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.

QISSA: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (Dir. Anup Singh, 2014, India) [Spoilers]

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The title of the film comes from the arabic word ‘Qissa’ which means folk tale. The Punjabi Qissa has a strong oral tradition and families from the Punjab can recite Qisse or tales that are both specific to genre and a family history. Anup Singh draws widely on such a cultural tradition, narrating a tragic family tale by mixing melodrama with a decisive supernatural accent that borrows iconographically from horror tropes. However, the folk-tale form is complicated by the direct references to the partition of India, mixing past and present histories. This is director Anup Singh’s first film after 12 years and he has described the struggle to finance Qissa in many interviews. Singh trained at the Institute of Film and Television at Pune and his teachers included Ritwik Ghatak, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. His first film Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of a River, 2003), partly funded by the BFI and NFDC, is a tribute to Ritwik Ghatak. Qissa is the first film of the newly formed co-production treaty between Germany and India, and the cast and crew is an international one.

The story follows a lower middle class Sikh family who are displaced and sees them rebuild a new life in a new India after partition. Umber and his wife have three daughters and the birth of a fourth child, another girl, makes Umber, desperate to replicate ignoble traditions and prove his virility as a man, declare the child a boy. Gender confusion ensues with Kanwar. As she gets older, her gender identity is questioned internally, until one day they decide to marry Kanwar to Neeli, a feisty Sikh girl who has no idea what secrets and lies plague the family. Kanwar’s marriage creates a desperate crisis, enslaving Neeli to a terrible reality, leading to the sad destruction of the family. Although it becomes apparent that Umber is a self-destructive figure, his patriarchal anxieties consuming him, the real tragedy of this tale is Kanwar. In many ways, Singh uses Kanwar’s gender crisis as a wider metonym for the trauma of partition, suggesting the blurring of gender identities mirrors the crises of family and national identity families were forced to undertake as a result of partition. Nonetheless, the attempt to erase Kanwar’s femininity by her father and in effect the family who remain complicit in such oppression criticizes patriarchal culture in a post partition context.

Perhaps it is only as a ghost that borders become invisible. Umber Singh (Irfan Khan), an exile and victim of partition, is displaced from Pakistan to India, and reconciliation with such a cataclysmic disturbance never emerges and in fact never can. Umber, already a ghost of partition, is shot dead when he tries to rape his daughter in law. He is damned and doomed to live in a permanent state of exile, drifting as a form of punishment for his sins, haunting the memories of his daughter. In the living, Umber already is a patriarchal monster, but when he is killed, his transformation into a symbolic monster predicated on historical and patriarchal lines makes him altogether more potent. Umber’s inability to reconcile with his status as an exile and refugee of partition is one of the most unequivocal links to Ghatak’s work, a key influence on Singh as a filmmaker, since the trauma of partition affected Ghatak personally. Irfan Khan’s moving and complex portrayal of Umber Singh (a career defining role), a man burdened with the memories of partition, is equally matched by Tillotama Shome’s memorably anguished performance as Kanwar. Qissa is due for release later this year in India. The film has already had its UK premiere this year at the London Indian Film Festival. Given the strong buzz around the film and its continuing presence at film festivals Qissa has the potential to do well commercially.

AJANTRIK / PATHETIC FALLACY (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1958, India) – Man and Machine

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Preceded by ‘Nagarik’ (The Citizen) which only got a release after Ghatak’s death, his second film ‘Ajantrik’ is the quirky story of one man’s undying love for his car, a 1920’s Chevrolet affectionately referred to as Jagaddhal. Ghatak says that he procrastinated over the story for twelve long years before making it into a film. Arguably one of the most idiosyncratic art films to have emerged from the fifties, ‘Ajantrik’ utilises a remarkably layered sound design and unsentimental narrative approach to produce a poignant and funny depiction of the awkward relationship between man and machine. When asked in an interview of the films most personally satisfying for him as a director, Ghatak chose to highlight four in particular including Ajantrik referring to its ‘brevity of expression and for certain technical achievements’. Film critic and academic Jonathan Rosenbaum go as far as to draw some enlightening parallels with the work of Jacques Tati:

‘I have no way of knowing if Ritwik Ghatak ever saw Jacques Tati’s 1953 masterpiece Mr Hulot’s Holiday, but when I look at his second feature, Ajantrik (1958), it’s hard not to be reminded of it…There’s a similar association made between Bimal (Kali Banerjee), the cab-driver hero of Ajantrik, and his own broken-down car. The fact that this car has a name, Jagaddhal, and is even included in some rundowns of the film’s cast, also seems emblematic of this special symbiosis.’

Ritwik Ghatak: Reinventing the Cinema, Jonathan Rosenbaum, 2006

On the most basic level Ghatak imbues the car with a riotous personality that comes to symbolise wider ideas including that of technology, the machine age and above all, rapid modernisation. Such are the affections Bimal harbours for his battered Chevrolet, his presence and existence becomes defined by an innate attachment. One could definitely label this as a road movie, with Bimal’s episodic journey across the plains of the Ganges delta providing some illuminating compositions of rural landscapes. However, it is the observation of the Oraons tribe through the elaborate dance rituals that offers a glimpse of Ghatak’s personal ethnographic fascination with marginalised cultures and people – a preoccupation underlined in an article titled ‘About Oraons: (Chotonagpur)’ written in 1955 by Ghatak and a short ‘preparatory test film’ which he shot whilst filming ‘Ajantrik’. He had hoped to make a film on the ‘life of the Adivasis of Ranchi region and on the Oraons of Rani Khatanga village’ but this like many other ideas were never realised due to financial difficulties and an uncompromising approach.

SUBARNAREKHA / THE GOLDEN LINE (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1962-1965, India) – Elliptical Elation

Ghatak’s exacting control over the rhythm of his films extended from Eisenstein’s theoretical and cinematic experimentation’s with political montage. Elliptical editing inevitably invites an ambiguity and fracture into linear narrative, creating discernible gaps that disorient the spectator. After what is an admittedly schizophrenic opening twenty minutes, Subarnarekha settles into a familiar classical rhythm and the focus of dramatic conflict becomes the relationship between brother and sister. Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) is unable to come to terms with his sister, Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee), marrying Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya) who hails from a lower caste. Such caste prejudices come to the fore when Ishwar orders Abhiram to leave for Calcutta. When Ishwar orders Sita to meet the family which has come to see her for a possible marriage arrangement, Sita’s refusal is met with a kind of patriarchal violence.

The triple jump cut in Ghatak’s Subarnarekha:

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However, prior to this moment of violence, Ghatak opens the sequence with what is a triple jump cut of Sita who turns to face her brother whilst sitting on the ground caressing the sitar for comfort. It is a rhythmically organic series of edits which rightly draws our attention to the reflexive nature of Ghatak’s approach. The violence inherent in the triple jump cut that begins with a close up and finishes on a mid shot signals a disruption in the narrative and also act as the trigger for Sita’s abandonment of her brother, choosing to elope with Abhiram. Ghatak’s ideologically intense use of the triple jump cut may seem a normalised practise today but it reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature ‘Mean Streets’ which opens with another striking and creative example of elliptical editing immortalised in the three carefully juxtaposed edits of Charlie’s head hitting the pillow to the sound of ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes.

The opening to Mean Streets – Scorsese’s use of the triple jump cut:

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