JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Melodramatically Nita is awakened by a storm ...

... into which she is cast out by her father. She meets Shankar, who ....

... tells her he is taking her to a sanatorium for her in the Shillong hills—her childhood refuge. “You will see the hills at last,” he says, and the scene shifts ...

... abruptly to the hilly landscape of Shillong. Nature is not depicted as idyllic but vast and indifferent. In contrast to Ghatak’s expansive vistas and fluid camerawork, Nita’s entrapment in this natural space conveys stasis and rigidity.

Nita must remain in this now hostile space, cast out, in exile from the family she sacrificed her life for, a family who has forgotten her.

Nita tells Shankar of her desire to live.

Nita cries “I want to live!” Again the whiplash cracks on the soundtrack. As the camera pans around the hills, we hear Nita’s desperate wails permeate the landscape.

Her cries fade and meld into the silent hills.

Images from Subarnarekha

Sita as a girl with her older brother Ishwar.

Sita and Abhiram, a poor youth that Ishwar had taken in at the time of Partition. The children use an abandoned WW2 airport landing strip as their playground.

Sita becoming a woman.

Sita as a young woman with Ishwar, who has intense feelings for her. She takes care of him and Abhiram.

Sita sings a Krishna kirtan to the river landscape.

Abhiram expresses his feelings to Sita.

Ishwar has forced Sita’s betrothal to a high caste man, but here Sita and Abhiram plan to escape on the day of her planned wedding.

The couple move to Calcutta, but Abhiram is killed by an angry mob. Here she learns of his death.

Ishwar gets drunk and seeks a prostitute.

Sita awaits her first “customer.”

She recognizes that the “customer” at her doorstep is Ishwar.

Bewildered, Ishwar watches Sita’s suicide.

Binu is Sita and Abhiram’s son. Here he urges Ishwar to follow him home.

The film’s opening classical Indian raga and women’s chorus rise up on the soundtrack to join with the sound of rushing water and Binu’s childish voice.

Poster from film Subarnarekha.

 

The sacrifice of Nita  

The penultimate scene of Meghe Dhaka Tara focuses on Nita and takes place in a sanatorium among the Shillong hills of Bengal. In the previous scene, Nita was trapped in a decrepit hut; now she resides in a hospital for the sick and dying in the middle of ostensibly boundless nature. However, the spatial significance of the Shillong hills as the site of Nita’s demise is that here nature is not represented as idyllic and timeless, but is suffocating, indifferent and indicative of Nita’s mortality. Shankar (Nita’s brother who has become a well-known classical Indian singer) is visiting her and they are sitting outside on a vast lawn surrounded by the hills. Nita is framed against the encircling landscape, which reinforces the feminization of the space. However, Nita is not immortalized as a goddess in this space, but is pictured as small, insignificant – as a human who will suffer an agonizing death. Ghatak undermines any, in Naficy’s words, “nostalgic longing to the homeland’s natural landscape,” for Nita is now hostage to this land, held in permanent exile.[54][open notes in new window]

Shankar relates news of the antics of Gita’s (Nita’s younger sister’s) new son (a motherhood Nita will never experience), when suddenly she gets up, grabs his shirt and frantically cries,

“Brother, you know I really want to live. I love so much to be alive. Brother, tell me once that I will live. Brother, I want to go home. I want to live!”

These last three words are amplified and reverberated on the soundtrack and joined with a droning sound and a whip cracking (two reoccurring sound effects that are always matched with Nita) as the camera pans in dizzying 180 degree panoramic shots of the surrounding hills of Bengal. Nita’s violent cry, her unrelenting affirmation of life, counterpoints the claustrophobic confinement in which she will spend her final days. In juxtaposition to Ghatak’s expansive and fluid camerawork, Nita’s entrapment in this natural space conveys stasis and rigidity. The immense landscape appears to collapse around her as she gasps and struggles to find her voice on the soundtrack – for her visual image is now absent and we are left with the sound of her disembodied utterances. Yet Nita, as diseased “Woman,” fallen “Goddess” and dystopian “Bengal” (i.e., “Motherland”), is determined to live on even as she is dying. Ultimately, however, Meghe Dhaka Tara illustrates Ghatak’s skepticism about the future of the Bengali family and the Bengali homeland. After the following description of Subarnarekha’s narrative, I will examine the character Sita, as woman and as mythological goddess, shaped by music and landscape.

Brief synopsis of Subarnarekha:

Subarnarekha begins in a setting similar to that of Meghe Dhaka Tara: a lower middle-class family living in a bustee on the outskirts of Calcutta immediately following Partition. This bustee is a camp, called “New Life Colony,” for refugees from East Bengal. The narrative of Subarnarekha focuses on Sita, whose mother and father were killed during Partition, and who is being raised by her elder brother, Ishwar. Ishwar has also taken in a poor, low-caste boy named Abhiram. They move to the Bengali countryside for a fresh start when Ishwar gets a job as an assistant manager in an iron foundry. Sita spends her life caring for her unmarried brother, until she grows into a young woman and falls in love with Abhiram. Ishwar is determined to find a proper high-caste Hindu husband for Sita and demands that she never see Abhiram again. Ishwar proceeds to arrange Sita’s marriage, yet Sita, resolved to marry Abhiram, escapes with him to Calcutta on her wedding night.

Once again living in a bustee, the newly married couple has a child, Binu, and Abhiram finds work as a bus driver. One day, he accidentally runs over a child and an angry mob kills him. Sita is forced to earn money for her and Binu. She begins to sing for paying customers, and thus unwittingly becomes a prostitute. One night, Ishwar, on a business trip to Calcutta, visits Sita in a drunken stupor to avail himself of her services, not realizing that this prostitute is his sister. In shock at seeing her brother in these circumstances, Sita kills herself. At the conclusion of the film, Binu is placed in the care of Ishwar, who although devastated, attempts to move on for the sake of his nephew.            

Sita as goddess:
Sita/Sati/Radha

Through song, Ghatak portrays Sita as both mother and lover—as the goddess Sita and the mythical lover of Krishna, Radha.[55] One day, in Chhatimpur in the Bengali countryside, Sita, as a young girl, is idly walking along an abandoned airstrip singing a Bengali folk song when she encounters Ishwar’s senile old boss. He asks Sita her name and then proceeds to tell her the story of her birth and death. The old man tells Sita how her mythical namesake was found as a baby in the furrow of a field by King Janak and how she returned to her mother, Earth, when scorned by her husband, Rama, who believed that she had cheated on him with the evil demon, Ravana. Ghatak reworks this mythological tale in Subarnarekha to climax with the female character Sita’s committing suicide with a kitchen knife in response to the horror of seeing her brother, Ishwar (“God” in Hindi), at her doorstep to solicit her services as a prostitute.

In this film, yet another layer to the reconstruction of the goddess archetype in the character of Sita can be found in the Puranic tale of Sati, another manifestation of the goddess Durga, who burns herself through the fire of her concentration (yogagni) in order to satisfy the ethics of good womanhood (satidharma) because her father, Daksha, while under the influence of a magic garland had engaged in unseemly sexual behavior towards her.[56] Daksha is greatly opposed to Sati’s marriage to the god, Shiva. In Subarnarekha, Ishwar represents Daksha, for he is a surrogate father to Sita. As a symbolic father, Ishwar, like Daksha has an incestuous attachment to Sita (Sati) and an intense dislike for her husband Abhiram (Shiva). As Sati immolates herself, similarly Sita sacrifices herself when confronted with the shame of the sexual advances of her drunken brother Ishwar.

Sita as a young woman continually sings melancholy Krishna kirtan (songs in praise of Lord Krishna) while sitting among the hills and by the river, Subarnarekha. The spaciousness of Sita’s homescape as an adolescent contrasts with her claustrophobic confines in Calcutta as a young adult. Sita’s rootedness to the surrounding geography of her youth is illustrated in her song and in Ghatak’s framing of her in the rocky, riverine landscape. In one scene Sita is sitting on a sandbank and there is a close-up of sand sifting through her hands. The sifting sand symbolizes the time passed since Sita has last seen Abhiram, and evokes the image of Sita as one with the earth, her symbolic mother. Ghatak then pulls back to a medium close-up and then a long shot of Sita so that we see her on the sandbank by the river with the hills in the background. She begins to sing the following Krishna kirtan :

See the dawn is coming.
The people wake up.
The breeze wakes up.
The birds wake up.
The sky appears.
Oh Shyam [Krishna, the Dark One], why do you still lie asleep?
Where were you, awake all night?
See the dawn is breaking.”

Ghatak frames Sita as part of the surrounding expanse of landscape and nature while she sings this song of longing so as to identify Sita, as Sita her namesake, with her mother, Earth, and to depict Sita, as Radha, singing her song of love in separation to Abhiram, as Krishna. Ghatak’s use of a wide angle lens serves to fuse together the vast, open vista and the image of Sita as iconic motherland. The use of a Krishna kirtan, which portrays the Krishna/Radha dilemma of love in separation, is also a metaphor for the division of Bengal and the nostalgia and longing that geographical separation has engendered. Ghatak’s constant use of Krishna kirtan throughout Subarnarekha serves to permeate the film with a feel of yearning for a united Bengal.

Sita’s Rabindra Sangeet

Sita’s growth as a woman is told through song, particularly a song by Tagore. The song personifies Sita and follows her life’s trajectory. As a small girl, Sita sings the song, which describes and revels in the surrounding nature of the rural Bengal landscape. After she runs away to marry Abhiram against Ishwar’s wishes, her brother is so haunted by the song that he attempts to hang himself. As a wife and mother, Sita sings this same song from her childhood to her son, Binu. And after her death, Binu suddenly breaks into the song, offering a glimmer of hope at the conclusion of the film. Ghatak uses the song to illustrate the innocence and openness of the world of Sita and Binu as children and to serve as a counterpoint to the degradation and boundedness of the environment of Sita and Ishwar as adults. The song goes:                                           

The sun and shade play hide and seek over the paddy field today;
someone has floated rafts of white clouds on the blue sky.
Today the bumblebees forgot to draw nectar from the flowers;
instead they gleefully flit around in the [morning] light.
Today the birds swarm the riverbed, no one knows why.
We will not go home today,
we will stay out and absorb nature as much as we can....
The day will be spent (idly), only by playing the flute.           

In the final shot sequence of Subarnarekha, Sita’s son, Binu, is sitting at a train station with Sita’s brother, Ishwar. Binu is starring blankly into space while remembering how Sita, now dead, used to sing this Tagore song from her childhood to him, as the song slowly comes up on the soundtrack. In close-up, Binu begins singing the song, which greatly surprises and saddens Ishwar. Here, Ghatak interweaves history, memory and nature. This Rabindra sangeet represents Sita’s voice as it echoes across the riverine countryside, like Nita’s voice resonates against the Shillong hills at the end of Meghe Dhaka Tara. The feminized homeland remains, but the women endure only as fractured, disembodied memories.

In the next and final scene, Binu and Ishwar are seen in a wide angle, long shot, trudging along the banks of the Subarnarekha river in West Bengal, surrounded by hills and trees. Binu leads the dazed, plodding Ishwar by the hand and incites him to move along into the seemingly endless, daunting landscape. The pair is attempting to go home. It is a home they will now have to recreate after Sita’s suicide. The film’s opening classical Indian raga and women’s chorus rise up on the soundtrack to join with the sound of rushing water and Binu’s childish voice. The women’s chorus fades to a single, female voice as the final shot reveals the Bengali inscription, “Victory to man, to this new born child, ever-living.” Thus, Ghatak leaves us with the sound and image of children as the only hope for the survival of post-Independence Bengal.

The sacrifice of Sita           

At the end of Subarnarekha, Sita is truly in exile. She now resides alone in a rented room with her son because she has had to flee her home in the countryside due to her brother’s irrational jealousy towards her husband, Abhiram, and now the husband is dead. While Sita’s youth was spent in “the idyllic open structures of home (that) emphasize continuity,” her adulthood devolves in the urban slums of Calcutta – “those paranoid structures of exile (that) underscore rupture.”[57] In the sequence where Sita commits suicide, Ghatak’s ingenious employment of sound is fully realized. Sita’s sacrificial final scene is related entirely through song, sound effects and silence. It has no dialogue. When the completely inebriated Ishwar arrives at Sita’s house, he has no idea that Sita is the prostitute whom he is visiting. Ishwar is not only drunk but also almost blind because earlier in a bar he dropped his glasses and stepped on them. He is literally and symbolically visionless. His inability to see beyond Abhiram’s lower caste status has propelled Sita into these dire circumstances. In order to maintain his position in his job and society, Ishwar has renounced Sita, his only family member.

Exiting a taxi, Ishwar stumbles towards Sita’s house; a point of view shot illustrates his blurry and distorted vision. As Ishwar stands weaving back and forth on the threshold of the door to Sita’s suffocatingly small, dark room, the faint strains of Nino Rota’s La Dolce Vita[58] theme are heard as we see an out-of-focus long shot of Sita. In his article, “Sound in Cinema,” Ghatak states:

“There are times when a tune used in a film by someone else is used to make an observation, the way I myself have done. The music that accompanies the scene of orgy at the end of La Dolce Vita, where Fellini lashes out at the whole of Western civilization, is known as Patricia. I sought to make a similar statement in my Subarnarekha about my own land, this Bengal, so sparkling with intellect. So I have used the same music in the bar scene [and in Sita’s suicide scene], to make a suggestion. Was I influenced? Not at all. The music merely helped me say a lot of things.”[59]

“Helped me say a lot of things” for Ghatak refers to his commentary on the senselessness of the dissolution of post-Independence Bengali culture and society. As Kumar Shahani has explained while discussing Ghatak’s evolution of an “epic” cinematic form:

“In Subarnarekha, the dramatic element disintegrates, its cliches are turned against itself; the traumatic prostitution of our culture is exemplified as Sanskrit becomes part of La Dolce Vita in one of the world’s poorest cities. We are made to face our self-destructive incestuous longings which are otherwise so delicately camouflaged by both our sophisticated and vulgar filmmakers.”[60]

The Rota theme becomes a loud drone as Ghatak cuts to a medium close-up of Ishwar drenched in sweat. The drone fades into the sound of Sita’s rapid, terrified breathing. There is a cut to a blurred close-up of Sita’s petrified face and frozen doe-like eyes. Visually and aurally the feeling of Sita’s claustrophobia and confinement is accelerated.            

In the final seconds of the scene, Ghatak constructs a powerful montage of sound and visuals. With Sita’s exaggerated breathing serving as an audio transition, Ghatak cuts to a large kitchen knife, then to an extreme close-up of Sita’s unblinking eye filling the frame. Her body is now completely fragmented; her identity reduced to an omniscient eye, in contrast to Ishwar’s physical and metaphorical blindness. Sita is trapped, inert with fear; her goddess stature diminished to a distorted and disembodied representation. Then there is a very quick cut to Sita’s picking up the knife accompanied by the fleeting sound of a knife being sharpened. We hear a crash of cymbals and a dull thud as a cut to a confused, reeling Ishwar reveals a few bloodstains on his white kurta. With the drone of strings, more blood spurts on to Ishwar’s clothes. We see the table with Sita’s tambora (a traditional Indian string instrument) on it shaking, joined by the sound of Sita’s bangles and body in her death throes. The camera swiftly pans around the room and lands upon a shot of Ishwar’s face reflected in a small mirror on a bed – also on the bed are a comb, some hair clips, and Sita’s arm and hand, her fingers clutching, desperately clawing, the white sheet as she dies.

Then there is a cut to a close-up of Ishwar’s blood-spattered face followed by the first in-focus shot of Sita’s face — as a death masque — and absolute silence. The sonic and visual impact of Sita’s self-sacrifice is shocking. The dramatic construction of the scene underscores the epic tragedy of Sita’s death — the sacrifice of Bengal — caused by the decadence of Ishwar, the excesses of Bengali society.

Conclusion

In Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, representations of “Woman” and “Homeland” are inextricably intertwined in setting, sound, and song. Mixing and layering traditions with innovations infused with socio-historical observations and critiques, Ghatak creates a cinema that offers a complex vision of post-Independence Bengal, where both dystopian and utopian futures are envisioned for his Bengali homeland. Hamid Naficy has observed:

“But exile must not be thought of as a generalized condition of alienation and difference, or as one of the items on the diversity-chic menu. All displaced people do not experience exile equally or uniformly. Exile discourse thrives on detail, specificity and locality. There is a there there in exile.”[61]

As an exilic filmmaker, Ghatak attempts to portray the ambivalence and contradictions of Bengali society in post-Partition Bengal. And as a refugee, Ghatak is compelled in his work to interrogate and continually reassess Bengal’s cultural memory, identity, and history.

In his 1970s essay, “Society, Our Traditions, Filmmaking and My Effort,” Ghatak states:

“Child’s play with film is no longer fitting. The huge formative nation-building role of films in this country will be here soon.”[62]

In his films, Ghatak not only constructs varying visions of his Bengali homeland, but also consciously attempts to activate film’s political and cultural role in newly independent India.

Continued: Endnotes


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