Who is he?
Indian-Bangladeshi filmmaker, scenarist, film theorist, critic, author, actor and theatre director who made eight feature-length films spanning the 1950s and the 1970s. Given his maverick rejection of prevailing cinematic conventions, Ghatak, unlike his contemporary, Satyajit Ray (of whose “disinfected realism” he was a vocal critic), was not widely celebrated during his lifetime. However, a host of later-day filmmakers, most notably his students Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani cite him as their chief influence.
What are his films about?
Themes: Ghatak was part of the generation that witnessed both the partition of Bengal during Indian independence in 1947 and the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. The horrors of these bloody passages of history haunt Ghatak’s cinema, which serve as documents of the wailing Bengali conscience. Ghatak was affiliated with the theatre arm of the Communist Party of India and, though his concerns were markedly humanistic, leftist ideas pervade his films.
Style: Ghatak was extremely keen about the inherent qualities of the medium and his films are among the most formally daring produced in the country. The most remarkable features of Ghatak’s work are his dizzying use of deep-focus cinematography, his complex, layered and often disorienting soundtrack, frequent employment of close-ups, terseness of cinematic expression and the use of major narrative ellipses. Ghatak was admittedly influenced by the writings of Bertolt Brecht and his films imbibe from Brecht’s method.
Why is he of interest?
Like Kenji Mizoguchi of Japan and Rainer Fassbinder of West Germany, Ritwik Ghatak was an exponent of Melodrama, which refers not to soap opera dramatics but to a particular form of heightened expression in which film elements are pitched at a higher level than the realist norm. The result is a disruption of passive assimilation of screen drama and a motivation to critically engage with what is depicted. Ghatak is now considered by many critics as the preeminent Indian filmmaker.
Where to discover him?
The Cloud-Capped Star (1960), now canonised as one of the greatest Indian films ever made, centers on a young unmarried woman Neeta (Supriya Choudhury) who is forced to bear the economic burden of her whole family. Harsh, intense and gut-wrenching, Ghatak’s vividly-realised, strikingly-shot and uniquely-scored film is both a paean to women’s boundless courage and strength and an indictment of an opportunistic and oppressive social structure.