“Meghe Dhaka Tara is not a linear story. It is a collage of moments drawn from his life, concepts, his ideologies, his eccentricities, his reading, his writings, his anger and his frustrations expressed everywhere”
When we talk about “Meghe Dhaka Tara” or hear these three words, the first person to strike our minds is Ritwik Ghatak. The man was or should I say ‘is’ an enigma. Rejected during his times by the public, and hailed as a pioneer of meaningful cinema by later generations, Ghatak is an epitome of a true Bengali intellectual for whom life was but a talisman of ideals. A non-conformist to the core, the ace filmmaker refused to let his talent be imprisoned by the ethos of the state or the societal machinery.
But fictionalising the life and work of one of the most controversial and misunderstood geniuses of Indian cinema in the same language – cinema – is not an easy task. But it is also a challenge and a risk which a relatively new entrant into cinema took up. Kamaleshwar Mukherjee who changed tracks from practicing medicine to directing films (beginning with Uro Chithi), has made Meghe Dhaka Tara, a fictionalized, full-length Bengali feature film on Ritwik Ghatak. In keeping with the time Ghatak lived and worked in (1925-1976), Mukherjee chose to make the film in Black-and-White in post-production and this sharpens the conflicts and ironies of his life and his work, blurring the lines of difference between the two.
Anyone who has not seen Ritwik Ghatak’s films, may not comprehend a lot of scenes, or for that matter the style of storytelling. Not that a connoisseur of Ghatak’s creations will like it any more (or less) than a new-age movie-viewer, the film hooks on to your heart, carving a niche in your soul with the sweet nothings that fill the screen, sometimes in oblivion, subtly, to announce the presence of Ghatak in every scene.
Saswata Chatterjee, (Bob Biswas of Kahaani), plays Nilkantha Bagchi, a disillusioned intellectual admitted in an asylum to overcome his proclivity for bangla, the country liquor favoured by generations of leftist intellectuals (“The intervening stage between communism and socialism is alcoholism,” proclaims one character). Bagchi is Mukherjee’s stand-in for Ghatak; an alter ego, in fact, created and played by Ghatak in Jukti Takko Ar Gappo, his last film. Much like his mythological namesake, who drank the poison from the churning of the ocean to prevent the destruction of the world — Ghatak, like Bagchi in the film, was criticised by fellow communists for smoking the opium of religion, among other unpardonable sins — there is a certain heroism to Bagchi’s alcoholism, a sense that he must drink in order to continue producing work that will hasten the revolution. But it is poison; we watch how it, along with everything else, has eaten away at him and left him a broken man, a refugee.
Meghe Dhaka Tara is not a linear story. In fact, it cannot even be called a ‘story.’ It is a collage of moments drawn from his life, concepts, his ideologies, his eccentricities, his reading, his writings, his anger and his frustrations expressed everywhere, and even the adulation of some of his fans within the asylum – a caring nurse who has seen his Megher Adale (the pseudonym for Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara) and a non-Bengali inmate who has seen three of his films that, to him, looked like beautiful paintings but “kuchh samajh mein nahi aya.” Dr. Mukherjee is familiar with his famous name but has not seen his films.
Unlike Ray and his middle-class subjects, Ghatak dealt extensively with the scars of Partition and the miseries of those who were uprooted. Bagchi is told, after the audience walks out of one of his films, that he has not been able to rise above the shanties. He is told, on another occasion, that the fire that burns inside him scorches those around him. His students at the Film Institute reject him for having worked in Bollywood when he needed the paycheck. Even among the working classes, the heroes of his films and his worldview, he does not find acceptance; they tell him frankly that they don’t understand his work. Bagchi is, essentially, a revolutionary sans a revolution, the titular star obscured by clouds. Much of the film, told in glorious flashbacks with Bagchi walking his doctor through them like some Ghost of Christmas Past, deals with these fissures as they happen.
Kamaleshwar Mukherjee has used the metaphor of Bangabala in the closing shots of his film, now in ‘colour’, where a young girl, Bangabala, from Ghatak’s Jukti Takko Aar Golpo is given concrete shape to look like the rape victim Phoolmoni in the mental home. She waits for Neelkantha out in the fields, as if inviting him to join her back, to his roots in Pabna and other places in East Pakistan once a part of undivided Bengal. Mukherjee beautifully suggests the ‘liberation’ of Ghatak who frees himself to join his ‘Bangabala’ to go on a new journey and perhaps begin to rewrite his life again. Phoolmoni is liberated and so is Neelkantha. The director does not use the darkness of death but the brightness of a yellow horizon in the distance, shown in bright colour, where the two figures become smaller and smaller till the film freezes to a close.
The play-within-the-film offers a glimpse into his subjects – the archetype of the mythological mother he was famous for, the victims of Partition, and the tragedy of being a refugee. For the first time through cinema, the audience is offered the chance to have a glimpse of the theatrical creativity of Ghatak. His volatile, love-hate relationship with wife Durga, his disillusionment with the people’s theatre movement, his deep frustrations consequent to the failure of all his films except Meghe Dhaka Tara, the blocking of the release of Nagarik, his incomplete scripts and films that triggered alcoholism in a man who did not touch it are brought out through small scenes that cut quickly into the next before they begin to drag. Kamaleshwar has not used any archival clippings from Ghatak’s films. He has treated them through changed names mentioned in dialogues and conversations and film posters spread across the footage at different points.
Soumik Haldar’s cinematography and Rabi Ranjan Maitra’s editing are a beautiful blend that bring out the erratic temperament, language and structure of the film, often viewed through the delirium and alcohol-soaked vision of a person fluctuating between sanity and insanity and through the narrow lanes of his delirious mind – through time, events, incidents and bytes of real life. Biswadeep Chatterjee’s sound design is dotted with sounds of gunshots, blasts, music pieces, voice-overs, and silent pauses. Tanmoy Chakraborty’s production design suggests imagination and research in the way that the nondescript, uncared for interiors of the mental home, his familial home and his past dotted with disturbances have been depicted with imaginative aesthetics. The best quality of the post-production is that there is no attempt to glamorize the visuals.
Debjyoti Misra’s extraordinary blend of musical arrangements, re-arrangements and compositions offer a collage reflecting Ghatak’s passion for music ranging from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, through Salil Choudhury’s music and songs, one Tagore song, a baul number, and Sanskrit chantings. Saswata Chatterjee as Neelkantha becomes Neelkantha instead of portraying him. He gets so thoroughly under the skin of his character that by the end, especially when he adopts the distinctive stubble, it is hard to tell the difference. His versatility, which has made him Bangla cinema’s foremost character actor today, is essential to essaying such a complex role; he goes from earnest idealist to nihilist to obsessive theatre director, haranguing the fellow asylum inmates who will act in his final production. Ananya Chatterjee’s Durga, Subhashish Mukherjee’s Bijon Bhattacharya and the other stalwarts drawn from different group theatres are equally good.
But the most extraordinary thing about Meghe Dhaka Tara is its refusal to simplify itself for its audience, to provide easy questions and answers. It’s non-linear, stream-of-consciousness, intricate, dealing with ideas conventional Indian cinema wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. Not because they’re too radical or anything, but because the very idea of an audience thinking for itself seems an alien concept to today’s filmmakers. The fact that the film, with its homage to Ghatak’s take-no-prisoners style, stands out, shows that other failed revolution of his: a thinking man’s cinema.
Ratings: * * * * (& a half) / 5