Picture this. It is 1942–43. The streets of Calcutta are full of hungry and dying people. They are the victims of the great Bengal famine, a result of colonial policy, not drought. A young journalist, Bijon Bhattacharya, walks to work and back, his eyes firmly to the ground right in front of him. He can’t bear to look up, left or right. There are living skeletons all around. It is hard to make out the living from the dead.
One day as he walks, he hears laughter. A famished family is reminiscing about the aroma of rice after the fresh harvest. Just that – the memory of an aroma – fills, metaphorically, their devastatingly hungry stomachs. When he walks past the spot the next day, there is no family. Have they gone elsewhere in search of food? Are they dead?
The young journalist has no experience of playwriting. Yet, this single image, of the family laughing at the memory of the aroma of the rice of the fresh harvest, seems to coalesce in his mind. It is the poetic distillation of the humongous tragedy all around him. It leads him, in a frenzy, to write a play. It is called Nabanna (fresh harvest).
Nabanna was produced by the Indian People’s Theatre Association and co-directed by Bijon Bhattacharya and Shombhu Mitra. It became a landmark of Indian theatre and played to mass audience, bringing home to them the reality of the economic genocide perpetrated by the colonial state. The second production of the play, for Shombhu Mitra’s group (yet to be named Bohurupee) in 1948, featured a young actor who went on to become a trailblazer in cinema: Ritwik Ghatak.
Ghatak’s formative years were marked by two genocidal tragedies which followed one another in less than half a decade. Barely had Bengal managed to burn and bury its (roughly) three million famine victims when the land was divided into East and West. Mass migrations on both sides, coupled with horrific bloodletting, again tore asunder the land and its people.
An entire generation of Bengali intelligentsia was traumatised by these twin tragedies – the Great Famine and Partition. This trauma could well have dissolved into despondency and empty rage, into nihilism and even fascism, had it not been for the Communist Party of India and its peasant wing, the All India Kisan Sabha, which led, in 1946–47, a mass uprising against the oppressive jotedars, the Tebhaga Andolan. Colossal, man-made tragedy was confronted with the socialist alternative. This radicalised that generation of the Bengali intelligentsia.
Ritwik Ghatak was in his late teens at the time of the Bengal Famine and in his early twenties at the time of Partition. In his life of 51 years, he made eight full-length feature films. He also worked as a scriptwriter – his biggest commercial success, in fact, was for the script of the Bimal Roy-directed, Dilip Kumar–Vyajantimala Hindi reincarnation romance, Madhumati (1958).
Ghatak himself only made films in Bangla. Though he had already made Nagarik in 1952, his first commercial release was Ajantrik (1958), possibly one of the first science fiction movies in India. His classic works were a trilogy made in a frantic creative burst – Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1965). While the first was a success, the other two didn’t do well at the box office. Finding no producer, Ghatak did not make another film for the rest of the 1960s.
He did, however, teach at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India for a while in the mid-60s, where the next generation of alternative filmmakers, Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul, were his students. He returned to feature films in the 1970s with Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (1973) and Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974). In between all this, he took to the bottle and descended into madness, spending a while in a mental asylum.
The experiences of dislocation, migration, poverty and being a refugee mark his entire filmography. In his best works, there’s a seamless coming together of a stark realism – almost documentary-like in its feel – with heightened emotion and mythic references.
Ritwik Ghatak was a master of the soundtrack – not only did he have a superlative grasp of music, his innovations in the use of sound are still studied – and much copied, one should add. For instance, in Meghe Dhaka Tara, when the protagonist Nita learns that the man she had loved and who has now been wooed away by her sister still harbours feelings for her, she abruptly walks away, realising the impossibility of their union. As she walks, we hear the sound of a whip being lashed repeatedly. Now, this is against the rules of realism – there is no action in the scene or the mise en scène suggesting where this sound might emanate from. It is as if we have entered Nita’s own tortured soul.
With portrayals like these and because of his extremely lyrical use of the camera, Ritwik Ghatak’s position among the triumvirate of the first generation of the Bengali New Wave, along with Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, is secure. What is, however, lesser known, is that Ghatak began with theatre, and dabbled in it occasionally even after earning repute as a filmmaker. After acting in Nabanna, he went on to join the Indian People’s Theatre Association in 1951 and the Communist Party of India soon after. It is known that he wrote a play called Kalo Sayar (The Dark Lake) in 1948, but the script is now lost. He also acted in, and/or directed about half a dozen other plays.
Bijon Bhattacharya’s influence is writ large on Ghatak’s writing, of whom he says: “Bijon Bhattacharya was the first to show us how to register in theatre one’s commitment to the people, how to achieve collectivity in performance, and how to create on stage the seamless totality of a slice of reality…It was a massive turbulence that ran like an electric shock through the whole of Bengal from one end to another.”
Ritwik Ghatak scripted five plays that focus especially on the Bengal Famine and the aftermath of the Partition. These works have been translated into English and compiled into a single volume: ‘Charter’ (original title Dalil), ‘Communication’ (Sanko), ‘Agony’ (Jwala), ‘Ablaze’ (Jwalanta) and ‘That Woman’ (Shei Meye). Regrettably, the book does not provide the dates of writing, or details of performance, if any. (It is also marked by shoddy proofreading, with stage directions appearing as dialogue in some places and so on.) While Samik Bandyopadhyay’s foreword pithily places Ghatak and his theatre work in historical context, the translator doesn’t seem particularly interested in anything except the actual translation – which itself appears patchy, though one can’t be sure, on account of not having access to the original.
Samik Bandyopadhyay is right in calling Ghatak a “marginal presence in Bengali theatre, in no way comparable to his formidable – and controversial – iconic status in Indian cinema.” And yet, it is precisely because of that iconic and formidable presence in cinema, that this volume of his plays is fascinating. They reprise the well-known themes of his films – in particular, his preoccupation with the Partition and migration.
The first two plays, ‘Charter’ and ‘Communication’, are based explicitly on the theme of Partition. The third, ‘Agony’, is about a series of suicides that took place in Kolkata in 1950. In that sense, it has a documentary feel to it. The fourth, ‘Ablaze’, about madness and violence, has a chaotic and quite unplayable quality to it, but it is still interesting in the use of placards that drop from above and film clips being projected at the backdrop. The last, ‘That Woman’, is a short study in madness and a heartfelt plea for society’s acceptance of people afflicted by it. Interestingly, though he had himself experienced a mental asylum, Ghatak doesn’t place the play in one, instead choosing to place it in a hospital. Also, in line with many of his films, the protagonist is a woman.
In our country, there is a relative lack of supplementary material to study the lives and careers of major artistic figures. In that sense, this volume is a welcome addition, despite its shortcomings. And since we live in a time when nasty, right-wing politics seems to impinge on every aspect of our lives – often violently – it is inspiring to see an artist of Ghatak’s calibre trying to shift, through his entire oeuvre, in cinema and theatre, society in the direction of freedom and socialism.
What Ghatak said of Bijon Bhattacharya could just as well be said of Ghatak himself: “All that he has had for his capital is pristine honesty. And with that honesty for his approach, whenever a problem stares him in the face, he immerses himself in it to the very depths…He is not concerned about reputation. It is not in his nature to seek to set up a school with a label to it. In other words, this gentleman hasn’t learnt to cheat.”
Sudhanva Deshpande is an editor with LeftWord Books and an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch.