One cloud-capped day, somewhere along the bank of a Bengali river where waterfowl chirp their little bedeep, bedeep, a young woman clad in white walks out of the canopy of some century-old oaks that spread their gigantic branches all the way to the river in a benevolent gesture of protection and majesty. She comes closer and we hear the whistle of a train whose full load of passengers arrive from afar. Nearby, close to the water, her brother is practising his singing. She stops a while to listen to him, in spite of the roaring train, and, smiling, passes out of sight. We are in the poetic world of Ritwik Ghatak, and this is The cloud-capped star (Meghey Dhaka Tara, 1960). In separated East Pakistan, soon to become Bengladesh, life is difficult. The little family of six we focus on has barely enough to live decently and still they try to hold their head out of the water.
They live on the father’s meagre salary as a local literature teacher (he’s Bijon Bhattacharya). As we have seen, his eldest son, Shankar (Anil Chatterjee), is learning to become a professional singer; he still has two years to go before starting on his own. Then there’s Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the heroine, who is also studying and giving lessons at the same time, an extra source of income which is highly valued and (on payday) the source of much excitement and even tension among the two younger ones, Geeta and Montu, in college both of them, but perhaps less involved in their studies as we shall see.
Geeta thinks more of her friends’ saris than her own classes, and Montu is also keener on football than regular attendance. He will soon be kicked out and start working at a factory, such is the need for cash. And of course the dreams of the educated father is to see his children even better than himself. His wife (Gita Dey, who died not so long ago) is much more down to earth and criticizes him for his choices: the higher education of four grown children means big mouths to feed, and no income from able workers! She’s constantly bickering and criticizing her children for being who they are. Her husband tries to make up for the situation, telling them when too many harsh words have been lashed at them – and in fact, at Neeta most of all, she’s her father’s favourite -, that she’s like that out of deprivation.
These dire straits are their lives’ biggest constraint. This constant lack of money reduces family relationship to a battle of needs and envious taunts, and the ever-present exhaustion from the effort to keep up appearances takes its toll on normal human relationships. Shankar knows he’s a weight to his mother and sister. But he also knows that he’s got talent, and that two years isn’t that long to wait before he can start earning. Neeta encourages him, but even she thinks he might, like her, get himself a little job to pay for his expenses and quiet his parents’ nagging concern (I think it’s wrong, like some people do (the link has been invalidated), to call him a shirker, or others, lazy – shows they’ve never been poor, and anyway Shankar does succeed in the end, he does manage to become a Bombay musical figure). Shankar knows Neeta’s right. But he’s successfully been at a radio audition, he knows what his future could be if he doesn’t practice regularly. So he tries to focus on his training. He and his sister share a special relationship, they call each other khuka and khuki, little boy and little girl. And when one isn’t feeling well, the other comes up to cheer him up.
Neeta is in love with Sanat (Niranjan Ray), a fine-looking former student of her father’s, who’s now involved in the preparation of a doctorate in Physics. She’s been spotted by her brother secretly reading a letter from Sanat where the latter praises her for being
Everything seems to go fine, and the pair have even mentioned marriage. There’s an exquisite moment near the river where Shankar is wont to practice, when after evoking the future with her jobless lover, she rises to go to her tuition, and he catches her hand, says her name.
We expect some intimate words, but then the train appears and whistles in the background: his words – we are left to wonder which ones - are lost in the silence of that noise. Later, there will be another meeting at the same place with the screech of the train again covering his words. Ritwick Ghatak knows the spectators like hearing love declarations and emotional exchanges. But he knows also these words are spoken in another language which only borrows our words: what is said cannot be heard save from the lovers themselves. Others hear their words, but not what they say. But only poets know this distinction; so many writers and film-directors think that because they have lovers at their disposal they can make them speak this secret language and that they, like decoys, will attract greedy audiences as a result. They only succeed (most of the time) in desecrating love and its silence.
Neeta is the movie’s marvel. She’s most absurdly derided in most of the reviews I’ve read, which are probably repeating what one person has decreed, and everybody else is following suit. People say for example that she “also has an attractive sister Gita” (imdb reviews) thus implying that Neeta herself must be less attractive herself. But while it’s clear that Sanat is attracted to Geeta, it’s also clear that his taste is in question, and it’s being blind not to notice that Ghatak has made her into a rather repulsive dolled-up mindless fool. Finally, even if I know that taste is something personal, it’s difficult not to notice Neeta’s own beauty.
In fact, what’s clear in this (minor) question is that people are looking for a reason why Sanat has swapped girls (for example this guy labels him and so reduces him to “fickle”). They probably haven’t seen that his problem is the old male-complex of being entertained by a wife (check Ray’s Mahanagar). This is clearly what bothers him immensely in his situation, because things are OK while both of them are studying; it’s only when Neeta (totally independently from him: her father has had an accident, and cannot feed the family any more) is obliged to look for a job that he starts resenting his relationship with her, and tells her clearly that he won’t accept it. His manly pride, like so many Indians at the time, could not accept the inversion of roles that this meant.
Then some people picture Neeta as a self-denied, exploited victim (here); but, while it’s clear she does have the generosity to let the other members of her family take what she earns, she does this willingly, out of responsibility and love. Indeed she’s Ghatak's vehicle to represent the sorrowful economic and social wreckage that communities can face after such a traumatic event as the Partition of a nation, yet she’s also a strong and resilient bearer of her own misfortunes. And it is certainly not Ghatak’s wish to turn her into a self-sacrificed dupe of her own family. Her downfall is eminently political, and represents Ghatak’s attack against forces that break human communities:
Neeta becomes the symbol of all suffering women. There’s the pain she must undergo when her mother dirties her gratuitously (well, as alluded to before, we sense a form of envy, or jealousy in her constant picking at her):
Do you remember the moment when she just tells a friend she has stopped singing? We can read her disappointment in the broad smile with which she tries, and succeeds, to hide her sadness. And later in the film, one night, when both Shankar and herself sing together a Tagore song, she lifts her amazing head to prevent the flowing tears from dropping, and cannot help collapsing from the contrast between the beauty of the song and her own sorry state:
there’s also her disgust of the men’s rude remarks (the grain merchant in the street asking her if she hadn’t come for something else than just pay the bill); of course she takes a blow when she notices Sanat isn’t as righteous as her love had made him (a stinging remark from her brother), and she’s torn when they drift apart. But the worst is to come when she goes to meet him in his new flat, and hears a woman’s clinking bracelet (it's Geeta her own sister) behind the curtain. The pain she feels upon leaving his presence is then mediated thanks to some repeated ultrasound jarring in our ears:
And then there’s the final scenes when she has to hide her illness, and live like an outcast in her own home and be sent away to die in a sanatorium in the mountains. The damage done to her life and mind is so deep that even when Shankar, repentant, comes back to her and tries to mend what he has broken, she cannot go back. Her illness represents this damage, in a way.
So when we hear her final pathetic “I wanted to live!” we know Ritwik Ghatak has hit the right key. The deep desire to live, expressed in dramatic tones in this situation, is what makes the basis of humanity. The forces of death and loss are all too strong, the pains and the illnesses all too present – what is life? Ghatak’s mouthpiece, the father, leads us to the answer. He’s a teacher, and a quoter of poetry: Keats, Yeats, Wordsworth. It would be interesting to map out the references to the lines he says and examine the poems in their relationship with the scenes where they appear and the film’s meaning as a whole. But their combined effect is to give “life” a dimension which is far beyond the healthy and content satisfaction of one’s period on Earth. “The Poetry of earth is never dead” (1), says the father, upon seeing some fishermen on the morning lagoon, and later: “Sing on: somewhere at some new moon, we'll learn that sleeping is not death” (2). Both excerpts celebrate the victory over death in terms of renewal and rising.
The last quote, from Wordsworth’s “Yarrow unvisited” (3) evokes the poetry of the swan: “Float double, swan and shadow!” and if this mirrored, double beauty means anything here, it’s a call to a life magnified by its own secret splendour, its hidden spiritual extension which the world of satisfied desires will often disregard or minimize as “artistic”. Shankar himself glorifies the two kingdoms of childhood and mountains, which are perhaps, down deep, the same. For both seem to touch the heavens where men come from, both somewhat tell us about our origin and our destination: “Childhood seems so far way… No one climbs hills anymore” Shankar says one day, looking at that photo where the two of them are holding hands. And it’s poignant because Neeta the khuki will finally go back, and reach those hills:
Speaking of poetry, there are some other enthralling songs in the movie, on top of the one already mentioned sung by brother and sister. A notable one is sung by a travelling band of Baul musicians one evening outside, and fills the village with its melancholy; its lyrics are of the most suggestive poetry:
Here you’ll find some excellent facts about the movie, and I’ve copied two valuable paragraphs on the music chosen by Ghatak for his film. See end of post. The other song appears several time, but most notably during a storm, when Neeta knows she’ll have to leave her family and head for her last abode. Her father, incapable of changing things (remember he stands for Ghatak himself), and whose mental balance is perhaps going, like his wife tells her she has to go, that she’s contagious. He, who had always been there as a barrier against the unfeeling forces exerting themselves around her, who, when her illness was named, stood to accuse a nameless fate, this time cannot prevent her from leaving and dying away from them. Here is the song (4):
"Come to me my daughter Uma,
Let me garland you with flowers
You are the soul of my sad self, mother deliverer
Let me bid you farewell now, my daughter,
You leave my home desolate, going to your husband’s house
How can I endure your departure, my daughter?”
The song is sung again at the close of the movie, when Sankar, back in the village after having visited Neeta at the sanatorium, notices a young woman passing in the street. Her foot strikes some stones and her sandal becomes undone. It’s exactly what the film had started with: then, it was Neeta’s sandal, a little sign of her disinterested soul, of her “love to distraction” of all her family, as she says.
This new Neeta looks playfully at Sankar, and we understand something might well start between the two of them. But how (one might ask) could Ghatak do that to Neeta? How can he replace her so fast – because that’s what the song does to us: one woman’s love is dying, another lives and her love blooms. It’s like in Subarnarekha: life cannot be stopped by death, by one individual’s death. Or said otherwise, one loving soul represents life at its full, and when it leaves this Earth, other equally loving souls will continue to appear. So beyond the author’s pessimistic locally political stance, there emerges a prophetic universal optimism which merges with that of art and creation.
A most extensive review here: http://www.rouge.com.au/3/film.html, in which the author looks at the film through the structure of the Tree. The great trees which appear at the beginning of the movie recur as chapter heads, as if everything that happens in the film was somehow protected or overshadowed by their sheer presence. A lot of attention is also given to the precise technique of Ghatak’s cuts. Very technical at times, but quite impressive.
Ritwik Ghatak's haunting gaze
(2) Yeats, At the Galway races
(3) Memorials of a tour in Scotland, XII.
(4) On the net, I found this downloadable thesis, which explains who “Uma” in the song must refer to, ie Durga, the mother-goddess of the Indian nation. The song therefore must be read in its political dimension, and this political importance correlates to what Riwik Ghatak is doing artistically. “Although Ghatak himself described his allusion to be to the archetype of the ‘Great Mother,’ Meghe Dhaka Tara’s central allusion necessarily resonates with a local and historical formation of nationalist semiotics of the nation-mother” writes the researcher, Paulomi Chakraborty, p. 200. Check also from p. 215 where Neeta is described as an allegory of Durga.
Extract from Frontline on net:
“The choice of the IPTA veteran Jyotirindranath Maitra as composer was an inspired one. Maitra knew Western-style orchestration very well and had an extensive knowledge of Bengali, Indian and world folk music. He had also learned khayal singing in Hindustani music for a decade; in addition he was an underrated but fine Bengali poet. Ghatak had earlier worked very well with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, whose raga “Bilaskhani todi” on the sarod created the right epiphanies in Ajantrik, and then with the gifted Salil Choudhury on Bari Theke Paliye. But Meghe Dhaka Tara needed music of a special kind, one that included the worlds of Hindustani Classical, Rabindra Sangeet, a particular kind of Bengali folk, and Western choral music that drew inspiration from Negro spirituals.
Maitra's music became an extension of the director's vision: It further articulated the poignant visuals and created an elegiac mood that stayed with viewers long after they had left the theatre. The five pieces of music that have survived the test of time are the chorus in the background, patterned after Paul Robeson vocals, when Nita goes to work and then later for her check-up; the Rabindra Sangeet “Je raate more duar gooli bhanglo jhaure”; A.T. Kannan's rendering of the ragas “Hansadhwani” and “Laagi lagan”; and Jamuna Barua's heartrending rendering of “Uma”, an incarnation of the goddess Durga. Unforgettable is the Baul song “Majhi tor naam jani naa”. There has been a grand revival of Meghe Dhaka Tara abroad, and the British Film Institute has come out with an excellent DVD, but it is surprising that no attempt has been made to release its music, which is haunting to say the least. »
(a special starry-eyed moment!)