Meghe dhaka tara tells the story of Nita who takes on the role of breadwinner for a refugee family struggling to retain its middle-class status. When the movie opens Nita seems to be moving towards a relatively happy future, despite the self-destructive generosity with which she responds to the demands made on her by members of her family. Through the course of the film, though, Nita loses the man she loves to her attractive and worldly sister, is forced to give up her studies for a full-time job and, in an incredibly sad final sequence, is left to die of TB in a sanatorium. On the other hand, every member of Nita’s family, even her beloved and other-worldly older brother, become engrossed in their now financially secure family life, suppressing the memory not just of Nita, but also of the parasitic and cynical path that led to their status as properly middle-class folk.
An early sequence in Meghe dhaka tara points to a dynamic that continues to operate powerfully through the rest of the movie. Nita, the self-sacrificing heroine of the film, returns home with the money she’s earned from tuitions. Instantly, she’s surrounded by members of her family who stake their claim on the money. Gita, her younger sister, wants a sari because she finds it intolerable to go to college in her old one, and her brawny younger brother wants a pair of football boots. Even her unworldly older brother, Shankar, demands a rupee for the razor blade he needs to get rid of week’s growth facial hair. And cutting through the cacophony of these demands is her mother’s bitter complaint that Nita thinks of everything and everyone except the household expenses.
Nita’s brother gets his football boots and her sister a sari, and both use gifts like these to push their way out of the economy of scarcity in which the family has been trapped ever since their migration from Bangladesh to a refugee colony in Calcutta. Even Shankar – Nita’s hopeless older brother – finds fame and fortune as a singer, and it is he who takes her to that sojourn in the hills they had longed for throughout their lives. The irony is Nita is already terminally ill with tuberculosis and the clean and hygienic sanatorium where she is deposited has no answer to her anguished cry: ‘Brother, I’ve wanted to live’.
Nita’s early death is the inevitable termination of a life lacerated at every point by family members adept at normalising their many acts of brutal exploitation as the claims they naturally have on a daughter’s, or sister’s, love. Through the course of the movie, Nita is obliged to give up her studies for a full-time job, defer her marriage to the brilliant Sanat before losing him to her sister, and refuse an X-ray for an early diagnosis of what will turn out to be a terminal illness, because the family cannot run without the income she regularly brings in.
For Ghatak, Nita’s family is a microcosm of the world outside. Gita smiles when she announces that Sanat has decided to marry her (and not Nita), not only because she experiences little personal guilt but also because she is sure her decision will bring no social opprobrium. Gita’s willingness to lure away a man who she has always known to have been in love with her sister will, thus, prove to be the basis of a stable, financially secure family and, in this sense, of her status as a well-adjusted middle-class woman. The nexus, embodied in Gita’s behaviour between, on the one hand, those great objects of middle-class desire – domestic stability, financial security and upward mobility – and, on the other, venality, treachery and compromise provides the key to an understanding of tara. It is not only replicated thematically in Sanat’s abdication of research for a secure income and domestic stability, and in the worldliness that even Shankar acquires once he becomes a commercially successful vocalist. More important is that Ghatak’s tragic sense of the tension between the expansive possibilities of poetry, music or the most selfless forms of human behaviour, and the banal demands of security and success, is made to unfold through a set of cinematic innovations unprecedented in Indian cinema in their originality, power and precision.
The opening scene of Meghe dhaka tara ties the tragic and inextricable knot between its celebration of unconstrained spaces always capable of sustaining creativity, freedom and happiness and those dark dingy interiors saturated in meanness, exploitation and bitterness. The film opens with a tracking shot of the tiny approaching figure of Nita, as she passes beneath a spreading gulmohor tree. The first real look we get at Nita is through a close-up of her sideways-turned face. She smiles with benign pride as she watches Shankar, unshaven but utterly absorbed in the early morning raga he is practicing. The gentle stretch of an adjoining lake and the unfolding length of a train as it slides slowly along the tracks beyond the lake, only extend our sense of an expansive and accommodative landscape. But it is precisely at this point, so full of possibilities, that Ghatak introduces a sharp cut to move the action to the cramped local marketplace. Here Nita is rudely confronted by the grocery store owner who demands payment for purchases made by her family over several weeks.
The opening scene, in fact, puts on full display two outstanding features of Ritwick Ghatak’s filmmaking: on the one hand, the extremely original ways in which his films deploy music and, more generally, sound and, on the other, his ability (inherited, undoubtedly, from his hero Sergei Eisenstein) to intertwine lines of action in ways that will always keep in active play the tragic tension at the heart of his greatest films.
Meghe dhaka tara is an unforgettable experience for anyone with some knowledge of the musical traditions of Ghatak’s home state, Bengal. The film is saturated in the classical music which Shankar practices, but it also achieves some very powerful effects with its use of Baul folk songs and of a well-known musical composition by Bengal’s greatest poet Rabindranath Tagore. The Rabindra-sangeet and the Baulgeeti in Meghe dhaka tara are of the highest musical quality but they are not brought into play in and for themselves, or even as resources to deepen some local effect. Rather, music in a Ghatak film is part of a larger soundscape where elements develop independently, and in relation to each other to articulate, for example, the whole burden of pain that may have accumulated over many tiny events in the past, or to express an anxiety that will drive a new destructive course of action. For example, the cruel swish of whiplashes that Ghatak plays on the soundtrack when Nita first discovers Sanat’s infidelity is amplified and superimposed later on the Tagore song that Nita and Shankar sing together. The song – ‘Je Rat-e Mor Dooar Guli’ (‘That Night when the Storm broke down my Door’) – is an immediate sequel to the scene where Shankar confronts Nita, for the first time, with the full extent of the betrayal she has suffered. As the song nears the end Ghatak’s camera slowly shifts from Shankar to Nita, and lingers on a close-up of Nita’s upturned face while the fading song gives way to the amplified sound of whiplashes. This cinematic configuration – produced by the masterly use of camera angles and light as well as a soundtrack where a deeply moving song is overlaid with the harsh sounds of whiplashes – has become, in Bengal, an iconic image of the suffering that underlies the silence of a self-sacrificing woman.
But the soundtrack not only works to give depth and meaning to what has already happened, it also initiates new tensions. For example, towards the middle of the film, Ghatak picks on an utterly familiar sound from everyday life and transforms it into a dynamo that will drive much of the subsequent action. This is the sound of boiling rice and, in Ghatak’s film it is inseparable from the open, central courtyard of Nita’s makeshift house in the refugee colony. Nita’s mother often sits in this courtyard, over a primitive and smoky oven on which the family’s meals are cooked. It is from this controlling location, which produces the family’s subsistence and, at the same time, gives Nita’s mother visual access to the rooms around, that she monitors the unfolding of Nita’s relationship with Sanat. The destructive impulse encoded in her look of anxiety when she realises Sanat might marry Nita and take away her income from the family is intensified many fold by the amplified sound that drowns everything else: the gurgle and hiss of boiling rice. Ghatak, thus, finds in the sound of boiling the means of raising to an unspeakable, ‘scalding’ level of intensity the tension that will drive Nita’s mother to deflect Sanat’s affection, through a series of subtle barely understood manoeuvres, from Nita to her younger sister.
The unfathomable depths of cynicism that underlies human behaviour in Meghe dhaka tara may elude the comprehension of the characters who practice it, but the consequence of every act of selfishness or cynicism is inexorably registered in the world of Ghatak’s film.
Meghe dhaka tara, it bears reiteration, in the light of the popular perception of Ghatak as a brilliant but chaotic filmmaker, is a complex but perfectly structured film. It unfolds predominantly through the intercutting of sequences underpinned by selfishness, exploitation and greed that are normalised as the imperatives of everyday life and the far more vulnerable lines of action driven by a generous belief in people and their ability to rise to their full potential. Typical of the film’s structure is a sequence where Ghatak intercuts a very moving Baul song and the gentle and expansive mood that it introduces with the sordid emotional transactions – a parasitic father’s anxiety about losing status and a nasty, embittered mother’s litany of unfair complaints – that are played out in the dingy interior of Nita’s home.
The deeply pessimistic trajectory along which Meghe dhaka tara is driven from the beginning may be encapsulated in two scenes that appear at the beginning and towards the end of the film. In the first, Shankar catches Nita reading a letter from Sanat who is, at that point, deeply in love with her and who compares the many great qualities that lurk behind her self-effacing personality to the brilliance of stars obscured temporarily by a bank of clouds. It is a letter that looks forward with great hope to their life together. Towards the end of the film, a now successful Shankar returns home after several years only to encounter Nita in a familiar position, crouching over something she appears to read. Shankar lunges at her alleging, playfully, she is reading another love letter. What he comes up with is a handkerchief spattered with the blood that Nita has brought up from her tubercular lungs.
Ghatak’s own life was not all that different from Nita’s. Despite the adulation of a fanatically devoted band of younger filmmakers who were deeply influenced by his work, he never received any real recognition during his life. The photographs of him taken through the two or three years before his premature death at 50, show a shrunken, unshaven face with a crop of dishevelled hair – a face that might have belonged to beggar, if it had not been for those piercing eyes behind the thick black-rimmed spectacles. For the typical Bengali, whose commitment to respectability only slightly exceeds his respect for artistic talent, Ghatak is the classic embodiment of genius whose self-destructive traits, particularly his reckless abuse of alcohol debarred him for the recognition he might have achieved. Yet to describe Ghatak as an alcoholic is seriously reductive. He consumed huge quantities of rough, country liquor not because he was passively dependent on that nasty stuff, but because it was one of his means of staving off the success that pulls so many of his characters into compromise, insensitivity and ultimately degradation.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: India. Production Company: Chitrakalpa. Director: Ritwick Ghatak. Producer: Chitrakalpa. Screenwriter: Ritwick Ghatak. Cinematographer: Dinen Gupta. Editor: Ramesh Joshi. Music: Jyotirindra Moitra, Ustad Bahadur Khan. Cast: Supriya Choudhury (Nita), Anil Chatterjee (Shankar), Niranjan Ray (Sanat), Gita Ghatak (Gita), Bijon Bhattacharya (Father), Gita Dey (Mother).]
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