Nita’s sister, the seductive Gita.

The coquettish and conniving Gita ...

... brings a letter to Nita ...

... which Nita takes to her room to read. These words of love from Sanat give her great pleasure until ...

... Shankar enters and playfully snatches the letter from her...

... illustrating how Nita’s life is not her own.

Gita tells her mother she has to have a sari.

Montu, Nita’s younger brother, tells his mother he needs football gear.

In the background, Nita arrives with her paycheck, and Gita and Montu clamor for money around her. In the foreground, her disgruntled mother anxiously waits for her share.

In a moment of happiness for Nita, her father and brother take her on a birthday outing, but ...

... the visual composition expresses this family’s mutual alienation from each other.

Nita’s fiance, Sanat, encounters her, Gita, and Montu at a railway station. Gita financially supports Sanat, who is conducting research in physics without a scholarship.

Nita in love as she and Sanat sit ...

... by the side of a pond and discuss their future. In the meantime, her mother pushes her sister Gita to be with Sanat.

Nita’s father falls and injures himself, so she gives up her studies to work in the city. She learns from her younger brother that Sanat has a job and a new apartment. She goes to visit him there.

He is better off financially but not particularly welcoming. He smokes and has ...

... an evasive gaze.

The scene comments on his moral shift by drawing our eye to the image of a voluptuous woman and giddy child on a vase near his ashtray—signaling Sanat’s involvement with Gita and her imminent pregnancy.

Bracelets rattle.

Nita hears the rattling and realizes that Sanat is now seeing her sister.

Dazed, Nita leaves, with the sound effect of the whiplash introduced. She feels its force for the first time...

... as she is shown in close up grasping at her throat. Dissolve to image of ...

... Nita trapped by the family courtyard, both emotionally and physically.

Indian melodrama:
Ghatak’s melodramatic style

Tracing the development of melodrama as a mode, genre and/or style in Indian, specifically Bengali, literature, theater and cinema is obviously beyond the scope of this paper.[17] [open notes in new window] Ghatak utilizes melodrama primarily as a style or mode rather than a coherently developed genre. He constructs his melodramatic style within the general Indian popular cinematic context of the 1940s and 1950s Hindi “social” films of directors like Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor and the specific, regional context of 1950s and 1960s Bengali neo-realist “art” films of directors like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen.[18] In an attempt to refine the definition of “melodrama” in relation to “realism” in the context of Indian cinema, the Indian film scholar Ravi Vasudevan explains:

“The conceptual separation of melodrama from realism which occurred through the formation of bourgeois canons of high art in late nineteenth century Europe and America was echoed in the discourses on popular commercial cinema of late 1940s and 1950s India. This strand of criticism, associated with the formation of the art cinema in Bengal, could not comprehend the peculiarities of a form (i.e., melodrama) which had its own complex mechanisms of articulation. In the process, the critics contributed to an obfuscating hierarchization of culture with which we are still contending.”[19]

Vausdevan’s observation is significant for Ghatak’s work because as a filmmaker who unabashedly employs a melodrama modality that combined maudlin and Marxist elements, Ghatak often stands in a cinematic space in between the popular cinema of Bombay and the art cinema of Bengal.

The Indian cinema scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha helps to further situate Ghatak’s films within melodrama in the Bengali cinematic context:

“In Bengal, where a cinema had developed which was economically strong but culturally subservient to the novel, melodrama acquired an oppositional force, e.g. in Barua’s work which subverted the literary, and in the Kallol filmmakers where it later found new alignments with the IPTA’s formal emphasis on the folk theatre.”[20]

For Rajadhyaksha, after the nihilistic love stories of Bengali-Hindi director and actor P.C. Barua in the 1930s-40s, and the socially conscious, folk-infused plots of the Kallol and IPTA filmmakers in the 1930s-50s, Ghatak’s narratives are a next step in the evolution of melodrama in Bengali cinema.[21] As we will see later, scholars who have written on Ghatak, like Geeta Kapur, the Indian cultural critic, and Kumar Shahani, an Indian filmmaker and former Ghatak student, perceive Ghatak’s films as daring to push the boundaries of melodramatic modality.[22]

Throughout his essays and interviews, Ghatak discusses how he interweaves material from Indian mythology and Upanishadic, Marxist and Jungian philosophy into a melodramatic narrative form.[23] He deliberately uses coincidence and repetition to educate an audience and to express ideas. In Ghatak’s 1963 article, “Film and I,” he writes that melodrama is a “much abused genre,” from which a “truly national cinema” will emerge when “truly serious and considerate artists bring the pressure of their entire intellect upon it.”[24] In a 1974 interview, he states:

“I am not afraid of melodrama. To use melodrama is one’s birthright, it is a form.”[25]

Ghatak largely developed his melodramatic style of cinema when he was a playwright, actor and director during the 1940s and 1950s in IPTA. The variety of both indigenous and foreign theatrical styles that IPTA incorporated — such as the Bengali folk form, jatra, and Brecht’s “epic” form — greatly contributed to the theatrical shape of Ghatak’s melodramatic style.[26] Ghatak’s films are frequently characterized as “epic”; he often inverts and recontextualizes Indian traditions and myths.[27] He described Indians as an “epic-minded people” who liked to be told the same myths and legends again and again, and he viewed this “epic attitude” as a “living tradition.”[28] In the following sections on Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, I will give examples of Ghatak’s deconstruction of traditional mythologies surrounding the Bengali woman, and his insertion of reconstructed representations into a modern context to critique his present historical moment.[29]

In the 1960s, Ghatak translated Brecht’s The Life of Galileo and Caucasian Chalk Circle from English to Bengali. In numerous essays and interviews, he discusses the impact on his work of Brecht’s epic approach, alienation effect and use of coincidence.[30] Ghatak draws upon the diverse theatrical traditions of IPTA, Brecht and Stanislavski, and the various cinematic visions of Eisenstein, Godard and Bunuel to come up with use own melodramatic vision.[31] The technical details of Ghatak’s melodramatic style include the following stylistic traits: frequent use of a wide angle lens, placement of the camera at very high, low and irregular angles, dramatic lighting composition, expressionistic acting style and experimentation with songs and sound effects. With this combination of cinematic devices, Ghatak creates a melodramatic post-Partition world in which he constructs his vision of “Woman” and “Homeland” in post-Independence Bengal.

In cinema, the family, the home, with women — mothers, wives, daughters and sisters as the key players — is the primary site of domestic melodrama.[32] In Bengali culture, the home houses the heart of Bengali society: the family. And at the core of the Bengali family is ma, the mother.[33] Within the homes of Ghatak’s post-Independence Bengal lies the site of both ananda (joy) and dukkho (sorrow), emotions intensely expressed by his female characters, frequently through song. These songs and music distill the essence or rasa of the joy and sorrow that Ghatak’s characters experience, and the music track enables these emotions’ full force and weight to be communicated to the audience.[34] The ability of music and song to express powerful emotions beyond the visual dimension of a film, even beyond the film text itself, is particularly evident in Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara, and Subarnarekha.The film sound scholar Caryl Flinn relates in her book Strains of Utopia:

“Melodrama critics assert that the non-representational register (i.e., music) reveals elements which cannot be conveyed through representational means alone, a fundamental split that seems to guarantee the genre’s potentially ‘subversive’ effects.”[35]

In these two films, Ghatak uses songs and music, from Bengali folksongs to a Nino Rota film score, and sound effects, such as Nita’s sonically matched whiplash and Sita’s amplified breathing, as a counterpoint to and comment on the narrative action. Ghatak is one of the first Indian filmmakers to explore the power and diversity of a film’s non-representational register. In these two films, Ghatak specifically focuses on the interrelations betweeen his female characters, the Bengali landscape and Bengali music to visualize a new, often utopic and dystopic, Bengali homeland. In the remainder of this paper, employing theoretical concepts from Geeta Kapur, Kumar Shahani and Hamid Naficy, I will detail scenes from Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha in order to illustrate this point. After providing a brief synopsis of Meghe Dhaka Tara, I will provide an analysis of the film’s primary female character, Nita, in the context of soundscape and landscape.

Brief synopsis of
Meghe Dhaka Tara

Meghe Dhaka Tara is set in the late 1950s in Calcutta. The story revolves around a Bengali lower-middle class, refugee family who were victims of Partition and who are now struggling for survival in a bustee (“slum”) on the outskirts of the city. The eldest daughter, Nita ("Knowledge"), has given up her college studies in order to work. She is the breadwinner of the family. Her elder brother Shankar, who would normally be the head of the household, is eccentric and irresponsible. He spends his days singing, practicing scales and classical Indian khayals,[36] and dreaming of becoming a great singer. Nita’s old father teaches in a small school nearby and her mother maintains the house. Nita’s selfish younger siblings, Gita and Montu, are still in school. In her bleak life, Nita has only one thing to look forward to: the return of Sanat, a young scientist she hopes one day to marry.

Through many twists and turns of the plot, Nita’s family becomes increasingly dependent on her earnings. Nita’s father and Montu both have debilitating accidents and Shankar leaves home for Bombay to become a singing star. Sanat does return, but falls in love with and marries Nita’s sister, Gita. The stresses and strains of Nita’s life take their toll. She develops tuberculosis and, although she is desperately ill, continues to work to support her family. Shankar returns from Bombay, now an accomplished classical singer, to find Nita wasting away with a terminal illness. Shankar takes her to a sanatorium in the hills where she remains, uncertain whether she will live or die, and forgotten by her family.  

Nita as goddess:

The two main female characters of Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha — Nita and Sita — are not only emotionally and physically sacrificed by their families but are also symbolically sacrificed as goddesses. As symbolic goddesses, Nita and Sita represent the Motherland of Bengal and it is Bengali society who sacrifices Her with division and greed.[37] First, I will examine Ghatak’s portrayal of Nita, then his construction of Sita, as “Woman,” “Goddess,” and “Bengal, the Motherland” through the use of various songs and sound effects in the context of the Bengali landscape.

The theoretical work of the Iranian and exilic film scholar Hamid Naficy elucidates what is at stake for Ghatak in these two films and as a filmmaker, particularly as an “accented” or “exilic” filmmaker. [38] Naficy defines “accented” filmmakers as

“situated but universal figures who work in the interstices of social formations and cinematic practices.”[39]

Characterizing Ghatak as an “accented” or “exilic” filmmaker is appropriate not only because he endured the trauma of the partition of his beloved Bengal, but also because the director cinematically commented on subsequent political and cultural fallout from that tragic separation throughout his career. Ghatak is “interstitial” because he had to struggle constantly to obtain funding and equipment to create the kind of films he wanted, largely outside of the Calcutta and Bombay film studio systems. And he is also interstitial because his films’ subject matter and style were often astride that of Indian popular cinema and Bengali art cinema.

The stylistic components of “accented cinema” that I will focus on when detailing scenes with Nita and Sita from Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha are the open-form, natural exteriors and closed-form, claustrophobic interiors used in the mise-en-scene and setting, and the films’ way of eliciting dysphoric, euphoric, or nostalgic structures of feeling, specifically through song, music, and sound effects. These stylistic components shape Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha, and resonate with the technical characteristics of Ghatak’s melodramatic style detailed above. In these two films, Ghatak emphasizes themes of home, homeland, displacement, rupture, utopia, dystopia, urban vs. rural, city vs. village, etc. In his work, Ghatak agonized over the fact that he and multitudes like him were compulsory exiles, refugees in their own homeland, due to the artificial, arbitrary division of Bengal into West Bengal and East Pakistan. Ghatak attempts to illustrate the end result of Partition’s forced migration of millions as political, cultural, and geographical deterritorialization and stasis through depicting the entrapment of the female characters of Nita and Sita in their houses and in their fragmented homeland.

In Meghe Dhaka Tara, the character Nita is actually the manifestation of multiple goddesses: Durga as Jagadhatri, the benevolent image of the eternal giver and universal sustainer, and Uma/Gauri, the Mother Goddess.[40] In her essay “Myth and Ritual: Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara,” Ira Bhaskar points out how Nita represents the benign manifestation of Durga:

“A prevalent story about the genesis of Durga is the concept of Havyagni (oblation to the sacrificial fire). In the ritual of the Havan (the act of consigning the mortal offering to the sacrificial flames) is symbolized the surrender of human desires and aspirations which are carried to the heavens with the smoke. It is believed that Durga was born out of this smoke as a transmutation of human desires, taking the form of Jagadhatari, the universal sustainer. One of the central images associated with Nita is the courtyard wherein are centered the ambitions of the rest of the family... These selfish ambitions pour into the courtyard, the symbolic yagna mandapa, from which manifests Nita in the role of the Provider and Creator.”[41]

The sight and sound of the fire that Nita’s mother uses symbolically to sacrifice her daughter adds to the construction of the Jagadhatari image in the family courtyard. Traditionally, the courtyard of a Bengali or Indian home is the heart of the household. In Meghe Dhaka Tara, the courtyard is an oppressive, suffocating space, particularly for Nita. Significant here is Naficy’s articulation of the outside, external and domestic, internal spaces of accented cinema as feminized and his perception of all accented films as feminine texts. He explains:

“For the exiles, the house is a site of both deep harmony and hatred... Significantly, the discourse of memory feminized the house as an enclosure of femininity and domesticity, associated with motherhood and reproduction. This is how many exiles feminize the homeland... In the accented cinema, the house is an intensely charged place and a signifying trope.”[42]

Throughout Meghe Dhaka Tara, the courtyard is “an intensely charged place” that does not signify Nita’s potential motherhood. Rather it serves as the site of her tragic deterioration at the hands of her overly dependent family members. Ghatak often cuts or pans from the mother (as the destructive Kali and parasitic Chandi, both malevolent manifestations of Durga), surrounded by the smoke of the hearth, to Nita. With the exaggerated sound of boiling rice serving as the transition, the camera moves from the mother to medium close-ups of Nita as Jagadhatri, the nourishing force who has to be immolated. The pronounced sound of the boiling rice kettle that Nita’s mother is always watching over accentuates her insatiable greed. Whenever the conversation in the courtyard turns to the possibility of Nita, the sole breadwinner of the family, getting married, the sound of the boiling kettle is amplified on the soundtrack, usually in conjunction with a close-up of Nita’s mother’s panic-stricken face.

In his 1976 article, “Nature, in the End, is Grandly Indifferent,” Ghatak’s former student Kumar Shahani addresses the manifestation of what he calls “the femininity principle in the Indian tradition” in Meghe Dhaka Tara. Shahani believes that one of Ghatak’s greatest contributions to Indian films was reinvigorating and restoring this femininity principle to its pre-Brahmanical, agrarian roots. Shahani writes:

“The triangular division taken from Tantric abstraction is the key to the understanding of this complex film. The inverted triangle represents, in the Indian tradition, fertility and the femininity principle. The breaking up of society is visualized as a three-way division of womanhood. The three principle woman characters embody the traditional aspects of feminine power. The heroine, Nita, has the preserving and nurturing quality; her sister, Gita, is the sensual woman; their mother represents the cruel aspect. The incapacity for Nita to combine and contain all these qualities, to retain only the nurturing quality to the exclusion of others, is the source of her tragedy.”[43]

Nita’s blind sustaining of her family at the cost of her health and life is also reflected in her representation as Uma. Ghatak states,

“Uma has been the archetype of all daughters and brides of all Bengali households for centuries.”[44]

Ghatak’s identification of Nita with Uma is ironic because her family sacrifices her wifehood and motherhood. Throughout Meghe Dhaka Tara’s soundtrack, Ghatak uses refrains from Bengali folk songs that lament Uma’s departure from her familial home to go to her husband’s home.[45] One song, mourning Uma’s leaving, Ghatak uses extra-diegetically several times in Meghe Dhaka Tara, specifically when Nita’s senile father casts her out of the family house when she is dying from tuberculosis. The lyrics go as follows:

Come, my daughter Uma, to me.
Let me garland you with flowers.
You are the soul of my sad self, Mother, the deliverer.
Let me bid you farewell now, my daughter!
You are leaving my home desolate, for your husband’s place.
How do I endure your leaving, my daughter?                 

Ghatak utilizes this traditional Bengali folk song to counterpoint Nita’s reality; Nita is not the new bride heading for her husband’s home: she is the sickly, unwed daughter who is being banished from her home because she has become a liability rather than an asset. She has been forced into exile. Mirroring her deteriorating condition, Nita’s home has become claustrophobic and ill — strangled by the fears and anxieties of her family. This song ironically comments on Nita’s fate after she has been cast out of her family’s house. For in her role as Uma and the consort of Shiva — Lord of Destruction and Eternal Time who resides in the Himalayan mountains, Nita goes to a sanatorium in the Shillong hills of Bengal to die, as if in Shiva’s lap. In traditional Hindu mythology, the Himalayan mountains are the site of the happy reunion of Uma and her husband, Shiva[46]; but in Meghe Dhaka Tara, poignantly, a hill station in the mountains is where Nita is cast out to die alone. Thus, Ghatak inverts the traditional Hindu myth where Shiva and Uma share a joyous reunion in the Himalayas to emphasize the tragedy of Nita’s impending death. While discussing the multi-faceted Bengali artist Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian cultural historian Geeta Kapur elaborates upon Ghatak’s reconstruction of Indian myths:

But even fewer artists can achieve, simultaneously, the reconstruction of an archetype that turns into a device to speak about the ‘type’ within a class; to present the problem of a class-constructed psyche which so quickly appropriates mythic elements to serve vested interests. I am thinking of Ritwik Ghatak, for whom too [along with Ray] Tagore is a mentor. Certainly in the cinema only this one man, Ghatak, dares to put his stakes so high, and expectedly the cinematic means he uses are bold and hybrid: he does not subscribe to the sacred as such, nor to the revelatory. But nor does he rest content with doubt that declares itself proof of the rational, and an automatic representation, therefore, of the secular. He places rationality within a melodramatic genre and examines the status of doubt there, in that fraught schema, where tragedy is made to give itself over in favour of praxis.” (My italics.)[47]

Thus, Ghatak is making use of Indian myths and archetypes within a melodramatic context as an exercise in exploring the degradation of post-Independence Bengali society.

Continued: Tagore songs

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