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Her Mother's Son
Kinship and History in Ritwik Ghatak

Moinak Biswas

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1. Ritwik Ghatak, 'Ekamatra Satyajit Ray' in Chitrabhash 18:1-2, 1984, p 108.

2. Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, Aparajito, 1931.


3. A close look at the Apu Trilogy as a whole, however, would reveal that Ray follows the novelist's cue more closely than Ghatak's comment would suggest. He introduces naturalist dispersal into the realist narrative and works with an incomplete separation between the individual and the natural horizon.


4. Foreword to Ritwik Ghatak's Cinema and I, 1987, reprinted in Ritwik Ghatak, Rows and Rows of Fences (Calcutta: Seagull, 2000) p. ix.

5. Marie Seton was one of the first critics to use this term in her essay 'New Wave in Bengali Films' (1960), cited in Rajat Ray, 'Paschatya Samalochoker Dristite Ritwik Ghataker Chhabi' in Ritwik O Tar Chhabi, Vol. 2, ed. Rajat Ray (Calcutta: Annapurna Pustak Mandir) pp 112-116.

6. An example of this would be Amiya Kumar Bagchi's 'Ritwik Ghatak', Frontier, July 7, 1984, where he tried to read Ghatak's work in conjunction with the 'conservative' tradition of 19th century Bengal, a tradition that, in the work of the poet Iswarchandra Gupta or dramatist Dinabandhu Mitra, was more critical of the colonial rule than its liberal counterpart. The general leftist reaction to the 'traditional' aspect of Ghatak's cinema was negative, contributing to his isolation from the most likely of his patrons in the radical period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. For typical examples of such reaction see the essays by Iraban Basu Roy and Prabrit Das Mahapatra in Ritwik Ghatak O Tar Chhabi, Vol 2. The Assamese Marxist critic, Hiren Gohain, raised similar objections to Bagchi's essay cited above in Frontier.


The Citizen's Journey and the Eternal Return

Commenting on Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959), Ritwik Ghatak wrote that the film's ending ‘suffers from a major misconception’. (1) Ray's film ends with Apu walking away from the horizon, towards the camera, with Kajol on his shoulders, they are set on the path to the future. However, the novel (2) ends with Apu returning to his ancestral village with his son, Kajol. As the young boy stands before the ruins of their abandoned home the place itself and its lost inhabitants – dead family members, local gods, characters from the local lore and from The Mahabharata – begin to speak to him. They announce the return of Apu in the incarnation of the boy. The return to the bosom of the ancestral village at the end of Bibhuitbhushan's novel is poignant in its very refusal to follow the archetypal novelistic journey from the country to the city. It is a return of the village itself as a lost consciousness. Ray does away with this episode, and seems to offer an affirmative image of the trajectory of the citizen. (3) Ghatak's comment, made towards the end of his career, reveals more about his own art than about anything else. It tells us about his approach to questions of selfhood and narrative. Ghatak expressed deep admiration for the first two films of the trilogy, Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956), but even with Pather Panchali, Apu's movement away from the village at the end bothered him, he found it lacking in depth, that ‘the wanderer's generous melody’ was absent in that ending.

The mythical power of return will fascinate Ghatak; he was not satisfied with a form that enacts the historical flow but sought to turn history itself into an object of investigation. That one important task seemed to be to give expression to the sense of violation brought on by the historical transportation of his people into the scene of the contemporary nation. He could not do this by positing a wholesome tradition and past, over and against modernity, a road taken by much of popular cinema since the 1970s, but he had to remain strangely solitary in his choices. Ray was to write of Ghatak, ‘One doesn't notice any influence of other schools of filmmaking on his work. For him Hollywood might not have existed at all. The occasional echo of classical Soviet school is there, but this does not prevent him from being in a class by himself’. (4) It was as much a matter of choice as of training, his cinema was 'intellectual' (5) in the sense that there was a conscious attempt to make cinema itself a tool in the search for what, rephrasing Bertolt Brecht's words, one can call a 'fighting conception of the modern'. Ghatak's solitude should be a challenge to the critic, not least because it cautions us against using his example as one of questioning modern modes from the side of tradition as is sometimes done. (6) Let us remember that his use of popular forms of narrative and performance did not win him any popular audience in his time.

The City of Oblivion

At the end of their night-long revelry in Subarnarekha (1962), the two renegades, Iswar and Haraprasad, take a taxi ride down the streets of Calcutta. Earlier, in the pub, verses from the Upanishad were chanted against the theme music of La Dolce Vita. The great spiritual delirium of the city continues to bring cultural quotes into a spectacular collage as the two drunken friends are swallowed up by the night. On the haze of streetlights passing across the screen we hear their voices:




‘Haven't seen the Atom Bomb’
‘Haven't. Haven't they?’
‘Never. Haven't seen the War, haven't seen the Famine, haven't seen the riots, haven't seen the Partition... Useless – that old hymn to the glory of the Sun ...’

Iswar will turn up at his sister's quarter as her first customer soon after this. She will slash her own throat with a kitchen knife. Ghatak names his project with fearsome accent here: remembering not to forget.


7. See, for example 'Interview with Ghatak' in Ghatak: Arguments/ Stories, ed. Ashish Rajadhyakasha and Amrit Gangar (Bombay: Screen Unit) 1987, pp 88-89.

8. The Indian People's Theatre Association. Launched in 1943, it led a highly creative movement of politically engaged art and literature, bringing into its fold the foremost artists of the time. Ghatak and Mrinal Sen are among the direct products of the movement.

9. See his lyrical reminiscences in 'Chhabi Kora' in Chitrabikshan, 18:1-2, 1984, p35.







  He recorded his debt to the socialist political-cultural project of the 1940s. (7) The ‘40s was the decade of the Bengal Famine, the partition of India, Hindu-Muslim riots, Independence. And it was also the decade of the Quit India movement, the naval mutiny, peasant rebellions, thousands of strikes, barricades on the street raised by workers, students and ordinary citizens, a decade of cultural resurgence led by the IPTA. (8) He would perceive the tragedy of the decade not so much as the failure of revolution but as oblivion for a people. He talked about the lost Bengal in a language close to the author of Pather Panchali, in terms of childhood, plenitude and home (9); but the excavation of memory in his films is not so much a matter of a return to roots as it is sometimes thought, it is meant to bring back the moment of rupture to consciousness, a moment that the traumatised do not know how to remember. It is possible to address the question of selfhood and form in his work in connection with the project of remembrance he undertakes, keeping in mind the essential challenge his films pose: they sound the recall, but on the other hand, they refuse to accept a chronology that demands submission to its logic of violence. To come to terms with history did not mean in Ghatak's work accepting it essentially as progress, or accepting the present as the only possible outcome of its processes. Which is perhaps why the outward journey from the country to the city, figured as destiny, celebrated as movement towards an envisaged future would make him uncomfortable. His work, in film or in writing, on the other hand, does not leave any scope to lapse back into a history versus myth argument; it proposes a much more difficult course: to lay bare the irrational substratum of the present, to make history face its other at its heart, and therefore, also break open the secret alliance of realism and melodrama.  


  As he prised open that interlock – the combination without which realism or melodrama hardly ever functions – Ghatak had to alienate himself from the trend in more than one way. Let us remember that around the middle of the 1950s both realism (or art film) and melodrama (or popular film) arrived at their classic formulations in Indian cinema. The new melodrama responded to the modernising impulse of the new nation more consistently. It celebrated the urban adventure, sought to figure the journey to citizenship by capturing the seduction of the city space; the new romance it formulated was in many ways a romance with modernity. There was a visible attempt to conceive the domain of the romantic couple in its autonomy from the familial domain – a desire that often ended up giving rise to unstable tropes of space. In displacing historical tragedy into upheavals in kinship relations, Ghatak was following a well-worn logic of melodrama, but let us remember how in its bourgeois articulation, the contemporary melodrama was seeking a compromise between the shelter of the old family and community on one hand and the dream of individualism and industrial progress on the other. Close at hand was the example of Bengali melodrama that came to be known after its most successful star, Uttam Kumar. It developed a powerful form out of this compromise, and still remains the most potent articulation of the fantasy of the journey to the city for the Bengali middle class – of the individual's emergence into the historical open without having to abjure the protection of the past. Ghatak's melodramatic turn was truly scandalous; he followed the logic of the form to its end so that, by stepping into the enclosure of primal bonds, the kernel of resistance to the individual's ‘development’, one could produce the most acute observations of historical processes.  

10. The critical re-appraisal of Ghatak in the 1980s stressed his experiments with narrative. The first important treatment was by Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Ritiwk Ghatak, A Return to the Epic (Bombay: Screen Unit, 1982) (see especially, 'Chapter Three'). Some important essays are collected in Ghatak: Arguments/ Stories.
  The challenge of history is recognised in two ways. In the first, he tries to figure history as a horizon into which the narrative must open, and from which it draws its final coherence. The best example is probably E-Flat (Komal Gandhar, 1961), a film that does not hold together unless one uses historical memory to re-order it. Of the other process Subarnarekha tells us most clearly – remembrance as not simply recognition of the past, but an excavation of what has passed under the cover of historical reality. The first process has been studied in some detail already (10); I would like to make a few points here on the second aspect of his melodramatic turn.  

11. By the end of 1947, 16 million people had lost their homes, the number of refugees in West Bengal by 1951 was 3.5 million. A conservative official estimate put the number killed in riots by 1948 at 1 million, but the actual figure is thought to be much higher.
  Ghatak took one rupture in the history he witnessed as central – the partition of Bengal. As 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, he faced puzzlement and even incomprehension from his contemporaries. Wasn't he being obsessed with a single event? Wasn't he living in the past, cutting himself off from the contemporary? The full irony of the situation is probably now coming to light: the Partition – a joint treachery committed by the colonial power and the nationalist leadership – cost millions of lives (mainly in Punjab and Bengal, but also in other provinces as the communal riots spread) and left millions homeless (11), but had hardly any thematic impact on film or literature. People forgot to talk about it. In the face of this silence the history model of narration itself had to be played with, it had to be crossed with elements borrowed from traditional community-centred forms – epic, chronicle play, allegory, musical theatre. But in the face of historical denial Ghatak would also resort to a drama where a few hapless characters would say just that – 'we deny it'. These are people who howl against the rocks that they want to live, who place negation against negation by closing the circle before violent interdictions of change. A particular kinship relation takes on an acute dimension in this drama. It works to defeat the melodrama of couple formation even as it destroys the logic of the other, pre-bourgeois melodrama: the feudal family romance.  



12. ‘Jagaddal’ means the immoveable.







13. Which is to say that it functions like what Lacan called the gaze, a look that belongs to no one.


The First Films

With the exception of Ajantrik (1958), the films from the 1950s and ‘60s show a compulsive engagement with the brother-sister relationship. The absence of the couple, however, connects Ajantrik also to the same preoccupation. Here the two-term, pre-social bond is between the hero Bimal and his jalopy, Jagaddal. (12) Bimal is an eccentric, a loner; the only conversation he can have is with the car and the young garage boy, Sultan. His fellow taxi-drivers make fun of him, 'Is the car a woman?' they ask. Perhaps it is, but what kind of woman? In a rare moment of eloquence, Bimal tells Sultan that in these days of hardship, the old car gets him his day's meal; it came into his life, he says, the year his mother passed away. Let us recall the sequences with the runaway bride. The moment she appears Bimal is seized by a strange and almost comic disturbance, which is matched by the reactions of the car (its gets murderously jealous, even tries to run over the woman). After the woman, cheated and abandoned by the man she had eloped with, leaves in the train, this play of identification – the humanisation of the car, the humanism of the story – disintegrates before our eyes. Bimal tries to catch her in the next station by taking a shortcut through the hills. The car breaks down on the way, gets reduced to the 'thing' as it were, it refuses to be human any more. Nature stands grandly aloof, watching. The very look of the camera breaks free of diegetic sources and begins to flow in from nowhere. (13)




As the hero steps into the domain of social sexuality, as the possibility of romantic couple formation is suggested, it is the realist order of the narrative that falls into crisis. Why should transition from the pre-social to the social create a crisis for the realist logic? The answer might tell us about Ghatak's distance from not only familiar forms but also from the agreed upon equations between forms and feelings. When we move into the other kinship bond that forecloses couple formation – the brother-sister bond rather than the bond with the mother – the whole question becomes much more complex, generates formidable challenges. The conflict between maternality and conjugality is simpler – after all Indian melodrama has been negotiating a resolution of that conflict for decades – but none of us were prepared for the those brothers and sisters of Ghatak to appear as exemplars of the pure couple.

Towards the end of Nagarik (1953), the unemployed hero Ramu receives the promise from his beloved Uma that she will join him in the slum his family is moving into. As she makes the promise, we see a close-up of the starving Uma: her face awash with soft light, strong backlight throwing a rim of silver dust on her hair. It reminds us of the close-up of Nita in The Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, 1960) at the end of the duet she sings with her brother. Uma's expression of solidarity inspires Ramu to urge their tenant, Sagar, to accept his sister Sita as his partner, to be a fellow traveller in their impending journey into the night. But the Ramu-Uma relationship is dealt with briefly, almost with reluctance in Nagarik, the real emotional bonding exists between Ramu and his sister Sita. Sita, wasting away at home as the unmarriageable daughter, can laugh and become playful only in the company of her elder brother, and Ramu finds in her the friend who knows him more than anyone else, believes in him despite his repeated failure to get a job. The parents appear at times to have become calloused by the daily privations, but tenderness is preserved in the domain of interaction between the two siblings. Theatrical use of the body at climactic points, which evolves into significant sculptural and dance-like postures in the three films of the ‘60s, appears in its cruder form in the film. But significantly, these gestures appear with the same intensity in the scenes between Ramu and his sister as in those between Ramu and Uma. They come at points of emotional saturation between Ramu and Sita, when the pain of one seems to pierce the other. Names are almost never without allegorical import in Ghatak's films; they are called Ram and Sita after the divine couple from the Ramayana.

The tale of a village boy's adventure in Runaway (Bari Theke Paliye, 1959) places the mother as the princess, she is the woman for whom the boy seeks the treasure in the city. However, the sister – one who is younger in age (the elder sister often figures as an extension of the mother in Indian families) – appears as part of a proto-romance in the story. The runaway Kanchan meets the little Mini in the city, is very attracted to her, and dreams of taking her home to his mother. Mini's ailing mother treats Kanchan as a son, he finds a second home in Mini's house. The two children look like early incarnations of lovers, foreshadowing the young Abhiram and Sita in Subarnarekha. That film will also show that in a way it is consistent with the 'obsession' with the mother archetype in Ghatak's films that the brother and sister should form the primary basis of love.

Against the Mandate of Separation: The three films of the '60s

The overvaluation of this kinship bond in the films has gone unnoticed but it is insistent. Nita in The Cloud-Capped Star fails in her relationship with Sanat, but then the relationship is something in which she hardly participates with any enthusiasm, and it does not seem to occupy her much once Sanat's betrayal is confirmed. On the other hand, she and her elder brother Shankar create an island of happiness and belonging in the turbulent waters of the refugee home. It is the secret sharing of a language that their relationship thrives on. They exchange poems and songs of Rabindranath Tagore, indulge in childish play, together they devise means to tackle the daily humiliation of the artist and the dreamer.


14. Tagore song.






  Sanat's marriage to Nita's sister brings on a climax. Shankar will decide to leave the house after this, Nita will begin to wither away. Before the wedding she asks Shankar to teach her a Rabindrasangit. (14) As they sing in duet ('The night the storm broke open my doors') Nita's body goes through an ecstatic choreography. We know it is not merely the lover's desertion that has caused this anguish, this mourning. The ecstasy joins the two figures of Shankar and Nita into a series of iconic compositions, bringing out into the open the iconic potential in the use of bodies that the film has built up. The song is thrown like a cry against the walls made of bamboo mats, moonlight trickles in as if in answer. In the climax the musical notes give way to sounds of lashing. Let us recall the mythical allusions in the story. Nita was born on the day the goddess Jagaddhatri (Durga) is worshipped, the wailing choric voice in the soundtrack impersonates Durga's mother Menaka, calling her back to her bosom, to her parental home in the hills. She will set out on that journey, as if abandoning the shelter on earth where no one recognised her. Shankar is another name for Shiva, Durga's husband.  



E-Flat is the only film in Ghatak's oeuvre where romantic love is central. The extended metaphor is that of marriage, the love triangle serves as an allegorical core elaborated into relationships between individuals, groups and places of dwelling. Ghatak captures his own autobiography as a radical theatre activist and playwright, weaves the story of his own marriage into the plot, talks about the Partition of 1947 directly for the first time, as something witnessed by his protagonists. This audacity was greeted with silence and slander. The film was booed out of the theatres, Ghatak's old colleagues turned against it. More than the obsession with Partition, at this point it was the articulation of personal experiences that alienated his audience. But that is the task that the film sets itself. A traditional marriage song sung by women works as the leitmotif; marriage and love become depersonalised through ritual enactment. In the tussle between the two rival theatre groups Anasuya, the heroine, works as a mediator; but her crossing over to Bhrigu's group is also an anthropological act of exchange between two sides, here put into effect by woman herself. The love story, thus refracted, connects with the theme of re-unification of the divided Bengal. Conjugality calls for separation from the original family and community; it is quite possible to think that E-Flat uses the motif of marriage, paradoxically, to suggest an overcoming of the imperative of separation. Not simply the joining of two hearts, here the theme of marriage suggests the healing of the sore of separation. To mourn the separation a new political drama is envisaged: Bhrigu (and Ghatak himself) goes back to Kalidasa's Abhijnan Shakuntalam to fashion the epic form he is searching for. The scenes from the play that we see centre around the heroine Shakuntala's departure for her husband's kingdom.

At the end of the film Anasuya and Bhrigu stand close to the railway tracks joining hands in a gesture reminiscent of the wedding ritual. The motif of the railway track is introduced in a scene early in the film, through an inspired sequence of orchestrated spaces, actions and songs. During an outing, Bhrigu and Anasuya stand at the very end of the tracks in that scene; they look beyond the river Padma and reminisce about their lost homes on the other side. From what they say they seem to share the same family, the same home and childhood. On the second outing, in the Kurseong hills, Anasuya tells Jaya, her younger teammate, about her activist mother who was killed in the communal riots. Her mother had a rare fire in her eyes, she says, and she can see that light in Bhrigu's eyes. Later, on their third excursion in Bolpur, she will hand over her most precious possession, her mother's diary, to Bhrigu, and tell him, ‘You are my mother's son, I knew it the moment I saw you.’



15. ‘We are made to face our self-destructive incestuous longings which are otherwise so delicately camouflaged by both our sophisticated and vulgar filmmakers’, 'Violence and Responsibility' in Ghatak: Arguments/Stories, p 62. See also Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Ritwik Ghatak, A Return to the Epic, pp 104-110.



16. In by far the best commentary available on the film Ghatak tries to explain the 'melodramatic lapse' into coincidences in the film by drawing attention to the role played by coincidence in his 'epic' form. The central event, the brother turning up as the sister's client, being a coincidence, everything else could be. But what kind of coincidence is it? ‘ (one) has to understand that whichever woman the brother visited would have been his sister’, 'Subarnarekha Prasange' (1966), Chitrabikshan, 18:1-2, 1984, p 41.

  Subarnarekha of course underlines the theme in some ways. Kumar Shahani has written that the film exposes a general pathology, the self-destructive incestuous drive of a class, which is mirrored here in the relationship between Iswar and Sita. (15) What is more interesting to note in the Iswar-Sita relationship, however, is not incestuous drive, but a substance within the kinship bond that is 'more than itself', which defies social naming, pre-exists known sexual elaborations including incest. Iswar has no woman in his life, as he tries to build a new home in the refugee colony he has to play the father's role to the little Sita, his sister. He leaves the colony ('deserts it', as Haraprasad says) to take up a job in the desolate Chatimpur, primarily thinking of her future. Abhiram, the orphan boy he has adopted, comes along. Sita will be his sole companion in Chatimpur after Abhiram is sent off to a boarding school. It is predictable that in the grown-up Sita Iswar would find the reflection of their dead mother. ‘How do you look so like the mother you have never seen?’ he asks her. His love is not unmixed with jealousy. His distance with the adult Abhiram and his insane anger at the realisation of the latter's romantic involvement with Sita, or his 'madness' after her elopement with him are all explained by narrative motivation, but the pattern of reactions has another logic – of a secret accumulation of affects. Iswar will go to the city on the invitation of Haraprasad, to drown himself in the 'grotesque fun' that Calcutta is, will end up at Sita's quarter as her first client, she will be destroyed once they are reunited thus. The use of coincidence disturbed his viewers, but Ghatak did not think it was much of a coincidence, so far as he was concerned ‘whichever woman he visited would have been his sister’. (16)  



As the director keeps playing with his favourite low-angle shots the impending destruction comes to be signalled through the image. Iswar draws Sita close to him, asks her how she could exactly be like the mother she has never seen. Sita leans forward, caresses his forehead and whispers in his ear that she is his mother. We see the two of them in an extreme low-angle shot that takes in part of the fan whirling on the ceiling. The strain on the limits of the frame begins to point to the breaching of the borders of named relations. Later, after Sita's desertion, the frame will be repeated: Iswar would try to hang himself from the hook where the fan was hanging in the earlier scene.

Sita marries the low-born Abhiram. His mother, we are briefly told, is called Kaushalya after the hero's mother in Ramayana. The untouchable refugee Ram and Sita grow up like siblings. When they run into the abandoned airstrip their playful figures momentarily but strongly recall Apu and Durga running into the fields in Pather Panchali. They do not seem to have any other playmates save each other in this remote and profoundly quiet country. As soon as the grown-up Abhiram comes back from the town, the film offers us their love as a simple fact, as if nothing else could have been the case. If the film strives to reveal the self-destructive drives of a threatened community then it does so in keeping with the general value that Ghatak places on such bonding in his films, its nurturing potential is also underlined. Sita, Abhiram and Iswar spend extended days of childhood at an idyllic remove from the turbulent city. Sita loses her brothers when the man-woman relationship is invoked in the space of the city which embodies the historical present.

Tales and History

Ghatak's own essays are among the best commentaries available on the films, but he shares the silence of his commentators on this particular theme. He did feel the need to invoke psychoanalytic categories to explain some of his persistent motifs, but it was Jungian theory that engaged his attention. He needed conceptual tools that would compensate for the lack of attention to questions of subjectivity and tradition in contemporary Marxist thinking, and Jung helped him think of these questions in relation to the collective experience. Given the intellectual atmosphere he belonged to, Freud would have meant too much of a retreat into the individual. One would, however, like to know how Ghatak, with his keen anthropological interests, would have responded to the critical possibilities of rethinking the family complexes beyond individual destinies or universalist claims, as insights into the social formation of subjects, as allegories of passage into the realm of social exchange.






17. Ramanujan, 'The Indian Oedipus' in Oedipus, A Folklore Casebook, ed. Lowell Edmunds and Alan Dundes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995) pp 238-261.

  These brothers and sisters form a two-term relation that seems to resist the Oedipal passage, and thereby also the normative historical development of the individual. The objection to the universalist claims of the Oedipus complex has often come from anthropologists; the question, however, is not to find some variant of the Oedipal structure in Indian society or in the films in question, but to see if the Oedipal metaphor can help one understand the dynamics of resistance involved here. In a memorable essay, the poet and critic A.K. Ramanujan showed how the Oedipus tale is part of the folklore repertoire in India but is almost always told from the point of view of the mother. Desire is directed from her side towards the son, and most often mothers narrate the story to the daughter. (17) Poetic articulations of the tale show how the gap between laws of desire and laws of the family evolve into creative consciousness in a culture. In one such tale, the woman discovers she has married her son after she gives birth to a son by him; before she hangs herself by its swaddling clothes she puts the baby to sleep singing a lullaby:  



O son
O grandson
O brother to my husband
Sleep O sleep
Sleep well.





18. Sophocles's play shows how from Jocasta's perspective the tale is pre- or non-Oedipal, she knows there is hardly any man who has not desired his mother.


One could imagine Sita remembering such a song before her death.

The Indian tales Ramanujan lists are surprisingly close to the Greek myth, but the very fact that most of them are mothers' stories, told by the woman, disturbs the whole Freudian theme of growth through the resolution of the Oedipus complex. The tale becomes pre-Oedipal once ordered from this perspective, in the sense that it tells of resistance to the insertion of the third term into the two-term bond that brings on the moment of the complex. (18) How to find stories that would resonate with narratives already embedded in a social life? One could try to make sense of the tragic overvaluation of blood ties with such artistic problems in mind. As a storyteller Ghatak invests the relation with his own value and meaning, which gains resonance through the existing anthropological possibilities of ordering that relation.


19. G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, '457', trans. A.V. Miller, Analysis and Foreword by J.N. Findlay (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 1998) pp 274-275.

20. ‘I would not have done the forbidden thing
     For any husband or for any son.
     For why? I could have had another husband
     And by him other sons, if one were lost;
     But, father and mother lost, where would I get
     Another brother?’
Sophocles, Antigone, The Theban Plays, trans. E.F. Watling (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1947) p 150.
  As someone deeply interested in myths, Ghatak might have remembered the story of Oedipus's daughter, Antigone. This story provides the most well known example of the brother-sister relation posing resistance to the mandate of becoming a citizen. Hegel offered a famous formulation of the conflict between two laws that arises as Antigone takes the decision of breaking the law of the city to give her brother a burial. About the relationship itself he wrote that it is one free of transience or inequality. The sister is intuitively close to the highest form of ethical life, because as a daughter the woman must accept resignedly the passing away of her parents; as mother and wife she is contingent – someone else could have taken her place – and is bound by desire; in the unequal relation to her husband, moreover, she cannot 'recognise' herself in another; but in the brother her 'recognition of herself is pure', ‘the loss of the brother is therefore irreparable to the sister’. (19) These are Antigone's words from Sophocles. (20)  

21. Jacques Derrida has suggested this in his Glas, trans. John P. Leavey, Jr,. and Richard Rand (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).   It has been pointed out that Antigone not only opposes the law of the family to the law of the city, but by such overvaluation of one bonding over others she ends up violating the very economy of family relations. (21)  


  The allegory of the law and the state is relevant to our discussion to the extent that it illuminates the content of a resistance to the imperative of growth, to the official narrative of development in Ghatak's cinema. His contemporary Indian cinema was trying to negotiate the making of the modern Indian citizen. Ghatak's response to this obsession was to speak of the mourning that must underlie the celebration. Like Antigone, the logic of love in his films designates a space outside both family and state by positing an excess in the economy, by predating the necessary social partition of the two-term bond. The project of historical remembrance thus takes recourse in his cinema to a 'denial' of the historical separation. For a historian this would be a dangerous thing to do, close as it is to reactionary attitudes all too familiar to us, but for the artist here was a chance to extend a popular mode to the limit of genuine articulation. The melodramatic tendency of displacing the social into the domain of kinship and family is pushed beyond the limit of its triangular allegories of subject formation. The brother and sister in their love withdraw from the Symbolic, from the domain where names are fixed and destinies are already narrated. This withdrawal is meant as protest against chronicles of becoming foretold, against the genocidal victories of history.  






22. Juliet Mitchell, Women: The Longest Revolution, Essays on Feminism, Literature and Psychoanalysis ( London: Virago, 1984) pp 287-294.

  Withdrawal from the Symbolic, from the realm of social meanings, produces silence and primal cries, inexplicable pain. How else can one explain the body in ecstasy in The Cloud-Capped Star, or the voice travelling through the hills beyond the limits of the familiar world? Women like Nita seem to refuse to go through the passage that would put them in contact with the outside, the adult world, because it has come as a violation of the landscape as home. The fascination with 'return' ends up in the symbolic form of a child's game here. The withdrawal can become a retrograde stand, but it is also a necessary gesture of radical negation. One of the most memorable instances of a romantic relationship subsumed into the brother and sister bonding is found in the protagonists of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff. Juliet Mitchell likened the retreat from the Symbolic or the social order in that novel (Catherine finally says to Nelly, ‘Heathcliff is me’) to the discourse of the hysteric. That discourse is essential for the woman's voice to function, because there is no going back, the only way to speak is from within the regime of discourses created by capitalist patriarchy. Mitchell found an essential trait of the bourgeois novel itself in this discourse; it can produce the Mills and Boon romance, but it can also produce the truth of a Wuthering Heights. (22)  



Ghatak never made the political films a sworn Marxist like him would be expected to make. His politics becomes emotionally so rich because, alongside the bold picturing of everyday struggles, he repeatedly captures the necessary but tragic denial by individuals to tread into the full light of the day. Nita, Anasuya or Sita are fully engaged individuals in relation to labour, daily hardships and challenges of survival, but they also seem to be unspeakably tender, almost luminous beings. The choric grocer in The Cloud-Capped Star says of Nita, ‘The tender girl ... how can she bear such hardship?’ Partly unprepared to deal with the cruelty of the world, they cling to the one who is part of their own selves. The fullness of being is gathered into this fold, the implacable sense of pain in Ghatak's cinema seems to stem from this hidden enclosure.

Such passion is not simply endorsed or negated (in fact Nita, Sita and Iswar stand accused to some extent in the films), but is presented as material for the tragic form that neither melodrama nor realism of the day was adequate to. The formal deviations from realism that caused such misgivings about Ghatak's cinema function not in opposition to the modern mode, which the filmmaker embraced, but as a critique from inside it, pointing to the cost at which such modes are assimilated into our lives.


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