Bangladesh 1973. Written and directed by Ritwik Ghatak.
Restored in 2010 by the World Cinema Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna. 158 minutes, in Bengali with English subtitles, black and white, 1.37:1. Available in 35mm and High Definition versions.
“If you were eighteen years old, growing up in New Delhi, a student of cinema, a cinephile or a plain film snob, it was given that you would swoon over the film-maker Ritwik Ghatak and spend endless hours in the Delhi University canteen discussing his film, his alcoholism and his eventual death from Tuberculosis. … years later when I saw his epic, A River Called Titas, [that] I swooned for different reasons. The film is a work of pure genius. A passionate elegy for a dying culture, it moved me profoundly, and continues to haunt me to this day.” Deepa Mehta in Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue, 2010.
Ghatak is a key filmmaker and influence in Indian cinema, but is much less well known in the West: David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary omits him completely. Apart from a series of nine feature films Ghatak was also Professor of Film Direction at the Film Institute of India from 1965 to 1967. Here he influenced a generation of young cineastes, including a number who were to become important in Independent Film production.
Ghatak was born in East Bengal in 1925, then part of the Britain’s Indian Empire. Later East Bengal was included in the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. After the 1971 war of secession it became Bangladesh. Whilst he was young Ghatak’s family moved to Calcutta. In the 1940s he became politically active and worked in the Indian People’s Theatre Association. This was a radical cultural organisation associated with the Communist Party of India. It was very influential in the early years after Independence including in mainstream and independent filmmaking. Ghatak (among other works) staged plays by Bertold Brecht, who was an influence on both his stage and film work. Ghatak started work in Indian mainstream cinema as an actor. He became a scenarist at the Bombay Filmistan Studio in the 1950s, working with the major film director Bimal Roy, [Roy’s most famous film is Do Bigha Zameen (19540 which was seen as influenced by Neorealism].
Bengal was not only the scene of strife in the dismemberment of India. It had suffered badly under British colonial rule, especially in the major famine of 1943. This social and personal history left a strong mark on Ghatak’s work. The sense of loss, exile and conflict are powerfully felt in his films. Bengal was also the home of Satyajit Ray. However, whilst both filmmakers use a form distinct from popular mainstream films, they are themselves rather different. Both filmmakers often create a documentary look, and show the influence of Neorealism. And Ghatak shares with Ray an ability to integrate characters with landscapes, and he also make compelling use of indigenous music. However, Ghatak uses songs rather than instrumental pieces, and these offer a commentary on the characters and events. Moreover, Ghatak favours a style which included the melodramatic, a staple of popular Indian films. His work offer frequent dramatic close-ups where the emotions and conflicts experienced by the characters are powerfully presented. But these are often counterpoised with long shots and long takes, creating a sense of distance from the scene. Ghatak tends to a style which might be term Brechtian, in the sense that it not only encourages the viewer to stand back a little, but also to consider and appraise the events in the film story. The overall style tends to the elliptical; both the overall narrative and individual sequences are often disrupted by abrupt changes due to visual and sound edits. The soundtracks in Ghatak’s films are especially noticeable, with both songs and noise changing abruptly.
A River Called Titas is typical of this approach. The film is adapted from a classic Bengali novel of the same name by Adwaita Mallabarman. The film is structured as much by symbolism and myth as it is by the development of a plot. Especially on first viewing the progress of character and plot can be difficult to follow.
[The following contains general plot information].
The tale is set among the Malo fishermen who toil on the waters of the Titas. The community includes both Hindu and Muslim families, though Hindu characters dominate the narrative. The central figures are Basanti, a young girl: Kishore, a fisherman: Rajar Khi, Kishore’s bride; and Ananta, Rajar’s son. We first see Basanti as a young girl in the village. Kishore and his brother Subol go on a fishing trip. It is on this trip that Kishore meets Rajar, whom he rescues in a village conflict. He then marries her and takes her back to his village. However, river bandits abduct her and this drives Kishore crazy. Basanti, who envisaged marrying Kishore, marries Subol instead, but he is drowned on the day of the wedding. There is an ellipsis of ten years.
Rajar with her son Ananta arrives in the village seeking shelter. Neither she nor Kishore recognise each other. The situation creates conflicts over traditional values regarding marriage and child rearing. Kishore is attacked and dies, and Rajar drowns alongside him. Basanti now takes care of Ananta; a situation objected to by Basanti’s parents. More village and domestic feuding lead to Ananta leaving to live with another family. Meanwhile the Brahmin landowners stir up conflicts and demand the repayments of loan from the fishing and farming families. At the end the river dries up (partly due to a scheme engineered by the Brahmin landowners). The village falls apart.
The tragic end of the film is signalled in the opening shot, a dried up river ravine, which re-appears at the end. A Bengali song is heard on the soundtrack, which includes the following lines:
“I fear I see the Ganga waters rise to fill the blue sky
I fear I see the boats aground on the dry river bed.”
The dried up ravine re-appears in the film’s final sequence. Women are reduced to begging: a father dies of starvation: fishermen and farmers fight over the dried up riverbed. Basanti sits disconsolate outside a hut and a voice-over informs us:
“The River Titas flows on but tomorrow it may be bone dry.
It may not even have the last drop without which our soul cannot depart.”
We then see Basanti stagger through an arid desert where she digs for water. Dying she has a flashback or vision of a young boy running in green fields, [possibly Kishore], and the film ends on a freeze-frame of her.
The film seems full of Bengali and Indian cultural references: many of which are probably not apparent to western audiences. However, there are two important references, which are common to the art and culture of the sub-continent. Kishore appears to be related to the mythical figure of Krishna. He is a godlike figure found in classic mythical writings. He fought great battles and ruled over a kingdom and finally ascended into heaven. His romantic life was also important and he married a princess, but he had other romances, the most important being Radha. This aspect of the myth is explained in the film Lagaan (2001), where another Krishna-like Hindi hero Bhuvan [Aamir Khan] explains to the Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) at the Temple to Radha and Krishna,
“Krishna was married to Rukmini and Radha to Anay …But the deep love they had for each other set an ideal … neither united nor separated, They’ve been worshipped together for ages.”
The Radha/Krishna/Rukmini relationship seems to parallel that in Ghatak’s film between Basanti/Kishore/Rajar: [and also relates to the romantic triangle in Lagaan].
Another marital aspect of the Krishna myth includes thousands of maidens who he rescued from captivity and married in order to save their honour. This clearly relates to the situation of Kishore and Rajar after her kidnapping.
There are also mythical parallels to a Hindu goddess. Rajar and Ananta are seen before a shrine to Bhagwati [another name for the Durga, the ‘Mother Goddess’]. Later in the film Basanti is also associated with Bhagwati. This seems a clear parallel for the important theme of motherhood in the film.
There is a lot more complexity in the plot and characters of the film, and I think Western viewers will probably need more than one viewing to assimilate all of this. There is also a rich palette in the film’s visual and aural style. Ghatak has a great command of camera and mise en scène. There are numerous fine sequences. In particular late in the film there is a boat race on the river, which is enthralling in its presentation. This is a film which one should encourage local exhibitors to book and screen.
There is a bfi DVD available, though it is taken from a pre-restoration print.
Two online reviews, which I found especially interesting, are one on Hobgoblin Reviews by Lynda Parker: http://www.thehobgoblin.co.uk/REVUES.htm. This has informed comments about the political context for Ghatak’s film. And Journey through Bangladesh by Audity Falguni relates the source novel to the area in which it [and the film] is set: http://www.thedailystar.net/starinsight/2010/01/03/jny.htm.
There is an entry on another Ghatak film, Subarnarekha (1963) on this Blog.
Note, film quotes taken from the English subtitles.