It is one of life's greatest ironies that Ritwik Ghatak who is today something of a cult figure in Bengal was so little understood and appreciated during his lifetime. Today his films have won much critical acclaim but the fact remains that in their time they ran to mainly empty houses in Bengal. Ghatak's films project a unique sensibility. They are often brilliant, but almost always flawed.
Ghatak was born in Dhaka now in Bangladesh. The partition of Bengal, the division of a culture was something that haunted Ghatak forever. Ghatak joined the left-wing Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) where he worked for a few years as a playwright, actor and director. When IPTA split into factions, Ghatak turned to filmmaking.
By and large Ghatak's films revolve around two central themes: the experience of being uprooted from the idyllic rural milieu of East Bengal and the cultural trauma of the partition of 1947.
Ghatak's first film was Nagrik (1952) about a young man's search for a job and the erosion of his optimism and idealism as his family sinks into abject poverty and his love affair too turns sour. Ghatak then accepted a job with Filmistan Studio in Bombay but his 'different' ideas did not go down well there. He did however write the scripts of Musafir (1957) and Madhumati (1958) for Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Bimal Roy respectively, the latter becoming an all time evergreen hit.
Ghatak returned to Calcutta and made Ajantrik (1958) about a taxi driver in a small town in Bihar and his vehicle an old Chevrolet jalopy. An assortment of passengers gives the film a wider frame of reference and provided situations of drama, humour and irony.
But perhaps his best work was Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960),the first film in a trilogy examining the socio-economic implications of partition. The protagonist Neeta (played by Supriya Choudhury) is the breadwinner in a refugee family of five. Everyone exploits her and the strain proves too much. She succumbs to tuberculosis. In an unforgettable moment, as the dying Neeta cries out "I want to live…", the camera pans across the mountains accentuating the indifference and eternity of nature even as the echo reverberates over the shot.
Ghatak followed it up with Komal Gandhar (1961) concerning two rival touring theatre companies in Bengal and Subarnarekha (1965). The last is a strangely disturbing film using melodrama and coincidence as a form rather than mechanical reality.
Ghatak also had a brief stint as Vice-Principal of the Film And Television Institute of India (Pune), a time he recalled as a happy experience. However his next film Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (1973) done for a young Bangladesh producer was not.
The film on the life and eventual disintegration of a fishing community on the Titash, was completed after many problems at the shooting stage including his collapse due to tuberculosis and was a commercial failure.
Ghatak made one more film before his death Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974) the most autobiographical and allegorical of his films. He himself played the main role of Nilkanta an alcoholic intellectual and the film is remembered for his stunning use of the wide-angle lens to most potent effect.
Unfortunately for Ghatak his films were largely unsuccessful, many remained unreleased for years and he abandoned almost as many projects as he completed. Ultimately the intensity of his passion, which gave his films their power and emotion, took their toll on him, as did tuberculosis and alcoholism. However he has left behind a limited but rich body of work that no serious scholar of Indian Cinema can ignore.