India’s moment of liberation from the British was also a moment of rupture: with independence came partition on August 15, 1947. Partition did not mean quite the same thing for Punjab and Bengal – the two provinces that got divided on the eastern and western borders of India – but there was one aspect that was common to both: most ordinary citizens found it difficult to accept the fact of partition and their lives changed beyond recognition once they became refugees.
And yet, as far as Bengal was concerned, Partition hardly had any immediate thematic impact on film or literature. The first Bengali novel to deal with partition came out only in 1955 – Narayan Sanyal’s Bakultala P.L.Camp. But it was highlighted on celluloid much earlier, in the 1950 classic, Chinnamul (The Uprooted), by Nemai Ghosh. This landmark film, which ushered in Bengali cinematic realism, relates the story of a group of farmers from East Bengal who are forced to migrate to Calcutta because of Partition. Ghosh used actual refugees as characters and extras in the film, but there were some seasoned theatre actors in the cast as well. One of them was Ritwik Ghatak – who would soon turn director himself and make the partition theme his own.
Ghatak’s films are one of the most powerful artistic articulations of the trauma of displacement after the Partition. The cultural unity of the two Bengals was an article of faith with him. He never accepted the Partition and it became an obsessive theme with him.
In a cinematic career that spanned over 25 years until his death in 1976 at the age of 50, Ghatak left behind him eight feature films, 10 documentaries and a handful of unfinished fragments. But he is remembered mostly for his feature films. Recognition came his way very late, as he had the misfortune of being largely ignored by the Bengali film public in his own lifetime. This was particularly unfortunate; as Ghatak was one of the most innovative of Indian filmmakers, developing an epic style that uniquely combined realism, myth and melodrama in his films.
Before he came to films, however, Ghatak had been involved with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India, which, since 1943, led a highly creative movement of politically engaged art and literature, bringing into its fold the foremost artists of the time. IPTA had a profound influence on Ghatak. True to its credentials, he strongly believed in the social commitment of the artist; hence, even when he left theatre for cinema, he always made films for a social cause.
Cinema, to him, was a form of protest; and more than any other artist of his time, he used this medium to highlight the biggest contemporary issue in India – the Partition and its aftermath. As he once said: “Cinema, to me, is a means of expressing my anger at the sorrows and sufferings of my people. Being a Bengali from East Bengal, I have seen untold miseries inflicted on my people in the name of independence – which is fake and a sham. I have reacted violently to this – and I have tried to portray different aspects of this in my films.”
Ghatak was, however, averse to the term “refugee problem”. In one of his interviews, he said, “I have tackled the refugee problem, as you have used the term, not as a ‘refugee’ problem. To me it was the division of a culture and I was shocked”. This shock would give birth to a trilogy on the Partition – Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-capped Star), 1960; Komal Gandhar (E Flat), 1961; and Subarnarekha (The Golden Thread), 1962. In them, he highlighted the insecurity and anxiety engendered by the homelessness of the refugees of Bengal; tried to convey how Partition struck at the roots of Bengali culture; and sought to express the nostalgia and yearning that many Bengalis felt for their pre-Partition way of life.
Meghe Dhaka Tara, based on Shaktipada Rajguru’s Bengali novel of the same name, is one of Ghatak’s best-known films on this theme. It also has the distinction of being the only film by him that had been well received by the audience on its release. The narrative centers round Nita (Supriya Chowdhury), a refugee in a colony in Calcutta, who struggles to maintain her impoverished family – at first, giving private tuitions to school children; and then, as the financial situation worsens at home, by working full-time in an office, giving up on her own graduate studies. She is the exploited daughter, taken-for-granted sister, and betrayed lover – and ends up being just a source of income for the family. She is the victim not just of the Partition, but of familial pressures, and her life ends tragically fighting tuberculosis – though not before she cries out her desire to live to her brother (Anil Chatterjee) in a hill sanatorium and admitting that she had wronged in accepting injustice, that she should have protested for her rights.
Komal Gandhar revolves round the progressive theatre movement in Bengal in the early 1950s, set against the memories of Partition. The protagonists, Bhrigu and Anasuya (Supriya Chaudhuri and Abanish Banerjee), belong to two rival theatre groups; but they come close because of their shared passion for the theatre and their shared longing for the homes they had to leave behind in East Bengal. This film was one of Ghatak’s own favourites because of the challenge of operating at different levels: in it, he drew simultaneously on the divided heart of Anasuya (who is torn between Bhrigu and Samar, the man she was betrothed to years ago, now living in France), the divided leadership of the theatre movement, and the pain of divided Bengal. But his audience was not prepared for such a complex film and rejected it out of hand.
Subarnarekha, once again, is about refugees from East Bengal and centres around a brother and sister pair (played by Abhi Bhattacharya and Madhabi Mukherjee). In search of a better living and a secured future for his sister, Seeta, Ishwar (who is more of a father than a brother to the little girl), leaves their refugee colony in Calcutta and takes up a job in an iron foundry in the remote, rocky district of Chhatimpur, in neighbouring Bihar. But his sister ironically faces the same grinding poverty that he wanted her to avoid when she elopes with and marries a penniless writer, Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya), her childhood playmate and a low-caste boy whom Ishwar had adopted while leaving Calcutta.
Brother and sister meet again in exceptional circumstances: she is the prostitute he comes to after a night of mad abandon with his friend in Calcutta; and he is her first client, when Abhiram’s sudden death in an accident leaves her with no other option but to turn to this trade. Ishwar is devastated by the encounter and Seeta kills herself, watched by her son. At the end of the film, an aged Ishwar leads Seeta’s child to the promised ‘new house’ in Chhatimpur by the river, which forms the leitmotif throughout the film.
Nita, Sita, and Anasuya, the three heroines of Ghatak’s Partition trilogy, are flesh and blood women of his times, but Ghatak gives their contemporary tales of suffering a timeless appeal by giving them a mythic dimension. In their own unique ways, they represent the travails of Durga, Sita and Sakuntala respectively – parallels that has been brilliantly analysed byAshish Rajadhyaksha in his book, Ritwik Ghatak: A Return to the Epic (1982).
No other Bengali filmmaker had the kind of deep engagement with the theme of Partition as Ghatak had. In fact, in all the four decades since his death, partition seems to have been significantly absent from the very imagination of directors. However, in the last few years there has been a slight change: 2013 saw the release of Meghe Dhaka Tara, a theatrical biopic of Ghatak directed by Kamleswar Mukherjee, with Saswata Chatterjee in the lead role. In 2015, after decades, a Partition film was released: Srijit Mukherji’s Rajkahini, with Rituparna Sengupta playing the lead. It’s about how a brothel keeper, Begum Jaan, and her 11 inmates defy the Radcliffe Line that passes through their brothel, refusing to budge from their ‘home’. Let’s hope that this film will start a new trend of Partition films.