By Sayantan Mondal. Posted on May 05, 2015
Ritwik Ghatak’s Nagarik could have been the first art movie to release in Bengal. Unfortunately, it was never meant to be, even though it was made somewhere around 1952. The movie released after Ghatak’s death (1976), in the year 1977 and the honour went to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). There’s always a constant debate between the admirers of both the auteurs over their supremacy, their style of filmmaking and who was the best and contributed more to the cause of Indian cinema. Ghatak with limited means managed to create some of the most formidable movies made in the annals of world cinema while Ray in a career spanning nearly four decades delved into various genres.
As reported by many, they had mutual respect for each other and their works, yet some feel Ghatak got a raw deal when it came to his movies. Ghatak did lose out in the rat-race and suffered years of neglect while Ray was applauded by one and all winning international acclaim. But this feature looks at how similar and dissimilar their movies were with regards to the themes, narratives, cinematography as well as their style of filmmaking and how upcoming filmmakers can study their movies and learn the art of filmmaking, because these two stalwarts have so much to offer.
The first difference we notice in the films of Ghatak and Ray are their choice of subjects. Ghatak was a bit limited in his selection and we must also consider the fact that Ghatak made only 8 movies in his lifetime (excluding the scripts he wrote), while Ray’s oeuvre was wider. There wasn't any genre Ray didn't tackle in his own inimitable style. But instead of focusing on the unfamiliarity of their subjects, things like poverty, urban loneliness, partition, alienation, displacement formed a part of their films.
Ghatak had a strong Marxist sentiment attached to his films and a large chunk of his works was an attempt to understand the urban chaos that grabbed the city of Calcutta post-partition and how these refugees sustained themselves. Ray on the other hand was a bit more dynamic in his endeavour and tried to spread out his wings in every possible direction and also directed a Hindi movie Shatranj Ke Khiladi. These two directors teach us that no subject is a taboo and vision matters when it comes to selecting it and then executing it.
Once again the difference between Ray and Ghatak can be linked to the way they approach their stories and scripts. Both had a knack of adapting stories from a literary source, but they also wrote some original scripts. Ray himself admitted that once he got hold of his source, depending upon the demand of the script he changed a lot of details, be it the story, the characters or the premise. Ghatak, on the other hand had more originals to offer, often writing his own stories as well as collaborating with others. But he too adapted from different literary sources.
Some of his greatest works like Ajantrik or Meghe Dhaka Tara were adapted. But he wrote the screenplay for some of his movies like Jukti Takko r Gappo. Satyajit Ray was less prolific when it came to writing his own screenplays. Often he was comfortable adapting the works of others. But we did see some original screenplays from him like Kanchenjanga. But what was admirable about Ray, his adaptations always had his trademark style and a mark of originality layered with his inputs.
Satyajit Ray’s cameraman Subroto Mitra was credited with creating the concept of bouncing light - a technique used to shoot without being affected by rain or other adverse weather conditions and managing to get a naturalistic atmosphere for every scene. The cinematography of the films of Ray and Ghatak were very different. Ghatak’s idea was to capture the horrors of post-partition Bengal, the influx of refugees, their problems, their loss and their hope.
Ghatak wanted to capture despair. Ray on the other hand created a kaleidoscope that included various imageries, be it the poverty of Pather Panchali, the forlorn romance of Charulata, the desolate landscape of Abhijan or the urban conflict of Mahanagar. At least Ray offered some hope, Ghatak had none and it was through their lenses that we see these things. Ghatak often employed close-ups to initiate a sort of reaction from the audience to make them aware of the horrors they were seeing on screen.
Above is another still, that from Charulata that effuses loneliness only the way Ray could've captured and once again movies like Charulata or Shatranj Ke Khiladi remind us of an unfamiliar landscape Ray undertook apart from the ones that brought him close to Ghatak.
One of the most important aspects of both Ray and Ghatak was the connection between the urban and the rural. Ghatak and Ray’s rural population were the victims of displacement but their displacement had two faces. Ghatak’s characters relocated due to partition. While Ray’s characters, for example in Pather Panchali, leave their home due to circumstances that are beyond their control i.e. a livelihood, loss of hope etc and settling in a new place as the story continues in Aparajito. Ghatak’s characters are forcefully evicted and they have a connection to history just like those from Ray’s universe. Ray’s Apu displaces himself several times, the external force often being tragedy, be it the death of his sister, his father, his mother or his wife. Ghatak’s characters too are afflicted with this problem but more importantly they are also cursed with a political malady that has uprooted them.
The connection between rural and urban was only created after their eviction, and hence it was never easy. But it is important to understand that Ray created another form of social alienation witnessed in the urban context as seen in his Calcutta Trilogy through the characters of Siddhartha, Somnath and Shyamalendu.
Many movies, especially in the third world countries, have acquired the template of the Rural-Urban connect to discuss problems of displacement and dislocation following the end of colonial rules. Lino Brocka’s The Claws of Light or Rithy Phan’s One Evening after the War are great examples of the same. These are two random examples, but readers will benefit if they try and find out some more movies that focus on this urban-rural connect and see how the works of Ray and Ghatak have influenced such films directly and indirectly.
An interesting feature of Ray and Ghatak’s oeuvres are the characters created by them and their influence on later movies. We need to start with Ajantrik and Abhijan and Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese himself has acknowledged Ray’s influence in the movie. Ghatak’s Ajantrik, was a bit similar to Abhijan (actually Ray was inspired by Ajantrik) but Ajantrik tried to chart a man’s relationship with his machine, which also had a very subtle sexual tone. Abhijan, on the other hand was about Nar Singh’s quest to get back his lost bravado and pride. Scorsese used this idea of Abhijan to model his Travis Bickle.
Talking of Ray’s characters from urban set we need to seek Calcutta Trilogy’s Somnath, Siddhartha or Shyamalendu etc while Anil Chatterjee in Meghe Dhaka Tara or Satindra Bhattacharya in Nagarik can give us the idea of how Ghatak’s characters worked in terms of socio-political reality as shown in the urban milieu. They are characters lost in the urban jungle forming a sort of bond with Somnath, Siddhartha and Shyamalendu.
Both Ray and Ghatak and their films have been subjected to excess scrutiny while they themselves have become characters in a few movies mainly Rituparno Ghosh’s Abohoman and Kamaleshwar Mukhejee’s Meghe Dhaka Tara. The latter is important because it tries to be pseudo-biopic of Neelkantha Bagchi, a character that Ritwik Ghatak played in his last directed movie Jukti Takko aar Goppo. Satyajit Ray's Nayak inspired a follow up in National Award Winning Director Srijit Mukherji’s debut Autograph which borrowed many essential elements from Nayak and made it a tribute of sorts.
Both Ghatak and Ray invested in scenes that supplemented the narrative, scenes that captured loss, hope, sadness, desire, oddities as well as love and separation and many other things while creating a collage.
Here are two scenes from thematically linked movies (Abhijan and Ajantrik ) that show how Ghatak and Ray planned their scenes.
Ajantrik and Abhijan have lot of similarities and force us to wonder if Ghatak and Ray thought on similar terms with the influence of Ajantrik on Abhijan being quiet clear. Some of their movies suggest so, but Ajantrik and Abhijan come the closest. Both have protagonists who are obsessed with their cars and lead a life that at best can be described aimless. While Nar Singh from Abhijan tries hard to come to terms with selling his morality, Bimal from Ajantrik fights to save his beloved car. These two scenes posted above teachs us how magnificently they created an atmosphere to contain their scenes.
To understand how certain scenes managed to stimulate the narrative here are two more examples. One from Pratidwandi, a dream sequence while the other one is from Jukti Tokko aar Goppo. It is important to know that Ray’s Nayak and Pratidwandi uses several dream-sequence based scenes to boost the narrative. So here are links from all the three movies to guide the reader better.
Another thing we must learn from Ray and Ghatak was their incredible narrative power. Here are two different videos, one from Ghatak’s Bari Theke Paliye while the other one is from Ray’s short Piku’s Diary that gives us a glimpse of Calcutta through a child’s eyes as he witnesses infidelity as well as the break up of his parents’ marriage. The first scene is an observation from a child’s point-of-view and his reactions are similar to Alice's when she came to Wonderland.
Piku’s Diary too is very similar to the narrative of Bari Thekey Paliye but instead of showing Calcutta and its wonders, Ray focuses on the inner conflicts of the city as seen by a young boy who witnesses the breakdown of his parents’ marriage, his mother’s extra-marital affair somehow symbolizing the break-down of the city itself as corruption, values all are now decadent.
So do you agree that the works of Ray and Ghatak do share similarities? We would love to hear your views on the same.