Two Films: Devi and Subarnarekha and Two Masters of Cinema / Partha Chatterjee

Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were two masters from the Bengali cinema of the 1950s. They were temperamentally dissimilar  and yet they shared  a common cultural inheritance left behind by Rabindranath Tagore.  An inheritance that was a judicious mix of tradition and modernity.  Ray’s cinema,  like his personality, was outwardly sophisticated  but with deep roots in his own culture, particularly that of the reformist Brahmo Samaj founded  by Raja  Ram Mohan Roy to challenge the bigotry of the upper caste Hindu Society in Bengal in the early and mid-nineteenth century.   Ghatak’s  rugged, home-spun exterior hid an innate sophistication that  found a synthesis in the deep-rooted Vaishnav culture  of Bengal and the teachings of western philosophers like Hegel, Engels and Marx.


Satyajit Ray’s Debi (1960) was made with the intention  of examining the disintegration of a late 19th century Bengali Zamidar family whose patriarch (played powerfully by Chabi Biswas)  very foolishly believes  that his student son’s  teenaged wife (Sharmila Tagore) is blessed by the Mother Goddess (Durga and Kali) so as able to  cure people  suffering from various ailments.  The son (Soumitra Chatterjee)  is a good-hearted,  ineffectual son of a rich father.  He is in and out of his ancestral house  because he is a student in Calcutta, a city that symbolizes  a modern, scientific (read British) approach to life.


The daughter-in-law named Doyamoyee, ironically in  retrospect,  for she is victimized by her vain, ignorant father-in-law, as it to justify  the generous, giving quality suggested by her name.  After a few “successes”, Doyamoyee fails  tragically  to cure her brother-in-law’s  infant son,  who dies because he is denied proper medical treatment  by his demented grandfather driven solely by religion.  Doyamoyee goes mad and dies tragically having hovered in the twilight of  self-deception and rationality.  Her loving husband makes a dash from Calcutta but arrives  too late to help avert the tragedy.   Her  father-in-law’s conviction  that she was Devi or Goddess remains firm.


Ray’s sense of mise-en-scene or literally what he puts in a particular scene, is vigorous, classical.  The way he links each scene to tell his story that moves forward  inevitably towards its tragic finish with the surety  of a well-aimed arrow, is an object lesson in film craft. His pace is unhurried  and yet the editing carries the film forward  by giving maximum importance to the content  of individual scenes.


The impact  of Doyamoyee’s  first appearance  on-screen made up as a Devi, and also like a bride with  sandal paste dots just above either eye-brow curving downwards and a large Kumkum bindi, offset  by Sharmila Tagore’s  innocent, liquid eyes, is simultaneously a touching  as well as disturbing sign.  One  realizes  the importance of this close-up  much after leaving the film theatre.  It foretells the sending of a lamb to slaughter, although one’s initial  reaction to the image  is one of admiration bordering on Bhakti.  Dulal Dutta’s  editing, Ray’s direction  of a fledgling actress  and Subrata Mitra’s immaculate lensing and approximation of daylight together help create magic.


Ray’s  visual style is beautiful because it is also understated.  Every shot  has an organic quality that helps in the unfolding of the narrative,  giving it shape, tone, clarity  and sensitivity.  His  camera draws the viewer in as a witness to the happenings that coelesce into a moving story about power arising, ironically, from  a lack of knowledge and the certitude that blind faith brings  to an economically  powerful man who is then free to wreck havoc even on his loved  ones with the best of intentions.


Ali Akbar Khan’s  spare music, helps enunciate the sense of loss that the film carries.  He had by then become aware of the need to say more with less in composing  background music for cinema.


Khan  Saheb, the great  Sarod maestro had composed  music earlier in Hindi films for Aandhiyaan  and Anjali.  His composing  skills  were not particularly tested except for a raga Mallika  based-song sung by Lata Mangeskar  for Aandhiyaan.  His peerless solo sarod carried Anjali.  He was a little jittery when asked to compose the music for Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajaantrik.


His score  for this  film revolved  largely around his moving rendition of raga Bilaskhani Todi on the Sarod. There were other interesting  bits played  by Bahadur Khan  (Sarod)  and  Nikhil Banerjee (Sitar).  But  here in Debi, he seemed to have  intuitively grasped the core idea of the film.  He uses a simple Shyama Sangeet  dedicated to Goddess Kali as a leit motif both as a vocal rendering and as an astonishingly eloquent Sarod Solo.  He also uses another Shyama Sangeet as a counter point.  The end result is remarkable.  It is amongst the very few truly memorable background scores in Indian films.


Subrata Mitra’s Black  and White photography helps express Ray’s  innermost thoughts with precision.  His lyrical vision blends with that of the director and includes   a genuine sense of the tragic.  The slow disintegration of Doyamoyee’s  mind is photographed  with unusual understanding.  Mitra was to Ray what  cinematographer Sven Nykvist was to Ingmar Bergman in Swedish cinema.  It is difficult to forget the images of the last quarter of the film.


The idyllic view of a river in the countryside with two boats   in either  corner of the frame, in early morning light, just before the return of the young husband  from Calcutta in a futile  bid to save his young bride’s  life, is the perfect visual prelude to the  onset of the final tragedy that is soon to occur.  Doyamoyee’s flight from her father-in-law’s   house with her husband in pursuit through crop-laden fields and her ultimate  death amidst  enveloping, ever brightening light is a triumph of B/W cinematography.


Satyajit Ray’s transformation of Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee’s competently told tale into a film of abiding  value is worth cherishing.  His little touches are worthy of emulation by younger filmmakers travelling on the same path.  The way he inverses the role of the maternal figure  when the ailing baby is placed on Doyamogee’s  lap is an object lesson in filmmaking.


She is only a very young woman who has “Sainthood”  thrust upon her by a superstitious,  overbearing father-in-law.  Her own potential for  motherhood is kept on hold   as she is willed by  others to become a “Divine Mother”  to cure the diseases from which that they may be suffering.


Ray’s  treatment  of the film brings  to mind  that unique constituent  of the Indian psyche which  seeks solutions to all worldly  problems including   the cure of disease through supernatural intervention  rather than rationality and science.  This attitude is also largely responsible for the choice  of political  leaders and the exercise  of choices, both social and political.

If you want to see the film here is a link to Devi:


Ritwik Ghatak's Subarnrekha

Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnrekha

Ritwik Ghatak’s Subranarekha (1962)  is a far cry from the world of Maya (illusion)  and blind faith.  It is rooted in the sufferings of daily life engendered  by wholly avoidable political events.  The protagonists are victims  of the senseless partition of India in 1947.  They have been uprooted  from their native East Bengal and have come to a Suburb of Calcutta in Independent India.


Life   is a relentless struggle for Ishwar  Bhattacharya (Abhi Bhattacharya), his little sister  Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee)  and foster brother Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharjee)  as it is for the other  members of the Refugee camp.  Ishwar is befriended by a school master, Harprasad (Bijon Bhattacharya).  A chance   meeting in the street  with an old friend, a marwari, lands Ishwar a job in his foundry near the river  Subarnarekha in Bihar.  Harprasad  accuses  Ishwar of being a coward and seeking security only for his family and forgetting his suffering   comrades in the camp.  The rest of the story, or rather its unfolding  would do credit to Bertold Brecht, who, despite  his intractable stand against the bourgeoisie,  had imbibed vital lessons from medieval Christian morality plays.


Ishwar and his little  family find stability thanks to his job.  Sita grows up to be a  beautiful, musically gifted woman  and Abhiram, a writer of promise.  Inevitably they fall in love and marry against  the wishes  of Ishwar, Sita’s blood  brother and also a  father-figure  in her life.  They elope to  Calcutta.  Sita, after  a few years  of marriage  becomes a widow.  Ishwar, with  his life, in a shambles,  is rescued by  the Sanskrit-toting,   indigent  school  master,  Harprasad.  Sita, with a little  son to feed,  makes her debut as a singing courtesan  for her drunken elder brother  Ishwar: Recognising  him she commits suicide.  What  follows  is a most moving, perceptive rendering of the sufferings  of the displaced  in the 20th  century and their chimeral aspirations  to stability.


The film  was shot on a day to day  basis as there was only the skeletal plot of a long-lost brother and sister meeting as client and singing prostitute provided  by producer Radhe Shyam Jhunjhunwala.  Ghatak literally had to work his story in both directions without the knowledge of his producer  who was expecting  an entirely different, perhaps hugely sensational  film.  This story is true because Ghatak had to do “Scissors”,  his only  Advertising film, courtesy his friend Chidananda Dasgupta,  then with Imperial Tobacco Company.  The proceeds from this cigarette Ad film went to do the final post-production work  on Subarnarekha when producer  Jhunjhunwala fled in panic.


Ghatak’s   cinematographic vocabulary, was no doubt, enriched by disparate sources.  Literature, Bengali,  Sanskrit and European had a part to play as did  his own considerable literary efforts; he was a Bengali short-story writer of high promise when only in his middle-twenties.  Music, both Hindustani classical and Folk including Vaishnav Kirtans, Bhatialis, Bhawaiyyas,  Baul songs and other forms helped shape his sensibilities.  Cinematically he owed almost nothing to Hollywood but had learnt from  films by the Soviet masters like Eisenstein and Dovzhenko the art  of  editing and dramatic shot-taking.  His poetically charged  depiction of the passage  of time was uniquely his own.


He understood instinctively  that cinema and music were sister-arts and that both, more than anything else portrayed the passage of time.  His handling  of cinematic time was both dynamic and lyrical.


Ghatak knew   all about the malleability of time in cinema to arrive at what may be a truth, which in turn opens many doors of perception in the viewer .  His handling of time in Subarnarekha,  is on the surface linear but, in truth, is also very interestingly elliptical.


There is a magnificent example of a scene in a deserted airport where Sita and Abhiram  are playing on a  Second World  War  airstrip.  Sita tells Abhiram  that the British pilots would  bomb Japanese positions in Burma and then come back to enjoy themselves in the Air force Mess after  the mission.  A few moments  after, the children   start imitating  the take-off of an aircraft, the Camera suddenly “becomes”   airborne.  The sound track makes the illusion all the more real. This scene  is a symbolic projection of Sita and Abhiram’s future dreams.


Similarly the adult Sita singing a bandish in raga Kalavati  on the same deserted airstrip where she played with Abhiram as  children,  is  full of grief and foreboding because her elder brother is certainly  going to reject the idea of her  marrying  Abhiram, her foster brother, who, on a railway  platform discovers by sheer chance   his dying “low-cast”  biological  mother.


There is another scene when, after the elopement of Sita and Abhiram, the assistant manager of the foundary starts reading  out from a Bengali newspaper  about Yuri Gagarin’s space flight.   Ishwar snatches  the paper  out of the man’s hand and throws it into the foundry as if making a comment, unknown to himself, on the ineptitude of human beings at managing  their affairs  on Earth.


It is a film of startling transitions.  When Ishwar weary of life alone, some years  after the departure  of Sita and Abhiram, decides to hang himself his old friend Harprasad appears like   a ghost at the window and declares “How far gone is the night?  There is no answer”.  Ishwar’s  suicide is averted and the two friends after a brief  conversation end up in the morning on the same  deserted airstrip where Sita and Abhiram played  as children.  Near the wreckage of a WWII Dakota airplane  Harbilash tells Ishwar that both as  individuals and as a generation  they are finished.  He suggests to the relatively monied Ishwar that they go to Calcutta to have a good time.


In Calcutta they go to the race-course to bet on horses and in a sharply photographed and edited sequence the two friends discover the  joy of life which further continues in a Park Street restaurant over dinner and far too  many drinks.    Not for nothing is “Patricia”  from Fredrico Fellini’s  La Dolce Vita heard on the sound track. This piece of music is used as a poignant, ironic comment on the state of affairs of two lost souls floundering about in a pitiless world.  At one point in the sequence,  Harprasad tells his friend,   “only what  you can touch is true.  The rest is bogus.”   This revelation from  one  of the Upanishads is also an apt comment for Ghatak’s  time and ours.


The next scene  is the one where a drunken  Ishwar  lands  up in a sleepy  Sita’s  humble home to hear her sing without knowing who she is.  Now a widow,  she,  sleepy from hunger and poverty, recognizes him in an instant  and kills herself with the curved  blade of a bonti, used  for cutting vegetables, fish etc.  The choice of a bonti  on Ghatak’s part  is intuitive  but it is connected with cooking food and therefore economics!


When Ishwar returns  back to his job as Foundry manager  on the banks of the river  Subarnarekha  (also  meaning  the ‘Golden Line’)  with little Binu, the son  of the deceased Sita and Abhiram, he finds that he has been fired.  The scandalous case resulting from Sita’s  suicide is cited as the reason  for his dismissal. Undaunted Ishwar  and his little Nephew Binu set out seeking new horizons accompanied by a  hauntingly  sung ‘Charai Beti’ mantra  on the sound track.  Very few films  in the history  of cinema have  had such a moving ending.


Ghatak’s  use of music in Subarnarekha  is exemplary.  He uses  Bahadur Khan, Ali Akbar Khan’s cousin,  and the most lyrical Sarodist in Hindustani music, as music director.  Bahadur Khan’s theme music subtly  emphasizes the illusion suggested by the title of the film.  It is one of the most sophisticated  and telling background scores in the history of cinema,  vying with Joseph Kosma’s  exquisite work in Jean Renoir’s  A Day in the Country.


Ghatak’s  use of wide-angle lenses, particularly  the problematic  18.5  mm,  indoors and outdoors   is an act of great daring. He places his characters  in their environment  and uses natural and artificial  light to reveal their states of mind assisted by his unusual lensing.  His jagged editing and carefully selected incidental sound adds to the aural  richness and augments the film’s mood.


Ritwik  Ghatak’s  Subarnarekha  is one of the most beautiful  and disturbing films about people  fighting their destiny bestowed upon them by an unforgivable quirk of history;  in this case  the partition of India,  which had the largest single displacement of human population  ever.


If you are excited enough to want to see Subarnarekha you can see it right away on this link: