudging and despicable offer for employment. In many ways, Indranath and Monisha are two very familiar archetypes; the patriarchal bully and the repressed daughter, which reoccur throughout the family melodrama. It is unfortunate that Ray never made more films in colour yet his cinema is one that has become synonymous with realism when in fact the gentle tone and naturalistic rhythm of a film like ‘Kanchenjungha’ is more in line with the work of Ozu.