By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on January 22, 2016
This year's Vijay Tendulkar Memorial Lecture was especially interesting as it got together 3 filmmakers from different worlds & styles of filmmaking. Filmmakers Girish Kasaravalli, Jahnu Barua & Subhash Ghai came together to deconstruct one of the most prominent Indian filmmakers ever, Ritwik Ghatak. Even today, Ghatak's films are remembered for his cinematic style and depiction of social reality. Six of his films, Bari Theke Paliye, Subarnarekha, Komal Gandhar, Meghe Dhaka Tara, Rendezvous and Amar Lenin were screened this year at PIFF. To watch Ghatak's films & then listen to these masters analyse and deconstruct his films was an experience in itself.
Subhash Ghai shared his experiences of learning from Ghatak while studying at FTII. Though he went on to make films very different from Ghatak's cinematic style, Ghai never forgot what he learnt from him. "Think through your heart and let people with mind analyse it, he used to say. Now that's best advice," said Ghai.
Jahnu Barua began the discussion by recalling his days at FTII and how he slowly got to know Ghatak and his work. While Barua talked about Ghatak's cinematic style as a whole, Kasaravalli discussed Ghatak's cinematic technique and explained to the audience how Ghatak personalised technique to make his own idiom.
Barua observed that a filmmaker is always connected to his or her past, no matter what he makes. If we look at Ghatak's life, we can understand that he saw a lot of despair around him. Born in the 20's, as a youth he witnessed so many traumatic events like the World War, India's partition as well as the Bengal famine of 1943. He never really recovered from those experiences. His angst, his agony is expressed through his films.
"He was an observer of all this trauma. As an artist, and a creative mind, his suffering as an observer got reflected in his work. He was looking for a medium to express what he felt and in cinema he found that medium."
Barua also feels that the filmmaker in Ghatak was a staunch humanist. "The kind of visuals he created in his films, every visual talks about humanity, each visual is a statement in itself," he said.
"Ghatak humanises even the nonliving objects in his films. Like in his film Ajantrik, which tells the story of the relationship between a man and his taxi, the taxi becomes the protagonist and you can quite relate to the feelings of the taxi," said Ghai as he recalled watching the film many times and finding something new every time.
Barua, agreeing to that, talked of a film called Musafir, which Ghatak wrote for Hrishikesh Mukherjee. "There are three stories and the protagonist is the house. He brings out the emotions of the house throughout the film."
From L to R: Jahnu Barua, Subhash Ghai & Girish Kasaravalli discussing Ghatak & his cinema at PIFF 2016
While talking in detail about Ghatak's sense of composition and lensing, Kasaravalli said, "He used to create such powerful images, that are intensely dramatic, yet not in the conventional sense. He never used telephoto. But he used wide angle to make us feel closer to the character. That's something we have to learn from him. Very few filmmakers have been able to achieve that. Even his close ups are so moving, the sheer composition is so telling."
"Another brilliance of Ghatak lies in his multi-layered construction of space. We started talking about this phenomenon after Andre Bazin discussed and explained it in his book 'What is cinema?' The book's English version appeared in 1960, whereas Ghatak made his first film in 1953."
He then explained Ghatak's composition with an amazing example from Meghe Dhaka Tara. "There's a scene where Supriya Choudhary (Neeta) slaps her brother and brings Anil Chatterjee (the elder brother) inside. The younger brother has a job and thus keeps insulting the elder brother, who wants to become a singer. Then Ghatak builds a tension with sound of tanpura. The there's some conversation and Neeta goes away. And there's this composition where you see the interior of the room, the exterior of the house, beyond the gate, the road - that many layers- and then you see the second sister coming inside with her boyfriend and the elder brother notices this." (Watch this scene in the video below from around 3:10 to 6:20)
He also talked about an unusual composition that Ghatak uses in Meghe Dhaka Tara. "This kind of composition recurs in the film, where the character exits the frame not on the right (if he/she has entered from left), but towards the bottom of the screen. He repeats this composition like the signature composition for that film."
Kasarvalli, while talking about Ghatak's cinematic style, said that to understand Ghatak, one must also understand what is not Ghatak. While talking about the three masters of Bengali cinema- Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, he deconstructed each of their style and drew out the differnces.
"Satyajit Ray", he said, "has a lyrical humanistic style. His films are full of poise. He takes the role of an omniscient witness or as we call it in Sanskrit, sarvasaakshi." Ray doesn't take sides, he simply presents the picture to us, letting us decide whose side we are on.
Mrinal Sen's filmmaking is more ideological, he said. It's the director trying to establish his own point of view through his characters.
And Ghatak's style is a combination of both - the sarvasaakshitwa as well as the ideological approach. "You can see in his films, Santhals & the mother goddess figure again and again. The optimism in his films is hollow. The pessimistic viewpoint has larger ramifications."
"Many people call him melodramatic. I don't agree with that. Melodrama is not a style for him, it's his expression. We see in most of our commercial cinema, where melodrama is used as a style to rake emotions," said Kasaravalli.
Talking about another accusation that Ghatak's filmmaking is shrill, pointed, blatant and irrational, Kasaravalli drew an analogy of a man who has fallen in a well and is trying to ask for help. "Will you go and ask that man not to shout and simply 'whisper' for help? Ghatak wants to show that man's agony, who has fallen in a deep well and must shout and scream for help. That's the reason why he's so loud and not subtle at all."
Ghatak didn't depend too much on subtle, suggestive visuals full of symbolism. Talking about this temperament of his as a filmmaker, Kasaravalli said, "He wanted you to see directly. He was in cinema not for its aesthetics, but because he wanted to reach many people and express what he felt."
"He never tried to be politically correct or convincing. He just blurted it out, whatever he had to say. This kind of technique, which is very erratic, baffles me. If he feels like doing something, he'd just do it. And then he'd just leave it there. There's no rhythm or pattern. As long as it works, he would just do it."
Kasaravalli observed that we in India, use sound only for its illustrative nature. "We hardly see sound being used as a comment. Ghatak uses sound very effectively to that purpose, but then again, he overdoes it."
He then gave the example of the use of the sound of a whiplash in Meghe Dhaka Tara, which is extremely innovative. (Watch the scene here from around 10:00 to 10:50)
Drawing analogy between music and filmmaking, Kasaravalli recalled an essay written by Satyajit Ray. "Ray had said that the improvisation of Indian classical music is not suitable for cinema. He believed in structuring cinema like it was done in western music. What Ghatak did was exactly the opposite. His filmmaking had improvisations similar to what is done in Indian classical music."
While talking about Ghatak's world view & the nature of hope in his films, Barua said that, "There are moments in his films, when he simply forgets where his film is supposed to lead. Everything gets too gloomy, cynical and negative and suddenly he realises that he has to give hope. That's the reason why sometimes it feels while watching his films that he has not taken enough time to tell what he wants to tell in the end, to give hope."