A River Called Titas: River of No Return

New access to important works from the past often prompts a revision of film history—especially when it comes to national cinemas—that takes the form of a polemical backlash: if only we had known decades ago that Mikio Naruse was better than Yasujiro Ozu, Boris Barnet better than Sergei Eisenstein, and Ritwik Ghatak better than Satyajit Ray! In reality, there is no need for such stark oppositions, and especially not the contest between Ghatak and Ray—who admired each other’s work—to filter our appreciation.

But a distinction between these two masters can still be usefully drawn. Ray’s work was an “art cinema” distinct from popular Indian fare (such as Bollywood entertainment), defined by a humanism and realism that easily traveled the world in its day. The Bengali Indian Ghatak was further out on the margins: the avant-garde of this art cinema. Although Ghatak explored popular-culture forms, he never achieved, in his lifetime, much more than cult popularity among artists, intellectuals, and students, and he received little recognition outside his home country.

Ghatak’s films—he completed eight fiction features and several shorts and documentaries—are also nervier, more radically modern than Ray’s. He gave his work a palpable texture of constant shock, and part of the reason for this was personal. He was an alcoholic virtually from the time of Ajantrik (1958), his second feature film, and prone to bouts of deep depression and periods of institutionalization. His death at age fifty, in 1976, came at the end of a long string of illnesses. These facts are not incidental to his achievements as a film artist; indeed, there is something in the temperamental disposition of an alcoholic that helps to explain why Ghatak’s surviving oeuvre remains so remarkable to us today. He was at once a sharply rational man and a completely, uncontrollably emotional one, and the dimension of melodrama that pushes toward constant hysteria offered him a way to fully enact, on-screen, over and over, his own traumatic experience of Bengali history.

A River Called Titas (1973), Ghatak’s penultimate and most fondly remembered film, begins with a dedication to “the myriad of toilers of everlasting Bengal.” But is there anything everlasting in Ghatak’s cinema? His films track the slow, painful deterioration of places, communities, personal relationships; his characters separate (less by choice than circumstance), wander, go mad. Even the mighty Titas River begins “behaving strangely” (as an observer in the film comments), as if in response to the general disintegration of all things; in haunting, indelible images, Ghatak shows us its increasingly visible, drying-up bed . . .

But although Ghatak offers us the sad spectacle of the passing of a way of life—in this case, the fishing industry in the village of Gokannaghat, on the banks of the Titas—he is not nostalgic or sentimental. His films are dedicated to dramatizing and revealing the reality of incessant change, on both a personal or small-community level (E-Flat, 1961) and a social one (his debut feature, 1952’s The Citizen). They take a sometimes quizzical, sometimes tragic, always fascinated look at the industrial changes sweeping through Bengali Indian culture during the twentieth century; the alterations are inevitable, unstoppable. He portrays this evolution variously as comedy—as in Ajantrik, the story of a car—and epic drama, as in The Golden Line (1965).

As Ghatak surveyed the transformation of the modern world, he did so as a modernist artist as well, and one with revolutionary ideals. In his twenties, he became part of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (as did his fellow Bengali Indian filmmaker Mrinal Sen), writing, translating, directing, and acting. It was there that he formed an attachment to the theories of Bertolt Brecht—and the dream of marrying leftist content with a populist storytelling form. Like Brecht, Ghatak was keen to promote both emotional involvement and analytical distance on the spectator’s part, in a seesawing, dialectical movement. Cinema seemed the ideal form for his vision.

By 1973, however, the plans for socialist reform that had nurtured Ghatak’s young-adult sensibility had evolved into a complex, often paradoxical mixture of commitment—he always proclaimed his belief in a “useful” cinema that would, in some way, serve and help the dream of a better world—and disenchantment. This bittersweet mood, peculiar to his later work, doubtless prompted his reflection, shortly after completing A River Called Titas, that the film amounted to the lesson that “history is ruthless” and that the world he re-created there was “all lost. Nothing remains.” It was a river of no return.

Ghatak’s life was marked by historic trauma, and this trauma became the basis for his sensibility and the substance of his work in all media: theater, fiction and poetry writing (his Stories appeared in English in 2002), film. He spent his adolescence in East Bengal, and witnessed throughout the forties a rolling series of momentous crises: World War II; the Bengal famine of 1943; multiple riots, strikes, and rebellions; the Indian independence movement; and, finally, the Partition of August 1947. After the dissolution of the British Indian Empire, the Partition split India, on the basis of religion, into the Dominion of Pakistan (of which the majority-Muslim East Bengal became a part) and the Union of India (to which the Hindu West Bengal went); it involved the uprooting of millions of people, many of them dying in the process. Ghatak—as the opening titles of A River Called Titas plaintively inform us—was preoccupied with these masses of often forgotten, anonymous people in Bengal’s turbulent history.

Partition: the word itself has come to symbolize Ghatak’s cinema. Has there ever been a filmmaker so intensely, single-mindedly focused on every conceivable variation of rupture, abandonment, fragmentation? And not only on the level of overarching sociohistorical context or immediate plot; Ghatak also enacted the tearing sensation of schism formally, in his highly composed frames, in his radical use of music and sound, and above all in his rigorous, ultramodern editing style. How often does a scene of high drama seem to end too soon in Ghatak’s work, the picture, music, and gesture suddenly terminated, rudely snatched away from our contemplation?

Indeed, what some viewers and critics in decades past saw as eruptions of Ghatak’s “rough-edged” style, or perhaps as the limitations of the technology at his disposal, appear to twenty-first-century eyes (and ears) as evidence of a film language every bit as sophisticated and restless as Jean-Luc Godard’s or Lynne Ramsay’s. Ghatak was a poet of rupture. By 1960 and his The Cloud-Capped Star, he had fully married what are often seen as two opposing tendencies in filmmaking: a mise-en-sce?ne approach, based on the placement and movement of figures within a composition, and a montage method, highlighting the graphic clash of one shot with the next. In fact, Ghatak brought the montage principles of Eisenstein—whom he revered above all other teachers— into both phases of the filmmaking act: every frame staged a war, and every cut tore the scene further apart.

A River Called Titas is based on an autobiographical novel by Advaita Malla Barman, published in 1956, five years after the writer’s death; his reputation derived in part from the fact that he had struggled up from the type of extreme poverty we see depicted in Ghatak’s film. The story is set in the early thirties and therefore is not literally a tale of the Partition years, but projecting the trauma of Partition onto his work is characteristic of Ghatak, who diffused it through the entirety of the history that he had seen and lived. In fact, on one level, the film was very close indeed to its contemporaneous reality: Bangladesh had at last achieved its independence from Pakistan (another partition) only two years earlier, in 1971. However, from the fifties on, Ghatak seemed to some of his colleagues unduly fixated on the single moment of the Partition; as the Indian scholar Moinak Biswas notes, he “went on extending that event into a metaphor for everything that was alienating and destructive in the experience of his community, and talked about the pervasive degeneration of his country sometimes solely in terms of it.” Yet his motivation is clearer to us now: on the one hand, he was fighting the enormous fog of denial surrounding the tragic upheavals triggered by Partition; on the other, he opposed the simplistic celebration of progress that drove the social modernity of India.

The plot of A River Called Titas is pure melodrama—a form that, in the Indian context, Ghatak proudly claimed as his birthright. He makes use of cultural archetypes familiar to the broadest Indian audience, such as the suffering mother, the wise (or crazy) old man of the village, the local gossips, the blushing, virginal bride . . . and then twists narrative conventions, both subtly and provocatively. The film is, in line with Ghatak’s Brechtian orientation, a broken, deliberately disjointed melodrama, arranged in two starkly distinct halves, and gives itself the freedom to hop from one character’s story thread to another’s—an uncommon technique in world cinema of the time. As often happens in Ghatak’s films, everything—all passions and problems—begins in the formative years of childhood and adolescence. We are introduced to a young girl, Basanti (played as an adult by Rosy Samad), pining to one day marry Kishore (Prabir Mitra), who is always in the company of his friend Subol. Now men, the two travel along the river to another village, Ujaninagar, where Kishore is promptly paired off with Rajar Jhi (Kabari Choudhury). In their one, fleeting night of marital intimacy, they will conceive a child—but Rajar will hardly see her husband’s face. Back on the river (in the boat, the shy Rajar still scarcely peeks at Kishore), disaster strikes this union: Rajar is kidnapped. She survives and washes up on the banks of the Titas, but Kishore—who has lost his mind as a result of the incident—will never know it. Basanti, meanwhile, is married off to Subol—who dies the very next day. And this takes us only thirty minutes into a 156-minute film!

Not all narrative events are shown on-screen; sometimes we learn of them only retroactively (as in the case of Basanti’s marriage). Ghatak was fond of using great leaps forward, ellipses in time, to shape his stories. The powerful, overarching rhymes—such as the words that the young Basanti hears at the start of the film about the “last drop” of the Titas, “without which our soul cannot depart,” words that return to her in the final scene—are more crucial than plodding through every detail of the action. In fact, Ghatak’s stated aim was to heighten the devices of melodrama—the outrageous developments (such as Basanti and Rajar becoming friends, completely unaware of each other’s past), the agonizing coincidences (Rajar falling for the mad Kishore, again unaware of who he really is, and hoping to replace his “lost soul mate”)—and bend them in the direction of Brecht’s epic theater. Everything in melodrama that removed events from the conscious will and power of the characters—that delivered them over to the infernal cycles of chance or fate— had a potential political significance for Ghatak; he was interested in forces larger than the individual consciousness—forces that are, at the same time, graspable only through these human intermediaries, these long-suffering victims of history.

History almost claimed Ghatak himself as a victim, and not only in the way it affected his mental and physical health. At the time of his death in 1976, his final and most experimental film, Reason, Debate and a Story, which he had completed two years earlier, could not find a theatrical release; his wife, Surama, later said she regretted not imploring Indira Gandhi (a Ghatak fan) to intervene on behalf of this cinematic last testament. And while there were isolated pockets of critical discovery of his work around the world, especially from the eighties on, his oeuvre as a whole, and its physical elements, fell into a state of neglect. Thanks to the work of the Ritwik Memorial Trust (and especially the tireless efforts of Ghatak’s son, Ritaban), the original but incomplete camera and sound negatives for A River Called Titas, held by the National Film Archive of India, plus a complete positive print provided by the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv in Berlin, were passed along to the World Cinema Project, which used them to create a restored version of the film at the Cineteca di Bologna’s L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, completed in May 2010. This digital restoration—which includes a re-creation of the opening credits—produced a new 35 mm internegative for preservation.

It has been a long and winding road for this work to become available in its optimum form, and for Ghatak’s artistic stature to be acknowledged worldwide. Surama Ghatak, looking upon her late husband’s burgeoning fame, recently wondered whether he was a soothsayer who had divined his own, better future beyond the grave. How well this image suits the maker of A River Called Titas, in which (in a ghost-story touch), “after death, the mother becomes an enemy” because she envies the living and wants to bring them to her level. Ritwik Ghatak was a troubled soul in his lifetime; now he is the spirit that haunts world cinema with his seismographic renderings of trauma. 

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